More than a dowry: India’s girls’ real value

Aurangabad, India

In India, almost two-thirds more girls than boys die before their fourth birthday.* Jane Travis explains why such a low value is placed on girls’ lives there, how Viva is changing attitudes towards gender inequality and building confidence in India’s precious daughters.

“It’s a girl!” Three simple words pronounced at birth that should evoke tears of joy and excitement about the baby’s future. However, the stark truth for many families in India is that such an arrival brings shame, despair and anger.

india-statsDaughters are often considered a drain on a family. As soon as a girl is born, her family must start saving for the dowry which is given to her husband’s family on marriage – a custom which still happens today and has a major influence on how families view girls, despite being outlawed in 1961.

Families are less likely to invest in a girl’s education or health, because she will eventually leave them to join another family. This limits her opportunities and makes her more vulnerable to early marriage, child labour or trafficking. As a result, attitudes towards girls in Indian society can be hostile, leading to violence, harassment, sexual exploitation or abuse.

It is in this context that Viva is working with six city-based partner networks in Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore), Delhi, Dehradun, Hyderabad, Patna and Ranchi. Network members comprising a total of 500 local churches and organisations are working collaboratively for girls to be as equally valued as boys, their rights and safety ensured, and their hopes and opportunities for the future secured.

Among the activities planned by networks for the next three years is a mentoring programme for 1,200 girls called ‘Dare to be different’. It aims to help girls increase their self-esteem, understand about their rights and protection and to enable them to be confident in taking part in decisions that affect their lives. It has been tried and tested through some of the networks in India with encouraging results.

Volunteers are trained as mentors to come alongside the girls and guide them through sessions which look at knowing their worth, purpose and value, protecting themselves and helping them to make wise choices. The mentors also support girls with difficult decisions or issues they are facing, meeting with families and teachers if necessary.

Fourteen year-old Sapna is one girl whose outlook on life has improved radically through participating in the programme. She lives near a slum behind an upper class colony of Patna, a city of nearly two million people in eastern India.

10_11-indian-girlThe family has no sanitation and must fetch water from the public tap which serves 200 people in the locality. In her neighbourhood, it’s the boys who are encouraged to study whilst the girls help their mothers with home chores. Teenage girls are frequently forced to marry.

Sapna’s parents are normally away working as sweepers, which makes her feel unsafe because some men and older boys in the locality get drunk and fi ght, and are known to abuse girls.

She said, “I lacked confidence and had very low self-esteem. I could not make future plans as I was preparing to be married and to move away from home. All of this disturbed me.”

Taking part in ‘Dare to be different’, run by the Patna network, has helped Sapna tremendously. “I feel that I can better take care of myself now and I will resist abuse and share it with the elders in the family.” She has also come to understand why changes to her body are taking place – something that no-one had ever told her before. Sapna is also taking her studies seriously and dreams of becoming a teacher to help children in poor communities, just like her.

As ‘Dare to be different’ evolves, girls like Sapna who have been mentored will be given opportunities to develop advocacy groups to share learning with their peers and to lead initiatives that look at changing some of the attitudes around girls.

Additionally, the networks are hosting seminars and meetings with church leaders, parents and community elders to focus on laws protecting girls, government schemes to assist them, and the value of educating girls and enabling them to take part in decisions that affect their lives.

We’re excited that, through the programme, hundreds of families will be encouraged to support their daughters by enabling them to attend school, leading to even greater opportunities for the future.

Jane Travis is Viva’s Programme Development Manager and recently spent two years based in India


* 2009 Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in India. National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3)