For the second consecutive year, the 2,450 delegates at the South Asia Literacy Summit in Chennai got a taste of the magic that a Nobel Laureate can create. Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi mesmerised the hall packed with Rotarians, making them laugh with a dose of his wry humour, giving them moist eyes and shocking their sensibilities as he described the torture undergone by some of the children he had rescued. Children crying for their mothers were hung upside down from the fan and beaten, sometimes with large scissors used to cut cloth. Children made to sit for 22 hours in the same position, resulting in deformed legs and inability to walk again. Children burnt or beaten brutally for making silly mistakes at work. Instead of being given medicines or their wounds treated with an ointment; sometimes the cuts were filled with matchstick powder and burnt, so that the flesh and skin could burn and meld.
With these stories, Satyarthi appealed to the fantastic human being that resides in each of us. How can that human being condone the criminal act of a hostel warden punishing a group of girls by parading them naked and taking their pictures? Or a three-year-old girl being raped and killed by her uncle. “If our daughters are not safe in their homes, neighbourhoods, and more important, schools, then we have to act now, we cannot wait. This is a serious challenge,” he thundered, amidst pin-drop silence. Read the detailed article on Satyarthi’s brilliant advocacy for our children on Page 20 of this issue. But his impassioned plea on safe homes and neighbourhoods for our children took me back to an all-India conference I had attended on female foeticide in Goa in 2004.
The discussion was focused on the unwanted girl child and Abha Bhaiya, one of the founders of Jagori, a woman’s empowerment organisation, related the story of a workshop they had organised for training women in a remote village in Rajasthan. One of the women who had come with her eight-month-old son and three-year-old daughter, suddenly found the son ill, with high fever. “The boy was struggling to breathe, it was a remote village where there were no medical facilities and she pointed to the daughter and said: I wish this had happened to her.” The boy was shifted to a hospital the next day and got well. Later when Abha confronted her over the disturbing comment, she said: ‘Look, if my daughter had died, I could still go back home. But if my son, born after four daughters, had died, there was no way I could return home and would’ve had to commit suicide, as the family wouldn’t have accepted me, because this is a prized son.’ Added Abha, “No mother likes to kill her child, but this is the reality on the ground. The truth is that her son was her passport to return home.”
Gives me goose bumps even today to relate this story, that a mother would wish her daughter dead, rather than her son. Not because she loves her less, but because the son is the prized possession of the entire family. A decade has passed but the bitter truth is that in many parts of India, daughters are still undervalued. And unsafe in their own homes, and schools.