‘Gender sensitivity is a matter of life and death... all of us are accountable’

Let me tell you about Tuba Tabassum, a stunningly beautiful girl of 14 who dreams of being a doctor, the daughter of an Anganwadi teacher, the best student in her class. Her classmate wooed her endlessly with Bollywood songs but four months ago, when Tuba continued to say no, he and his friends threw acid on her. Tuba almost lost her life, is now blind in one eye, permanently disfigured, out of school, and struggling to survive.

There is a vital need to include a gender perspective at every level of communication, to ensure long-term child survival in India. So, let's start with what we already know: In the last 10 years, the 0-6 age-group sex-ratio has fallen disturbingly in India, largely because of sex-specific abortions. Multiple states across the nation have a sex-ratio that is significantly worse than the poor national average. We know that baby girls have a much higher immunisation dropout rate than boys, that many more boys are brought into SNCUs (Sick Newborn Care Units) than girls, that boys fare much better than girls in getting breastfeeding, complementary feeding, oral rehydration, antibiotics, and eventually, education.

What happens after a girl survives infancy? She can face continuing crises that imperil her survival, development, and ability to live with dignity. We must not forget that for many children, the struggle for survival does not end at age 5 or 6, that there are dire threats beyond disease and nutrition, such as domestic violence, child marriage and child pregnancy, lack of education, child labour, incest and sexual abuse, violence driven by caste and religion, corporal punishment, extreme physical assault, and child trafficking.

This dangerous gender bias is perpetuated by communications in multiple media — by words and images, by our laws and our popular culture, by silences and inactions that speak volumes. It is communicated through TV shows that still romanticise child marriage and portray it as "cute"; through commercials that state that a dark-skinned girl will find neither a husband nor a job, and her father will wish he'd had a son instead; and through many of our popular films, which still objectify women and glorify eve-teasing heroes who stalk girls until they give in, unlike Tuba Tabassum.

This historical imbalance is reinforced by many of our laws and practices. We are a rare democracy in which "marital rape" still has legal sanction, and the two-finger test for virginity is accepted in court as evidence when a young girl is sexually assaulted. It is expressed in the lack of sensitivity our functionaries show, in their communications with children. The absence of confidentiality in public healthcare discourages girls from seeking medical help when they need it.

We must sensitise officials in the police, healthcare, judiciary, and education sectors through comprehensive, interactive training — not just a slide or two and a lecture so it can be ticked off a list of requirements, but studies of best and worst practices, so these children become real, not abstractions, nor statistics. A systemic change of attitude is imperative in all sectors. For example, anti-human trafficking squads now have special jeeps meant for rescuing children, but the police use them to respond to other crimes. The police need to be specifically incentivised to report and investigate child-abuse cases rather than be reprimanded if the number of cases reported in their precinct rises (which is what happens now). And they must be held accountable if they close a case without investigation.

The good news is, we have some very progressive acts for children now — the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, or the Right to Education Act. The bad news? There is no systematic outreach about these laws. Despite the passing of the RTE Act, public schools still charge illegal fees, refuse to admit students with HIV, and fail to provide toilets for girls, in effect keeping girls away from school. Not surprisingly, once they start menstruating, there is an even steeper drop in girl-child attendance.

Another prominent communication gap in rural India is that frontline workers (such as Anganwadi, Asha, and Auxiliary Midwife Nurses) are all-female and only interact with women, while higher- ever decision-makers (like doctors, pharmacists and lab-technicians) are mostly male. Although a high concentration of women in the field is advantageous in many ways, the major drawback is that none of the behaviour-change communications reach the men in the community, who would be more open to and comfortable listening to these male officials. We need greater male participation at both ends of our community outreach.

What we cannot afford to assume is, one, that gender sensitivity is not a matter of life and death, for we know that it is; and, two, that the problem is so immense that we can't make a difference. We can, and we must. All of us are accountable.

Nandana Sen, an actor, writer and child-rights activist, is ambassador for the children's NGO Operation Smile and cause ambassador for RAHI, an organisation that works with survivors of child sexual abuse. Edited excerpts from a talk at the Call to Action Summit for Child Survival and Development, organised by the Ministry of Health, USAID, and UNICEF, February 7-9, in Chennai

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