In Retrospect

Darker stories of the fairer sex

Slogans like ‘Beti Bachao’ and ‘New India’ seem rhetorical, at least in Haryana, where gruesome sexual offences have cast a dark shadow on promises of progress and equality in society.

On February 1, 2003, the 43rd President of USA, George W Bush, made an announcement that pushed both his nation and ours to tears – NASA's ambitious Space Shuttle Columbia mission had crashed mid-air. All seven astronauts present in the rocket had died; among the ill-fated, there was one Dr Kalpana Chawla.

With humble beginnings from Karnal, a district in Haryana, Chawla had chased her dreams of becoming an astronaut. In due course, she was also chosen to be a part of several ambitious projects undertaken by NASA. Despite Kalpana's success, there was a troubling reality prevailing in the young ambitious astronaut's hometown and state.

In 2011, eight years after the astronaut's demise, the national census revealed that for 1,000 males in Karnal, the number of females did not even cross 800, standing at 797. Moreover, with 830 females to 1,000 males – Haryana, in 2011, registered the worst sex ratio figures in the country.

Carved out from erstwhile Punjab in November 1966, the two states have always had a healthy competition across parameters of economy, agricultural productivity and sports. 2011 was another year in which both states competed in an unfortunate test of who hosted fewer women in comparison to men. With 846 females to 1,000 men, Punjab had just edged past Haryana.

To truly understand the extent of inequality and subjugation, one just needs to look at the example of Beharana village in Jhajjar, where for 1,000 males, the number of females was 393.

Haryana is today infamously known for it its men not having enough women to marry, demanding that they scout their brides from other states. That the figures were not mere markers of the lack of education became evident when Gurugram and Faridabad, Haryana's richest districts, also fared ill in their sex ratio parameters.

Growing agricultural productivity from a well-built irrigation network and green revolution, reliable road infrastructure, rapid urbanisation of cities due to proximity to the national capital have all revitalised Haryana's journey of becoming one of the richest states in the country. Yet, a shameful sex ratio has patched the state's growth as a progressive society. It is difficult to explain how Haryana, Punjab and even Delhi that have all made huge economic gains have failed substantially in building encompassing societies.

Historically, people in these frontier areas have fought to save their lands from foreign invaders, paving the way for a strong sense of community and strife for sustenance. Sacrificing for and valorising the community and motherland has, therefore, been a long tradition that has stood the test of time.

This was a society where a man was the perceived defender, at the forefront of battles – while women were expected to display restraint and maintain honour. Notwithstanding the difference, women too bore the brunt of invaders who celebrated victories with sexual offences on womenfolk. The women also paid a heavier price in their loss of freedom and opportunities to explore the outside world. The situation may have changed for the better since then, but the challenge to maintain equality remains – the low sex ratio is only an illustration of a much more pervasive problem.

National data pertaining to the sex ratio had exposed Haryana's reality – and, it was but natural for the government to now act on this societal menace. Beginning in 2012, successive governments began working towards establishing the balance of sexes in the state.

Pre-natal sex determination had grown across the state, a natural precursor allowing sex-selective killing, causing the consequent abysmal sex ratio in the state. The state government formed agencies and teams to crack upon preconception and pre-natal determination techniques (PCPNDT). From 2014 to 2019, 500 medical practitioners and agents have been caught for practising PCPNDT. Mafias though remain strong, particularly in Rajasthan, Delhi, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, along with Haryana.

To create awareness, in 2014, the state government also launched a flagship programme 'Beti bachao, beti padhao' (save the daughter, educate the daughter), where parents were encouraged to have a daughter and incentives were provided for their education.

There has been some respite. From 2012, when the sex ratio was only 832, in subsequent years, between 2013 and 2015 it improved to 841, 871 and 880 respectively. In 2016, the state breached the 900-mark and since then, the sex ratio has stood beyond 900. In 2019, again, Haryana registered a sex ratio of 920 females to 1,000 males.

Haryana can today boast of overtaking its big brother Punjab in several areas. In 2018, with 914 females to 1,000 males, the state had raced past its neighbour that had 892 females to 1,000 males. Kalpana Chawla's hometown Karnal that did not even cross the 800-mark till a few years ago, is today a leader in the state with 979 females to 1,000 males.

Amid these impressive figures, there is also a dark reality that continues to threaten the well-being of women in the state. In the second week of January 2019, a two-day-old baby girl was found abandoned in the agricultural fields of Palwal, Haryana. A few days later, another baby girl was found abandoned in Rohtak. Various possibilities have been attributed to parents abandoning newborn daughters. Largely deemed as stray incidents, they have mostly been skirted off without much concern. The larger problem for Haryana though is the way it chooses to raise its boys. Haryana comprises only 2 per cent of India's population; yet, the state has reported the maximum number of gang rape cases.

At the beginning of 2018, 10 gang rapes from different districts of the state left people aghast. In places like Jind and Panipat, the girl was not only gang-raped but, thereafter, brutally murdered. Taking the life of a person is already brutal, but the spate of rape cases that shook Haryana in the beginning of 2018 crushed the dreams and aspirations of women.

In Gurugram's Farrukhnagar, a college student who would walk her way to study was stalked by a few men in her neighbourhood. One day, she was dragged into a car and gang-raped by three men. The beginning of the year was enough to highlight that all was not well for women in Haryana – and, even more, for the men in Haryana whose skewed thought process sent shudders.

In September 2018, a deep-rooted malaise pervasive across sections of society was exposed. Felicitated in 2016 by then President Pranab Mukherjee for being a topper in her district, a teenage girl was aspiring to be an engineer in railways. She was making strides towards a better future, until, one day, on her way to coaching, a similar sinister trend followed – she was first stalked, abducted, taken to a desolate spot, drugged and then gang-raped.

Unemployment among young boys is often cited as a reason for crimes against women. In this case, all boys arrested were reasonably well-off. Shockingly, one of the accused was also recently inducted into the defence forces.

Sustaining a healthy sex ratio is another challenge. After breaching the 900-figure mark in 2017, officials in Gurugram district had set a target of ending 2018 with 935 females to 1,000 males. Yet, in the end, they were barely able to touch the 900-mark. There is also a problem of adding more women to the workforce. This is not a challenge for Haryana alone but for the entire nation. According to national data, Indian contributes just 28 per cent of women to the workforce, developed economies in comparison add 44 per cent of women to their workforce.

"I have two daughters and a son, and I make sure that I take care of my children in a fair and just manner. There is a requirement for most parents to condition their boys well. It is unfortunate but true that often lawlessness, unfound aggression and having a superior approach vis-à-vis woman is encouraged. This attitude needs to be changed," said Jitender Yadav, a resident of Gurugram.

In 2016, Deepa Malik, from Sonipat, became the first Indian woman to win a medal for the country in the Paralympics. Being felicitated by the state government in 2016, the mother of two girl children discussed how she was honoured with love and blessings in her home village, a respect reserved only for a few.

Successive governments may do their bit to restore gender parity; but, in the end, it cannot be only a few good men's duty. Society as a whole must come together and help Haryanvi women find their rightful place in society, their state and our country.

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