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

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.

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