On Monday morning, India woke up to the shocking news of a three-month old baby fighting for her life in the government hospital in Bangalore. On Wednesday, India hung its head in shame as doctors lost the battle to save baby Afreen who was beaten up, burnt and tortured by her own father. Her crime? She was a girl.
Umar Farooq, the father, told police that he beat the baby because he wanted a son.
His wife is asking for death penalty for him. He hated her, says Afreen’s mother Reshma Banu. “He wanted me to get rid of the child or abandon her as he wanted a son. Reshma Banu’s pain was shared by many Indians who appealed for capital punishment for the accused.
“Death for baby Afreen’s father! No mercy at all,” says television anchor Mini Mathur. “Yes, capital punishment is not the norm. But who can put bites and cigarette burns on a 3-month-old baby?? And fracture her tiny arms? Who?”
Agrees Nandita Iyer, “I get a renewed faith in the harshest possible death penalty when I hear of people like Baby Afreen’s father.”
It was only last month that country followed the story of a two-year-old abandoned girl, named Falak by the media, who was hospitalized with multiple injuries in India’s capital New Delhi. She succumbed to her injuries – fractured skull, broken limbs and human bite marks. Falak was brought to hospital by a teenager who allegedly burnt her with a hot iron, bit her, and smashed her head against a wall, NDTV reported. “Falak had been separated from her mother, and passed around among a ring of adults in Delhi who ran a prostitution racket.”
Earlier this month, a newborn girl child in Jodhpur was rejected by her parents “after the hospital handed them a baby boy by mistake”, Voice of America reported. The child was accepted by the parents after 14 days, once a DNA test confirmed their parentage.
India’s sex ratio, at 914 women to every 1000 men, is the worst since the country’s independence from the British in 1947, according to the 2011 census – the global benchmark is 952. Indian law prohibits sex-determination tests prior to birth, so as to prevent abortions of girl fetus. Despite this, foetal sex determination and sex selective abortion has today grown into a Rs.1,000 crore industry ($244 million), according to a Unicef report.
India is heavily legislated with numerous statues trying to prevent crime against women, including the Sati Act (prevention of burning the widow alive on deceased husband’s pyre), Prevention of Immoral Traffic Act and the Dowry Prevention Act.
The prejudice against women partly stems from an age-hold practice of dowry – financial payment by bride’s parents to the groom. There are 5,000 women in India who suffer female infanticide each year (bride burning) due to insufficient dowry payment, say Nake Kamrany, Professor of Economics at the University of Southern California and Catherine Robinson, a Research Assistant in economics at USC and a member of Global Income Convergence Group in Los Angeles.
The issue is not India specific alone; many states worldwide are struggling to reduce crime against women by encouraging gender equality. “Only four out of over 135 nations have achieved gender equality including Costa Rica, Cuba, Sweden, and Norway,” say Kamrany and Robinson. Yemen was scored the lowest. “Measures of gender equality include access to basic education, health and life expectancy, equality of economic opportunity, and political empowerment.
However, legislation alone hasn’t been very successful as is clear from international evidence. Similar to India, China has outlawed the use of gender detection methods. Yet, China has 32 million more boys than girls under the age of 20, and there are 126 boys to 100 girls among the 1-4 age group, mostly caused by the infamous one-child policy. “They have granted parents who have a female child another chance at birthing a son in the hopes that families will not abandon, abort, or murder their female infant,” say Kamrany and Robinson.
In addition to social costs, there are economic costs to gender inequality. “Japan’s GDP will gain by 15% if employment gender discrimination is adjusted,” say Kamrany and Robinson.
The gender inequality is both the cause and effect of under-representation of women in decision-making roles. Only 14 of 200 governments in the world have women as the head of the state. Numerous studies have shown that women are paid less, get promoted less often and are required to retire sooner than men – both in the western world and in eastern societies. India got its first female prime minister as early as in 1966 – Indira Gandhi was also the world’s second female head of the state, the first being neighbouring state – Sri Lanka’s prime minister – Sirimavo Bandaranaike. This was much earlier than Europe – the region had to wait until 1979 when Margaret Thatcher became the first female prime minister of the United Kingdom – the first elected woman ruler in Europe.
As many social reformers during the British era in India had rightly identified, gender equality can only be achieved by encouraging literacy as well as financial independence among the fairer sex. They need to be educated, given equal-pay jobs, promoted by merit and encouraged to play a prominent role in policy-making.
Hopefully we can look back and say that Falak and Afreen have not died in vein.
Vaibhav Gangan is the managing editor of The Global Indian magazine.