Last week the Indian state of Maharashtra hosted a ceremony to re-name girls whose names meant “Unwanted”. Aman Johal considers some of the problems Indian girls face and what this step means for a society in which gender plays such a significant role. Aman has just returned from a summer volunteering in Moldova.
Last week it was reported that nearly 300 young girls, ages ranging from 13-20, had taken part in a service that transformed their status from ‘unwanted’ daughters, only capable of bringing a burden on their families, to finally being recognised as an individual person through an official mass re-naming ceremony in the Indian state of Maharashtra.
As an Indian female, I have regularly bore witness to the overt discrimination in Asian communities against the fairer sex. Born and raised in the UK has allowed me and my 5 elder sisters to be treated – to a degree – with equal respect on a par with the male members of our families. Our education, diverse friendship groups and social experiences have given us more liberal attitudes than perhaps more traditional parents and grandparents would prefer.
However, for thousands of girls born in India, where intolerance towards gender discrimination is met with apathy and disregard, this is a reality they could only dream of.
For hundreds of girls born into Indian families, their lives hold little more than being treated with disrespect and resentment from their elders, who pin the security of their futures on the births of sons who will grow up to be successful professionals.
For the daughters born in Maharashtra, the families’ disappointment at having to raise and look after another girl, not to mention paying a hefty dowry for their potential marriages, proved too bitter a pill to swallow and this resulted in naming their daughters “Nakusha” – “unwanted”.
The re-naming ceremony was held in the Satara district of Maharashtra. The girls, dressed in their best outfits with bows in their hair, received certificates with their new names from district officials – but they were invited to choose their new names themselves.
The new names that the girls created were full of positive meanings: the Hindu goddess Savriti and Bollywood film star Aishwarya were amongst those chosen. Others picked names with strong meaning, such as ‘Saachee’ (beloved), ‘Aadhya’ (power) and ‘Ashmita’ (hard rock or very tough).
Maharashtra is the second largest state in India. The 2011 census declared its child sex ratio as 880 females per 1000 males, listing the most common reasons of such an uneven proportion as: high maternal mortality; sex-selective abortions – which are illegal yet widely performed; female infanticide; and neglect of the girl resulting in higher mortality at a younger age. The national child sex ratio is documented at 914 females against 1000 males.
These factors highlight the prevalent social attitudes still directed against girls and women in the developing world. Having a daughter is seen as of little value because they will eventually be married off to another family and have no obligation to their parents. A son however will continue the family’s lineage, bring his family a dowry through marriage, is offered more opportunities in education and the workplace and is better able to provide for his elders.
The Indian government has made attempts to bridge the social disparity between men and women, but to little avail. For example, the use of dowries was banned in 1961 under the Dowry Prohibition Act, but these monetary ‘gifts’ are still demanded and received nationwide. Throughout India, men have murdered their wives for not providing a big enough dowry. For families with as many as 7 or 8 children, where the majority are daughters, this brings an enormous financial strain and the births of girls are often resented.
It is surprising to notice that women themselves hold cultural views which go against the interests of the female. Mothers are extremely protective of their sons and hold them in high esteem. They often attack their daughter-in-law – verbally and physically – if she is unable to bear a son. If a girl is seen to be unworthy, she can be easily replaced by another who will be more grateful for the opportunity of marriage.
For the girls of Maharashtra and elsewhere in India, the name Nakusha reinforces a lack of identity and feeling of shame. For such a pious society, it is shocking to see that the birth of girls is seen as a curse, rather than the gift of a child; instead of questioning the basis of these patriarchal attitudes, which rest on cultural ideas rather than facts, many would rather indulge in the rejection of its girls.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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