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Innocent Afreen: Death by Gender

By Patralekha Chatterjee

Apr 12, 2012

A battered, bitten and burnt baby battled for her life in Bengaluru. Sounds like a crass tongue-twister but was a real life horror story which unfolded layer by layer over the past week. As I write, news has just come in: the battle is over. Three-month-old Afreen, who was struggling for survival in the intensive care unit of a Bengaluru hospital, died of cardiac arrest Wednesday morning.

Tuesday night, as I was watching the news on television, the macabreness hit me: even as Afreen was struggling for survival, the city’s corporators were spewing rage. The object of their fury was not Afreen’s father who had severely injured his daughter, and wanted her dead, nor the social system which allows such savagery towards little girls. They were outraged at being denied free passes to the Indian Premier League cricket matches. Last heard, the miffed corporation was refusing to clear garbage from the stadium.

Baby Afreen had been burnt with cigarette butts, bitten and banged against a wall, allegedly by her 25-year-old father Umar Farooq. In Farooq’s eyes, she deserved to die because she was born a girl. He wanted a son, according to Reshma Banu, Afreen’s 19-year-old mother who finally mustered up courage to speak out, after putting up with abuse and harassment for dowry. The father had also tried to murder the child on earlier occasions.

Now Afreen is dead. Even if she had lived, the chances of the little girl leading a normal life would have been slim. The cycle carries on, according to Dr Preeti Galagali, a Bangalore-based paediatrician and coordinator (south) for the Indian Child Abuse and Neglect and Child Labour Group.

Afreen’s father has been arrested and furious soul searching is underway in the media. Earlier this year, another battered baby girl, Falak, had grabbed national headlines. Despite two months of the best medical care in Delhi’s All-India Institute of Medical Sciences, the baby could not be saved. Like Afreen, she too succumbed to cardiac arrest.

India mourns these deaths. Or does it?

Few places in the world have seen the dramatic effects of globalisation as Bengaluru. And yet, as we wring our hands and grieve over Afreen, the bitter truth stares us in the face. All the trappings of progress notwithstanding, little girls continue to be unwelcome even in this “progressive and cosmopolitan” part of India. The grim stories of Falak and now Afreen are just the tip of the iceberg. On Tuesday, a father was arrested in Gwalior for killing his two-day-old daughter by feeding her nicotine. Another instance of desperation for a son.

The problem is neither specific to a people or a region. Despite the laws, the committees, and the rest of it, unwanted little girls are either exterminated inside the womb or crushed outside. India’s already skewed infant sex ratio is getting worse. There were only 914 girls for every 1,000 boys under the age of six in India, according to the 2011 census, compared to 927 for every 1,000 boys in the 2001 census. Today’s ratio marks the highest imbalance since the country won Independence in 1947. Economic growth, urbanisation and rising literacy have made little impact on the widespread revulsion towards girls.

So while it is absolutely essential to punish the baby-batterers, it is critical to look at the other vital part of the story — the mother — who is also subjected to abuse. There is very little being done in the country to support young women and mothers to opt out of abusive relationships which put their children and them at risk. Afreen was born a perfectly healthy baby as the images on television showed. She would have stayed that way had the mother felt emotionally and economically equipped to take on her abusive husband. That did not happen. She stuck to her husband despite the harassments for dowry, despite the abuse and despite the torture of her little girl. When she finally picked up courage to speak out, it was too late. The battered baby is dead. But what were her options?

“There is no quick response mechanism on the ground. There are no ‘crisis shelters’ which are readily accessible to poor, uneducated women like Afreen’s mother,” says Nina Nayak, chairperson of the Karnataka State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights.

The ministry for women and child development sanctioned nearly `150 crore to states and Union Territories under the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS) on March 26, 2012. ICPS was introduced in 2009-10 to improve the well-being of children in difficult circumstances, and to reduce vulnerabilities to situations and actions that lead to abuse, neglect, exploitation, abandonment and separation of children from their families. The money is meant to strengthen institutional services. But what is needed along with that is a campaign so that those in need know where these services are available and how they can be accessed.

Such services are necessary but not sufficient. Women without education and economic options often continue in a relationship, no matter how abusive it gets. To break this vicious cycle, many things have to be done. It means, as Ms Nayak points out, cracking down unequivocally on child marriages which are banned by law but continue in practice. Young girls do not only need to have basic minimum education and skills to find remunerative work which can sustain them, they also need to feel emotionally empowered to break out of an abusive relationship.

There is no magic pill that can empower women, but clearly the place to start is to drastically improve the education system, especially vocational education. Today if a woman stays with her abusive husband, it is because of the stigma of separation and because she knows she cannot make an honest living by herself. She also knows that going back to already-burdened parents is not an option. From policymakers to police constables, almost everyone in authority says these are social and domestic issues about which they can do little. But that is not true. They can, for starters, honestly implement the many policies for women’s education — especially vocational education — that exist on paper. There are plenty of examples of women standing up for their basic rights at home and outside, once they have the ability and the confidence to earn a living.

It is not enough to decry gender discrimination and grieve for battered babies. The women who nurture them need real options so that they can protect themselves, and their babies.

The writer focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies.

Source: The Asian Age, New Delhi