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In the very heart of India, in Madhya Pradesh, the state with the fifth largest population in the country lies the district of Chhatarpur. The region boasts of a rich cultural and wildlife heritage…dotted with architecturally complex, yet magnificent monuments, and forested tiger reserves.

However, scratch just below the surface, and examine the human development indicators…the dichotomy is apparent. The region is drought prone and witnesses large scale migration. Malnutrition, hunger, high infant and child mortality are prevalent. The sex ratio is skewed with 925 females per 1,000 men in Chhatarpur, compounding the already distressing situation.

Social norms withholding the potential of women and girls back are so entrenched in the societal ethos here, that a silver lining seems almost improbable.

But it does exist.

We met women and girls here who in the face of insurmountable odds, refuse to give up, and continue to challenge gender unequal norms and narratives everyday…with the help of their partners, their families and their communities.

Gender-biased sex selection – a powerful and long-standing norm

Son preference, a norm plaguing India since time immemorial, is closely connected to daughter aversion which stems from the belief that daughters have lower value. Daughters may be perceived as a burden, and this is underlined by material realities. A son is seen as continuing the lineage, providing support to his parents in their old age, enhancing the family status and bringing in dowry. In addition to intense social pressure to adhere to son preference, economic factors also play an overarching role here. Discrimination towards daughters is clearly acted upon by practices of ‘eliminating daughters before birth’ or, in poorer households, by discriminating in terms of health, food and education, as well as marrying a daughter earlier to avoid paying a higher dowry.

The Government of India, a number of organisations and civil society have been steadfastly undertaking efforts for strong implementation of the PCPNDT Act to address this harmful practice with effective programming and on-ground outreach efforts.

ASHA supervisor Mirabai Devi…not just talking the talk

37-year-old Miradevi Ahirwal has been an ASHA supervisor in Khajuraho since 2018. She manages and trains a cadre of 18 ASHAs under her, serving a total of 10,000 families in the region. Her primary role is sensitizing women about the contraceptive basket of choices available to them, including counselling on family planning.

“Son preference is a social evil rampant in our region…I come across cases where women are pressurised into getting pregnant over and over again due to a strong desire for a male child. I also see the negative health outcomes of closely spaced multiple pregnancies. The male child being the centre of all the attention with the family’s resources directed towards his upbringing, also means that the young daughters of these women completely get left behind,” said Miradevi wistfully.

“I have tackled regressive norms my whole life, but made up my mind long back…that I won’t cower down,” she further added emphatically.

Mirabai Devi...on a Mission

Miradevi truly practices what she preaches. She is the proud mother of two daughters. By choice!

Miradevi and her husband were clear at the time they were married that they would have two children, irrespective of the gender. When they had their two daughters, they thought their family complete, with Miradevi choosing to undergo sterilisation as a family planning choice best suited to her.

“We wanted to give our two daughters the best chance at life with the finest education and opportunities. While people around would taunt us that they were just girls…we never once undermined their potential. They are no less than boys, and it is only a matter of time before they spread their wings and really fly.” Both Miradevi and her husband said proudly.

Their two daughters 16-year-old Divya and 13-year old Sanya are performing exceedingly well in school, with just having topped their respective classes. Divya, the elder sister is passionate about medicine and has aspirations to become a doctor. Sanya has dreams to pursue a degree in education, and teach the children in her community, so that like her mother, she too is able to make a tangible difference.

Divya and Sanya represent the next generation of the flagbearers of a gender-equal Madhya Pradesh.

Mirabai Devi with her husband and two daughters Sanya (L) and Divya (R)

Limited autonomy to exercise health choices – decision making power in the hands of men

Another harmful social norm prevalent in Chhatarpur is the undermining of a woman’s agency. Due to this, the decision making lies very much in the hands of the man…be it about the woman’s education, her career trajectory, and even her own sexual and reproductive health!

27-year-old Radha, an ASHA worker belongs to the village of Ishanagar, also in the Chhatarpur district. The village, much like the district, has low health and gender indicators, and leaves much to be desired in terms of women’s autonomy.

“In my line of work, what I see almost on a daily basis is that the health outcomes of a woman are more often than not decided by the husband or the mother-in-law. What this means is that the selection of the choice of contraceptive, when she should get pregnant, how many children she should have, and the spacing between her births—lie not with her, but with her husband,” said Radha.

ASHA Worker Radha...working at the grassroots

Only if the husband agrees to use a condom, is the wife spared the fate of an unintended pregnancy. While this is a notable achievement from a male participation of view, and should not be negated… it reflects poorly on the decision making power of women and their ability to negotiate about their well-being, and that of their children.

Radha, married at 24 has a degree in education, and has recently completed her post-graduation in computer sciences. She earns a salary, has her own bank account and also operates an ATM card…no small feat for a woman in this region.

Radha on duty in her village

However, in spite of this, Radha knows all too well, that this would not have possible if she did not have the support of her husband, who ‘wanted’ his wife to work after marriage. It was 31-year-old Gokul who identified the position for her, and applied for the post on her behalf. It was also Gokul who after their first child, wanted to space out the birth of the second child. He therefore uses a condom as the choice of contraception.

Social norms can thus set the boundaries of what society, and what women and men, think, as well as what they do. They can make inequalities of power and resources seem natural or ‘God-given’, assimilating social norms to ‘moral norms’, and thus unchangeable. Norms about who can speak out or make decisions also directly affect the distribution of power in society, typically to the disadvantage of women and girls.

We must remind ourselves that with each passing day, harmful gender norms become more and more entrenched. This means that more and more women and girls lose out…they lose out on opportunities, on equal membership in society, which means that their value diminishes with each passing day.

As we mark thirty-two years of World Population Day this year, UNFPA India recognises that girls and young women lie at the very core of the country’s progress. In fact, in India, one in ten is a young girl — a formidable force of 120 million.