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Gender equality – the ‘real’ reality that surveys don’t reveal 

An adolescent girl, Hema Rawal, who lives in Gani Gaon of Uttarakhand’s Bageshwar District, has been imparting digital literacy skills to her peers in the remote village.  Here, she refutes the claims of progress towards gender equality based on national figures, and sketches the different forms of gender-based violence women and children in feudal societies of the country still have to battle

The fifth National Family Health Survey (NFHS) undertaken by the government between 2019 and 2021 has painted a promising picture in terms of gender equality. Its findings state that India now has 1,020 women for every 1,000 men. This is the first time in independent India’s recorded history that the number of women is higher than the male population. This shows that the measures taken against female foeticide and to protect the girl child have yielded some results. This probably can also be taken as an indication of a change in the mindset focussing more on equality between the genders.

However, in a world where we are made to believe that ‘allowing’ a girl child to be born is a step towards equality, one can well imagine the behaviour and attitudes of societies towards girls and women. The life of young girls and women is a daily struggle. In rural India, girls struggle with the double challenge of gender discrimination and lack of development. In the hilly state of Uttarakhand, remote villages present a reality different from the tall claims of gender equality in the country. Lack of education and the access to it keep many girls away from the digital world of learning and understanding. A lack of understanding translates into a lack of awareness of one’s rights.

Here, in these villages, overpowered by the characteristics of traditional, feudal societies, young girls are subjected to different forms of gender-based violence, which includes violation of their right to education. While boys are sent to private schools, the girls, if allowed to pursue education at all, can only attend government schools within walking distance of their houses. Once they complete schooling in these primary and middle schools, due to lack of availability of higher secondary schools in their villages, they are made to drop out and forced into marriage. Although they are sent to their in-laws’ house only after they attain the legal age for marriage, it kills their dreams, their freedom.

Deepa Jetha, a young girl from Gani Gaon village in Bageshwar district of Uttarakhand, says, “I wanted to study further and dreamt of becoming a teacher. Although I didn’t want to, my father got me married. Now, I am pregnant. All my dreams of working will remain just dreams.”

There are many girls in this village, who are not only good at academics but are also talented painters, poets and story writers. With a proper platform, they can showcase their talents not only nationally but globally as well. But they do not get this much-deserved opportunity, and because of this, their scope remains limited. Girls are not educated because their families believe that they will anyway move out of the home when they get married, and their education would be of no use.

The right of girls to education clearly, depends on the patriarchs. Down the ages, women have not been allowed to assume decision-making roles. In urban areas, we do see women’s participation and representation in decision-making – both personal and professional. But in rural areas, there is not even discussion of women and girls occupying such spaces.

Himani Rawal, a resident of Selani village says, “My father makes all the decisions in our house. He doesn’t allow my mother to speak on any matter, even though it’s she who looks after the house and manages the work in the fields.”

Inside the house, or outside it, the condition of the women is the same. Manisha Devi, the sarpanch of Gani Gaon village, says, “I’m the rightful village head, but this remains only on paper. All decisions at village meetings are taken only by the men. Women often don’t attend these meetings because no one listens to them. Even in matters where the village has to be represented outside its boundaries, only the men are sent.”

Whether it is right to ancestral property or fundamental rights like education, the rights of the girl are overlooked. The questions that arise are, ‘Will this thinking ever change? Will girls ever be encouraged to go out and study like boys in these regions?’

However, there are some people who think differently. Madan Singh Rawat, a resident of Gani Gaon and a father of five daughters, says, “Two of my daughters are working. I’ve not stopped them from doing anything. I have one son as well, but I have never differentiated between my son and my daughters. In today’s times, daughters can do what sons cannot.”

On the general mindset of his village, Rawat says, “People usually educate their sons more than their daughters. They fulfil all the dreams of their sons. Girls are barely allowed to study till Class XII. College education is a distant dream for most of them.”

While urban India may celebrate a better sex ratio, the realization of equality and a better world is far from reality in rural areas where the idea of a distinction between the capabilities of boys and girls exists – boys are encouraged to progress more than girls and given priority in every matter. When some parents try to go against this belief and think about sending their daughters to college, they are discouraged by society and made to toe the general line.

Even though there are many schemes for the development of women and girls, they are not availed of due to lack of awareness. Awareness is crucial for taking up education opportunities.  Even after 75 years of Independence, if we have to discuss gender-based discrimination in our society, it is time for the policymakers to think, rework and implement schemes that will address gender-based attitudes, instead of providing data that doesn’t reflect the ‘real’ reality.

(Courtesy: Charkha Features. Hema Rawal is from Gani Gaon in Uttarakhand.)