Tuesday, December 2, 2014

State of the girl child in India

Much has been written about the state of the the girl child in India. Issues like female foeticide and low literacy rates amongst women have received much attention across the world. But some of these issues are not as bad as they seem, while other more pertinent issues need more attention.

The good news: literacy among girls in increasing fast

The good news first: young Indians are far more literate than their older counterparts, and gap in literacy rate between men and women is closing fast.

This is one of the biggest successes in Indian public policy in recent years, and deserved to be celebrated more. As an interesting side note, the downward spikes at round numbers (those that end with 0 or 5) are because a large number of people do not know their exact age, and hence give an approximate age to the census surveyors. These people are more likely to be from poorer families, and are also more likely to be illiterate.

There are regions where the literacy rate of girls ages between 7-16 are is significantly behind that of boys. But even amongst these, the situation is significantly better for young girls as compared to older women.

Ratio of Female Literacy Rate (7-16 year olds) to Male Literacy Rate (7-16 year olds) (2011)

Source: Indian Census 2011 (http://goo.gl/Q2nV6m [Excel File])

The bad news: the mortality rate of young girls is significantly greater than that of boys

According to interpolations from government data in a paper in the medical journal Lancet, for 100 boys who die within five years of their birth, 131 girl deaths were reported. This issue is particularly severe in some districts. For instance, the mortality rate of girls aged 1-59 months is 3 times that of boys in Mumbai and Chennai.

According to the paper, "the leading causes of death at ages 1—59 months are pneumonia and diarrhoea. Together they contribute most to the female-male mortality gap at these ages.".

It is likely that girls are neglected when it comes to the treatment of diseases such and pneumonia and diarrhoea. This, along with female foeticide, has led to absymal child-sex ratios in many parts of the country.

These two graphs indicate that the low sex ratio in Haryana could be primarily caused by female foeticide. Conversely, the low sex ratio in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh could likely be caused by negligence of the girl child. In Punjab and Maharashtra, it is most likely a combination of the two factors.

Policy Recommendations

The low levels of education amongst girls typically results in them staying out of the workforce, which deprives the economy of workers. To counter this, the government's focus in the recent past has largely been on getting the girl child in school. The numbers show that it has, by and large, succeeded in this.

The next step is to ensure that girls kick stay in school for longer, and also enroll in tertiary institutions. As countless countries (like Iran and Brazil) have shown, this is likely to reduce fertility rate as well.

Moreover, efforts to get girls in school need to intensify in states like Rajasthan and Bihar, which have amongst the lowest ratio of literacy amongst women and men.

Child healthcare and female foeticide
The government has led intensive campaigns and passed legislature (like banning ultra-sound sex determination) to counter female foeticide. It is too early to determine whether they have worked, but certainly seem to be a step in the right direction.

One area where there haven't been enough campaigns is child healthcare for girls. The Lancet papers notes that "Effective interventions against these two diseases include introduction vaccines and expansion of outreach programmes for case management of pneumonia and diarrhoea". However, parents often do not care for girls suffering from these ailments as well as they do for boys. While I do not have any data to prove this claim, I have noticed that when the children of low income parents (like maids and drivers) die due to these ailments, they tend to be overwhelmingly female. The same is true for parents living in villages (disclaimer: my experience is limited to villages in eastern UP).

The following excerpt from a Times of India article sums up the situation well.
The [UN-DESA] report is clear that high girl child mortality is explained by socio-cultural values. So strong is the biological advantage for girls in early childhood that higher mortality among girls should be seen as "a powerful warning that differential treatment or access to resources is putting girls at a disadvantage", the report says.  
"Higher female mortality from age 1 onwards clearly indicated sustained discrimination," says P Arokiasamy, professor of development studies at Mumbai's International Institute for Population Studies, who has studied gender differentials in child mortality in India. "Such neglect and discrimination can be in three areas: food and nutrition, healthcare and emotional wellbeing. Of these, neglect of the healthcare of the girl child is the most direct determinant of mortality," says Arokisamy. Studies have shown that health-related neglect may involve waiting longer before taking a sick girl to a doctor than a sick boy, and is also reflected in lower rates of immunization for girls than boys.
It is difficult to change societal and cultural values through policy, but that is the government's task right now. I personally cannot think of any good policy changes to do so (apart from more radio and street-play campaigns). Please leave a comment below or write in to rishabhsriv@gmail.com if you can!

Side note: I will collate all posts on this blog and send them to people who can make a difference (think tanks, the media, and civil servants) at the end of December 2014. Please send an email at rishabhsriv@gmail.com if you have any suggestions!


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