If you examined the laws in India you might consider the country to be progressive in human rights, finally putting person equality before cultural traditions and religious justification. As a society with its own history of discrimination, we can understand how the attitudes don’t immediately change once a law is put in place and it often takes decades for perception to shift and acceptance to find its place, even then there are some exceptions.
So why is it that despite laws being in place to protect the rights of women and children in India, there is still such blatant disregard for their welfare? The Child Marriage Restrain Act was established in 1929, yet there are still too many cases of children under 18 being arranged to marry. This is only one of many issues – human trafficking, child labor, infanticide, and the exchange of a dowry.
A dowry is one representation of why women are not valued in Indian culture, it is a gift or form of payment a women’s family must pay to the family of her future husband. Although dowry became prohibited by law in 1961, it is still common practice in India. A daughter being born does not benefit her parents at all, she is seen as needing to pay off a debt from a previous life. The daughter will be taken care of then a dowry raised to marry her into another family where she will help to take care of her husband’s parents – not her own. Since a son is valuable in terms of meaning and future roles he will play for the family, a boy is what Indian parents want. Because of this view gender selection has begun to curve the ratio of male to female in India. Infanticide happens with poor or rural families who cannot afford to care for a girl, and aborting a female fetus occurs with couples who can afford the prenatal care and want to avoid the stigma of a girl.
The dowry perpetuates the idea of women being less than men and leads to so many other problems. Despite the laws being established to protect rights, the laws don’t appear to be enforced for the welfare of the women and children. Beyond corruption in the systems and the desire to hang on to how things have always been, slow progress is occurring because of the lack of knowledge women have. Most Indian women believe they are nothing without a man, either their dad, brother or husband. They don’t know what their rights are or where to get help. They are born into a world where they are looked down upon simply for being a girl and limit themselves accordingly.
One of the field trips our group went on in Kolkata was to an organization creating changes with their grassroots effort. Child in Need Institute (CINI) focuses on empowering women with the idea if you can help the mother you can help the child. They have centers throughout Kolkata serving different purposes. CINI focuses on the health of the mom’s and their infants, educating them about nutrition and conducting support groups. Health workers act as a first means of contact going door to door in villages and slums to provide basic health needs and resources, then can help support mothers and children in getting in to the CINI offices if further medical assistance is required by nurses or doctors.
We toured one location during a time when there was a free health clinic. Hundreds of bright-colored sari adorned the women gathering with their wide-eyed infants. They weighed babies, obtained supplements, and met with nurses or doctors for medication. Another CINI location we visited was in the middle of the city, it was designated for street children. Kids could go there for safe overnight shelters or attend evening school. Even though the Child Labour Act has been prohibiting this practice since 1986, many children work as child laborers and miss out on gaining an education. CINI provides education to help reintegrate children back to regular schools within 6 months to one year. Making this program even more impressive is considering the behavioral problems some children have from both trauma and the need to be independent to survive on the street.
Because of the efforts Child in Need Institute, and other programs like it, has made towards bettering the lives of women and children there is hope for changing the culture in India. With women coming together to gain confidence in how to do things and knowledge of how the laws protect them, attitudes will turn. And with the next generation of youth pushing to gain an education, they will be different.
Much of the beauty and intrigue of India lies in its cultural and religious practices. Their dances, food, and tradition are uniquely Indian and should be valued and preserved as such. I wonder, is it possible for India to maintain their rich traditions and religious practices while omitting the inequality? Maybe as the women take power…
If you are interested in learning more check out the Child in Need Institute’s website. They accept donations to continue their work and proudly contribute 90% of donations directly to the women and children – greater than average for an NGO. http://www.cini-india.org/
This post is part of a series written about my travels to India as part of a social welfare class. Feel free to look back through previous posts about my experiences or return to see what’s been added.