Real data

Numbers can lie and that is why it is too early to celebrate Haryana’s improving child sex ratio

A closer look at Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar’s claim that sex ratio has crossed 900 shows that the improvement, if any, is not uniform.

Sonam Ahlawat from Barhana village in Haryana’s Jhajjar district delivered her second daughter in late December 2016. The 21-year-old mother is now waiting for the government to organise a kuan pujan for the newborn baby. A kuan pujan is a ritual in which a family worships the well that is their source of water in celebration of the birth of a baby boy. The Haryana ministry of women and child development started organising kuan pujans for births of girl children across the state as one of many activities under the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao yojna, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet project aimed at ending sex-selective abortions and infanticide and at advancing education for girls.

“Extending kuan pujan to girl child creates awareness among people that girls are as important as boys in the society,” said a government official in charge of women and child development in Jhajjar, who did not wish to be identified. “This, combined with other awareness activities, has helped in increasing sex-ratio at birth in the district.”

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At 774, Jhajjar had the lowest child sex ratios among all districts in India in the census of 2011, which put it on the list of 100 focus districts where the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao yojna is being implemented.

But none of these schemes have reached new mothers in Barhana like Ahlawat.

The Haryana government has been claiming tremendous success through Beti Bacho Beti Padhao in improving the sex ratio in districts like Jhajjar and across the state. On January 6, Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar said that the sex ratio at birth in the state had crossed 900 in 2016 – that is, 900 girl children had been born for every 1,000 boys. Similarly, in January last year, he said that the sex ratio at birth in 2015 was 903. Both times, the chief minister compared the numbers to the child sex ratio recorded in the 2011 census of 834.

There are two counts on which Khattar’s statements are misleading. The first is that he compared data from civil registrations of birth to census data.

“Data from the census rounds cannot be compared with the civil registration system,” said Arbinda Acharya, consultant demographer with the United Nations Population Fund. “The methodology of collection of data is entirely different.”

As Acharya elaborated, a census is carried out once in 10 years by collecting data through door-to-door surveys. Civil registration, however, is a record of annual data of births and deaths.

“Scientifically, we cannot compare the two,” Acharya emphasised.

Data disparity

The data elements of the two systems are also different. Data of from the 2011 census that Khattar cited is the child sex ratio – the number of girls per 1,000 boys between ages of zero and six. The numbers for 2015 and 2016 that he cited are the sex ratios at birth – the number of girls born per 1,000 boys. Sex ratio at birth does not account for discrimination of girl children in nutrition and healthcare, and therefore their mortality by the age of six.

Secondly, comparing sex ratios at birth over just two consecutive years – 903 in 2015 and 900 in 2016 – cannot provide any indication that it has improved and stabilised.

“It requires a few years to see if the population trend has indeed changed,” said Acharya. “Haryana has shown improvement, but we have to see if this is sustained.”

Of all the methods to determine sex ratio, the most definitive is a census.

“Sex ratio at birth and child sex ratio are both important to know the trend in the society and an annual estimate can be made through birth registries,” said Amulya R Nanda, former Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India. “However, every child is not registered. Usually 60-70% of the deliveries are registered. Therefore census is the most reliable method because it is most rigorous.”

Nanda, who also served as secretary at the union health ministry, said that birth registries can be considered as reliable as a census only if when 90-95% of births are registered.

“To know if Haryana has definitely moved to a better sex ratio, we have to wait for Census 2021,” he said.

The Haryana government has also been issuing notices to Auxiliary Nurses and Midwives or ANMs and to Accredited Social Health Activists or ASHAs of areas with low sex ratios at birth. Scared of being pulled up, the health workers are now insisting that families with newborn girl children register their births but have not applied the same rigour in getting boy babies registered. This skewed registration also contributes to the improvement in the sex ratio at birth in recent months.

There are various sources for the data at village level which ultimately feed into district and state level data. Besides the civil registration system, ANMs also collect data and are supposed to record every birth in their respective areas. In Jhajjar, the civil registration system for 2015 was showed that sex ratio at birth was 850 in the district while the ANMs’ data for the same year was 834. The disparity exists because of the difference in methodology – ­people have to register the birth of their children in the civil registration system while ANMs’ track childbirth from the pre-natal stage through to deliveries. Nanda said reliability of the two sets of data differs because in some areas the civil registration system is more robust and others the ANMs are more efficient.

If Jhajjar has one of the poorest child sex ratio track records, then Barhana where Ahlawat lives has one of the worst records among its villages. In 2011 census recorded the sex ratio in Barhana at only 378. Preference for a male child is apparent among the residents of this village where the promised Beti Bachao Beti Padhao initiatives like kuan pujans are yet to begin.

“We do not have a problem that our second child is also a girl,” said Ahlawat’s mother-in-law. “But now we will have to try for the third child because there has to be at least one son for every couple. I hope the next child is not a daughter. It is too costly to bring up children these days.”

Health officials say that they have been organising education and counseling across Jhajjar. “We conducted several seminars in Jhajjar in the past two years,” said Ramesh Dhankhar, chief medical officer of the district. “Through them, we counseled people regarding importance of girls and women. These seminars included ASHAs and ANMs, women in reproductive age-group and their families. These have been successful and have brought down preference for male child in the district.”

While health department data shows that the government organized 25 such seminars, few people have been to one. Neither Ahlawat not the nine ASHAs and 12 ANMs in Jhajjar have been part of any seminar or counseling. “I have never been told about any awareness activity,” said an ASHA worker who did not want to be identified. ”We have heard about kuan pujan ceremony when the second girl child is born in a family. But if Ahlawat’s ceremony happens, it will be the first in my area.”

Sonam Ahlawat and her newborn daughter. (Photo: Jyotsna Singh)
Sonam Ahlawat and her newborn daughter. (Photo: Jyotsna Singh)

Inherent biases

Savita, secretary of the Haryana chapter of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, said that the government displays inherent bias against women even in its Beti Bachao Beti Padhao campaign material. She describes an advertisement aimed at preventing sex selective abortion that was a song in which an unborn girl appealed to her mother to not kill her. “The tone of the ad suggested that the mothers kill their girl child and only they can stop it,” said Savita. “This was totally anti-women. Mothers have to abort under pressure from husbands and in-laws. Our interactions with women show that they want to give birth to their children irrespective of gender.”

Health officials also say they have been strictly implementing the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, 1994. In 2015, the government conducted the first ever raid on an ultrasound clinic in Jhajjar for determining the sex of foetuses illegally. In 2016, officials raided 12 such clinics. “We have raided 13 clinics under PCPNDT,” said a health official. “Out of them, five were in Delhi and one in Uttar Pradesh where residents of Jhajjar went to get tested. The rest were in the district only.”

However, there have been no convictions yet in any of the cases filed as a result of these raids and all the accused are out on bail.

“We also found same people running the show in different areas,” said the health official. “Once out on bail, the accused start to operate from somewhere else. In two instances, we saw the same technician involved in sex selection, who we had caught earlier. Without stronger implementation of laws and convictions, such incidents cannot be handled.”

Women activists say that without a long-term strategy, improvement in sex ratio of the state will remain a dream. “We appreciate efforts of the government under the PCPNDT Act,” said Jagmati Sangwan of All India Democratic Women’s Association. “But this is a small part of the big picture. Until the mindset of people is changed, women become economically independent, and safety and security for them is ensured, these gains will not sustain. Haryana government is making big claims too early.”

This reporting project has been made possible partly by funding from New Venture Fund for Communications.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.