India may have fewer women, but that does not make them more precious. One look at numerous villages in Haryana, Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh would be enough to convince anyone that women are useful but disposable objects, to be bought and sold — and re-sold — for purposes of domestic or agricultural work equivalent to bonded labour, for sex slavery or even, when the need arises, marriage. The sex ratio is so pitifully skewed in these states that men need to buy women from elsewhere. Ironically, instead of the women who should be especially valued, it is the traffickers who thrive, bringing girls in hordes from the poor villages of Assam, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Odisha. Treated as inferior to the local women, these ‘outsiders’, even when married, are often kicked out of their in-laws’ houses with no rights when their husbands die. Women’s lives come cheap, and nothing has changed that yet. Data from the census office’s latest annual health survey of nine states reveal that even though sex ratio at birth has shown improvement in some areas, the sex ratio in the 0-4 age group is showing a new decline. That is, girls are dying of neglect, bad health and, sometimes, domestic violence. Since the states surveyed are some of the most heavily populated ones, the percentages symbolize tens of thousands of dead little girls.
Equally alarming is the convergence of states on this one count; for example, Chhattisgarh and Assam, both of which had high sex ratios at birth as well as in the 0-4 age group, have shown the steepest decline after birth together with states that already showed a grave disproportion between the numbers of boys and girls. Yet school enrolment for girls has improved, as has the number of hospital births. There are two or three points of note here. One, those who do allow their girls to survive are sending them to school. Two, this does not indicate a better quality of life or greater agency for grown women yet; India will have to wait till the school-going girls grow up, unless they are married off midway. Three, with the decline in the sex ratio of the 0-4 age group, even greater emphasis than before should be placed on women’s health, nutrition and access to treatment. Now, public policy is dependent on governments and legislators. The question is, are India’s elected leaders any different in their attitude towards women from their electors?