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Discrimination against daughters couldn't be harsher than in Satara, Maharashtra — to make it absolutely clear that their baby girls are unwelcome in the world, hundreds of parents appear to have registered their names as Nakushi, meaning unwanted. District health officials are now planning to identify each of these girls and rename them — to drill in the point that girls are valuable, and deserve the same care and love lavished on sons.
In 1990, Amartya Sen famously wrote of the 100 million missing women, especially in Asia, and of how these numbers "tell us, quietly, a terrible story of inequality and neglect leading to excess mortality of women". Twenty years on, much has changed — but an incident like this is a reminder of much that has stubbornly lingered. Apart from the extreme practices of foeticide and infanticide, girl children are more subtly discriminated against with parental bias, lack of nurturing and nutrition, unfair resource allocation and cultural hostility. If they are sent to school, they tend to be taken out sooner, their work (often domestic and unskilled) is rendered invisible and thankless, they are sent away from the family after their weddings (the cost of which is held against them), until they often internalise a sense of being worthless, and perpetuate the same practices. We don't even have to go to demographers to understand the gender deficit — the explicit preference for sons and devaluing of daughters are obvious from personal narratives all around us.
If we are to change that sense of suffering and secondariness that girl children go through, we need to design imaginative public policy at every step of the way, to change that disempowering calculus altogether. Some government schemes provide incentives for girl children to eventually offset the son preference and make for more balanced birth rates. Others aim to make schools more gender-proactive. Schemes like providing bicycles for school-going girls, as some states do, are a beautiful way of expanding their sense of limits. This renaming intervention in Satara, too, makes a powerful point — redescribing the world, after all, is the first step towards changing it.
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