India has taken strides in the path towards women's empowerment, yet we must cover more distance to feel truly proud of our efforts in this direction. The National Girl Child Day is a good time to reflect upon persistent issues that girls face in India, and evolve new, effective approaches to address them.
Indian society is evolving and so are social norms. It is about time the fair sex got its due. Governments have been introducing schemes for women and bringing reservations for fair representation. Perhaps what is required for real women empowerment is different.
Indian women continue to lag their peers in the advanced economies across parameters like access to health, education, and participation in the formal labor force. Girls, who form the aadhi aabaadi, often face discrimination in access to nutrition, education, and opportunities for growth.
Make no mistake, the pandemic has been brutal to India's girls. An overwhelmingly large chunk of girls from underprivileged backgrounds have not received adequate care and have instead had to contend with deprivation of everything from hygiene supplies and primary healthcare services to digital education and safe homes. Cases have come to light, unfortunately far too often, where girls who lost one or both parents to Covid have been traded for food, supplies, and favors. The violence, abuse, and neglect that girls have had to endure is unnerving and, frankly, disorienting.
But one must not lose sight of collective goals for social good and must keep enabling efforts that seek to enable access of underprivileged girls to nutrition, health, and education. I would like to take the example of Smile Foundation's Shiksha Na Ruke initiative to make my point. This pan-India initiative has so far educated more than 50,000 children in 22 states through the blended learning approach, which includes alternate learning mediums. This is one of several efforts being made by civil society organizations across the country and we must do all we can to embolden such efforts.
Governments are also doing their bit to promote girls' education and wellbeing. Under the central government's Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao umbrella, governments across states as diverse as Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh have introduced schemes to ensure the welfare of the girl child. The Madhya Pradesh administration offers a case in point as it has overseen the implementation of schemes like the Kanya Saksharta Protsaahan Yojana, the Ladli Laxmi Yojana, the Mukhyamantri Awas Sahayata Yojana, the MP Mukhyamantri Kaushalya Yojna, and the Vimukt Jati Hostel Yojana to improve access to education, skill development, and nutrition. But there is clearly more that must be done as the picture remains grim. UNICEF estimates that more than 11 million girls are at risk of not going back to school after the Covid-19 crisis.
India must take up the mission of preparing a level playing field for girls as a national priority. Real and substantial progress in this direction will require, among other things, unprecedented levels of collaboration between the government, civil society, and corporates. There is currently a trust deficit between these three stakeholders, which must be urgently bridged. The stakeholders bring inherent strengths to the table. Governments have scale, while corporates have the financial muscle and strategic planning abilities. Civil society organizations bring with them the ability to affect population-scale change, along with extensive experience of delivering impact on the ground. They have the trust of the people and networks to enable the effective implementation of the strategy. Collaboration between the three sets of stakeholders has the potential to transform India. This transformation is what our girls desperately need because it will bring with it access to opportunities to learn and grow, a fair shot at realizing their destiny.
India owes it to its girls – the promise of a better tomorrow through fairness and equitable access to health, nutrition, education, and employment opportunities. How do we set metrics to monitor progress? An example – Indian girls matching their counterparts in OECD countries on key parameters of nutrition, education, and labor force participation could be one of the benchmarks for us to chase. It might sound lofty from where we currently are, but it most definitely serves as a great goal to aspire for. We must work in unison to deliver positive, definite, and real change on a population scale and mustn’t rest until Indian girls do not get their due.
By Dr. Aatish Parashar, Professor, Dean, and Head, Central University of South Bihar