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The Lesser Child

The photograph on our cover is horrifying. Another baby girl dies unnecessarily. The Department of Child Development, Government of India, with assistance from UNICEF, has produced a compelling account of the plight of "The Lesser Child".

"In a culture that idolizes sons and dreads the birth of a daughter, to be born female comes perilously close of being born less than human. Today the rejection of the unwanted girl can begin even before her birth: prenatal sex determination tests followed by quick abortions eliminate thousands of female foetuses before they can become daughters. Those girls who manage to survive till birth and beyond find that the dice is heavily loaded against them in a world that denies them equal access to food, health, care, education, employment and simple human dignity.

"Born into indifference and reared on neglect, the girl child is caught in a web of cultural practices and prejudices that divest her of her individuality and mould her into a submissive self-sacrificing daughter and wife. Her labour ensures the survival and well-being of her family but robs her not only of her childhood but also of her right to be free of hunger, ignorance, disease and poverty.

"We expect tommorrow's woman to become the pivot of social change and development. Yet today we deprive her of her rightful share of food, schooling, health care and employment, then marvel that she does not come running to get her children immunized, or when she refuses to send them to school or practice good nutrition, hygiene and birth control ... Unless the girl becomes a priority in health, nutrition and education policies, can there be Health for All by 2000, or universal elementary education, or social justice and equality? It is already late. But perhaps not too late."

A number of key statistics are used to illustrate the problem. The sex ratio (females per thousand males) is shown to have declined during this century, for example from 972 in 1901, 950 in 1931, and down to 933 in 1981; variation in the sex ratio between states is also illustrated, with a high value of 1032 in Kerala, dropping to below 800 even in some states (although migration may account for some of this, it clearly does not account for all). Anthropometric data also tell a sad tale: data quoted from one area show, for example, these differentials for growth retardation (adding mild, moderate, and severe). In infants, the prevalence among females was estimated at 79%, versus 43% in males - almost double; in one to two year olds, these figures became 86% compared with 63%; and preschoolers 72% against 65%. This also illustrates that the effects are particularly severe in the first year of life, and suggests that girls become relatively better able to look after themselves as they grow older. The morbidity patterns quoted, from rural Tamil Nadu, show much higher incidence of diseases such as respiratory infections among young girls; poignantly, the only condition in which boys are more affected than girls is dental caries, perhaps resulting from the observation made in "The Lesser Child" that "although there are great variations in feeding practices across the country, it is generally true that boys eat better than girls even in privileged families. Sons are more likely to be given milk, eggs, meat and fruit in their diet. As they grow older, boys spend part of their earnings on food and snacks while girls continue to eat the same unvaried diet at home."

"Through a haze of heat and pain, Sushma hears the dai mutter 'Another daughter' and bursts into uncontrollable sobs. Throughout her third pregnancy she has fasted and prayed for a son. Burdened by the guilt of having two daughters, she has supplicated every deity she knows, praying to Shiva, to Santoshi Mata, even walking to the outskirts of the village to prostrate herself at the grave of the Pir Baba. Now the sound of her mother-in-law's wailing fills the air ..."

Source: "The Lesser Child", p. 4.


The book, though short, makes the compelling point very clearly and repeatedly. But it continues to suggest that not only long term changes must be brought about, particularly through education, but that there are also programmes that can be effective now. "The glaring disparity between male and female infant mortality rates, if plotted on a map, shows a clear belt running across the north-western part of the country, with a few pockets elsewhere, and this is where immediate health and nutrition interventions must now focussed."

"The ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) network is clearly one effective response to the problem of early neglect of young children. Through its immunization, nutritional supplementation and pre-school education components (which now reach ten million children) it can offset the discrimination a girl faces at home and can lay the foundation for healthy physical and mental development. But an urgent answer has to be found for meeting the needs of girls in the 6-14 year age-group, for this is when they have either dropped out of school or are too old for ICDS and are nobody's concern. They have to wait until they are 15, which is when they become another target group that the health system recognizes - "women in the reproductive age-group". Perhaps it is time to enlarge the scope of ICDS projects so that they can include girls between the ages of 6 and 14 years. This is an important period in a girl's life, when major biological, psychological and social changes take place. . . . repeated adolescent pregnancies, common in many parts of rural India, arrest this growth spurt and prevent full physical maturation of the girl, affecting not only her own health, but also the survival and development of her offspring."

Everyone's Concern

Although the book is specific to India, the issue extends far wider. Indeed, the same thoughts are exactly right for many other places, whatever the child's gender. The book finishes like this.

"An integrated and holistic approach to the girl-child's development is essential for the creation of a new environment in which she can be valued and nurtured. Our search for brave new efforts to give the girl-child her due, to allow her to evolve to her full potential, involves a process of social mobilization that will make her everyone's concern: the media, the family and the community, as well as government and voluntary agencies. By supplementing formal schooling with non-formal education that conforms to local needs and constraints; by enlarging the ambit of child development programmes with the creation of new channels to reach adolescent and pre-adolescent girls; by reinforcing constitutional mandates through widespread awareness of the rights of girls: these are only some of the ways in which we can empower the girl child to enter the mainstream of economic and social activity. And help her to walk out of the maze of neglect in which she has been lost for centuries."

Source: "The Lesser Child", Dept. of Women and Child Development, Ministry of Human Resource Development, Govt. of India, with assistance from UNICEF.


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