Last night I went out for dinner with my one of my oldest friends for a much-needed catch up about all that has happened in the last month while I have been away from the UK. Our topics of conversation were many and varied – our respective holidays, my trip to Sudan with Practical Action, our jobs, latest news about mutual friends, our relationships, and the future. And as we discussed our hopes for the next few years we began to talk about having children. We are both 25, and neither of us have had children yet, but the opportunity to have a family is something that is important to us both. We started dreaming: how many children would we like? Would we want boys or girls? What names might we give to them?
I’ve often thought that if I have children, I’d like to have a boy first, mostly because as as a little girl, and the oldest of four siblings, I used to crave an older brother, someone to look out for me. My reason for wanting a baby boy first is nothing more serious or ominous than that.
Driving home, I remembered some research that I discovered recently. Commissioned by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the research sought to determine which G20 country is the worst for women. Before I read the study, I was expecting the answer to be Saudi Arabia. In that country, all women, regardless of age, must have a male guardian, typically a husband or father. Domestic violence is not illegal. Most Saudi homes will have separate entrances for men and for women. Saudi citizenship can not be inherited from the mother. A woman’s testimony in court is worth half that of a man. Women are not even allowed to drive.
So I was fully expecting the research to declare that Saudi Arabia is the worst place for women.
In fact, the analysis indicated that India – a country I backpacked around not so long ago – is the worst G20 country in which to live as a woman.
When I travelled around India, I fell in love with the place. Everything is beautiful, from the women cocooned in colourful saris, to the public buses which are festooned with ribbons and painted patterns. I watched a sunset over the green green grass of the mountains in Munnar and cried because of its beauty. I chatted to women who had established their own spice co-operative, women who were strong and seemingly independent. And two of India’s leading politicians – Sonia Gandhi, head of the Congress party, and Pratibha Patil, the country’s president – are female. And at no point did it feel like a country which suppresses its women.
Yet from birth to death, life as an Indian woman is a battle. Before birth, in fact, your chances of making it out of your mother’s womb alive are far worse if you’re a girl. There is a huge culture of sex-selective abortions in India. Medical technology means blood tests at 12 weeks can predict whether the foetus is a girl or boy – and many couples choose to abort their unborn child if its gender is not the right one. Female foeticide is an alarming phenomenon - the sex ratio in India today is the worst it has been since 1947. Baby girls are abandoned in public spaces and left to die. Maybe they’ll be rescued and taken to an orphanage. Maybe not.
Though illegal since 1961, India’s dowry culture is still hugely prevalent. It means that parents of girls are compelled to provide huge sums of money when they marry. And so it is easier to have boys. Like me, women dream of having boys first. But not so their small sons can be protective big brothers to younger female children. But because a girl’s life is of less value than a boy’s.
If a girl makes it to school age, she is less likely to receive equal access to education. School fees are paid by the state only to the age of 11. After that point, families must cover these costs themselves, and when money is tight, people are more likely to send their boys to school than their girls.
After that, a girl faces the risk of being married to a much older man. A scandalous 44.5% of girls are married before they reach their 18th birthday. Child brides are less likely to be educated, and much more likely to die in childbirth as their bodies are not fully developed. Married women will also face domestic violence and physical abuse at home – and in public. The chances that the male perpetrators will be punished are slim. Continued social discrimination means that women simply do not have the same opportunities to pursue their dreams as men. And by the time women reach old age, they can expect to live in poverty. If a woman outlives her husband, life is even harder. Traditional cultural practice is to cast widows out into the streets, forbidding them from remarrying and enforcing a life of perpetual mourning for the dead husband. Although the ancient Hindi custom of sati – self-immolation of a woman over her husband’s funeral pyre – is now illegal, there are still some communities in central and north India which propagate the practice. It is the height of injustice: an encapsulation of the belief that a woman’s life only has meaning if she is appended to a man – and that her life should be extinguished the moment she is free.
I sit here thinking of this, thinking of all this inequality weighing down on the women of India from the very moment of conception.
And I think – if I have children, actually I’d like a girl first.