If I’m totally honest, I’ve often thought of gender equality with a yawn and a roll of my eyes. (I’m a woman, so that’s kind of allowed!) It reminds me of militant bra-waving feminism, and in my own experience I’ve never been discriminated against for my gender, so it’s just never been an issue. But as I’ve looked into it further, I’ve discovered that ‘Promoting Gender Equality and Empowering Women’ is actually a one of the most important Millennium Development Goals to strive for.
In western nations women are pretty much free from oppression. But if you take a look at countries such as India and Nepal, or throughout the Middle East, you see that there is still much work to be done. In India for example the culture of paying a dowry still exists (a ‘bride-price’ paid to the groom by the girl’s family, either money or goods) and it is taking the lives of thousands of women each year – millions if you count unborn girls.
Imagine a poor Indian couple expecting a child. If it’s a boy, he will be the glory of his family: sent to school and given the best opportunities possible, so that one day he can take care of his parents and bring them grandchildren. But if a girl is born, the parents will spend time and money raising a child who will ultimately not only marry out of the family, but who will become a money-sink if her future husband demands a dowry.
What do these expectant parents do? They go to an ultrasound clinic to discover the gender of the child. Having an ultrasound for this purpose is illegal in India but millions of pregnant women do it anyway. If what they see is the form of a little girl, the odds are quite high that she’ll be aborted and her parents will keep trying for a boy. Of course not every Indian couple does this. But many do – 500,000 little girls are aborted every year.
Now imagine a young woman about to get married. At the last moment her fiancé and his parents demand a dowry; this might even happen on the wedding day! To avoid the shame of having her marriage fall through, her parents go into debt to pay the dowry. The marriage takes place, but a few months later her in-laws want more money. Her husband threatens to harm her if her parents refuse to pay, but they simply can’t afford it. Calling their bluff, he beats her and then lights her on fire in the kitchen. It’s appalling, but statistics show that these ‘accidental’ kitchen fires take the lives of more than 5,000 Indian women every year. No wonder there’s often mourning when a girl child is born.
So what can be done? It requires more than banning dowries – that’s already been tried, with no success. What’s needed is for the worth of girls to be made clear to India; to parents, governments, officials and the girls themselves. So four of Viva’s city-wide networks in India have come together to start raising the profile of little girls through our ‘Jyoti Forum’ (Jyoti is a girl’s name that means ‘light’ in Hindi.) We’re bringing together Christian organisations and secular ones to work on this. Inter-faith collaboration is a rare thing in India, but it’s the only way to change the opinions and cultural roots of Indian society.
The city of Vijayawada is a great example of where Jyoti is taking off. Viva’s network of projects and churches in Vijayawada is being trained to care for the particular needs of girls in their city: child abuse, forced labour, sexual discrimination, early forced marriages, and child prostitution. Their aim is to bring 250 girls to high school completion by 2012, as well as reaching thousands of girls through these projects and churches. Raising the standing of girls in India is bigger than just preventing discrimination and abuse, it involves changing peoples’ mindsets about the importance of girl children.
Through Jyoti, these organisations, projects and churches come together voluntarily to discuss issues facing girls in their communities, and to learn how to protect young girls’ rights and persons. Working through networks is the perfect way to bring vital training, information and seminars to thousands of workers nationwide, and to unite them in their purpose to help the girl children. It’s also important to start at the top, with the recognition that India’s society is deeply hierarchical. So we begin by training leaders in projects and communities, so that in time the new mindset will trickle down.
At Viva we believe that India can become a friendly place for little girls to grow up. The church needs to model this change for the rest of society. Just picture a church filled with Indian girls who have been freed from oppression and inequality, praising God happily and equally alongside men and boys! As India realises the importance of girl children, more girls will be educated, more girls will be able to contribute to their families, and dowries will become a thing of the past.
~ J. in Oxford
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