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Across the country, the great majority of India’s girl children are growing up in the shadow of their brothers with less parental love and care, unequal education opportunities, and lesser socio-economic freedoms. On the occasion of International Women’s Day (March 8), we must practice gender equality from early age and examine the phenomenon of widespread gender discrimination in Indian society which begins at home and continues in education institutions and workplaces – K.P. Malini and Mini P.

Gender-Neutral parenting

Even as 21st century India is an aspirant for superpower status within the global community of nations, it’s regressing in terms of gender equality. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2017 released last November, India is ranked #108 (among 144 countries), — a slide from its 2016 rank of #87 — on the gender gap index of WEF. Unsurprisingly, India has one of the world’s most skewed female-male sex ratios  — 939 to 1,000 and projected to decline further to 904 in 2021 and 898 in 2031 — the consequence of rampant female foeticide. Add to this rising gender crimes countrywide. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 338,954 crimes against women were registered in 2016 with rape accounting for 11 percent (38,947) of cases reported — one rape outrage every four hours.  

“How can a nation develop fully when roughly half its population remains deprived and discriminated against,” asks a research study published in Advances in Developing Human Resources (Sage Publications, 2016). The study highlights that for girl children gender inequality begins at home from the early years. “The female child receives less nurturing, care, and parental attention than males, thus, making them far more susceptible than boys to disease and infections, leading to poor health and a shorter life span,” says the study. 

Indeed in the overwhelming majority of India’s 210 million households — including middle class households — gender stereotyping begins at home from early childhood. From the colour of the nursery, to the choice of toys and games, and prescribed behavioural norms, most parents raise male and girl children differently. For instance, it’s routine in middle class households to gift girl children kitchen sets while male children are given science kits. Such stereotyping by parents and society is a continuum for girl children throughout their lives.

A 2017 survey conducted by Podar Education Network and Early Childhood Association (ECA) of India found deep gender biases in toys selection. In the 50 toy stores visited in Mumbai, ECA surveyors found that 87 percent grouped toys by gender. Moreover, around 70 percent of parents interviewed rejected the idea of buying kitchen sets for male children and Lego sets for daughters with 90 percent of mothers disparaging a suggestion to purchase teddy bears for male children. Also, 60 percent of parents interviewed found no bias in buying pink garments for girls and blue for boys, also preferring engineering maintenance tool kits for boys and art and crafts kits for girls. 

“Our survey found that gender biases and stereotyping are deeply ingrained in parents. Mothers scoffed at the idea of buying kitchen sets to teach their male children cooking and preferred toys that ‘build brains’ for them. This early stereotyping of gender roles needs to change and parents must begin at home by practicing gender neutral parenting,” says Swati Popat Vats, president of ECA which has a membership of over 3,000 pre-primary schools countrywide.

Although seemingly trivial, avoiding gender stereotyping of girl children at home from early childhood is important. Several international studies confirm that gender biased toys selection significantly determines women’s career choices later in life. A 2014 study of Oregon State University found that “girls who play with Barbie dolls actually saw fewer career options for themselves than boys”. Aurora Sherman, one of the researchers, observed that playing with Barbie dolls affects girls’ “ideas about their place in the world and creates a limit on the sense of what’s possible in the future”.  

Schooled in gender roles?

Parental gender stereotyping is reinforced in school with mindlessly written textbooks supporting traditional gender biases. For instance, a class III Hindi textbook published by the Rajasthan state board in a chapter titled ‘Games’ has three illustrations depicting male children playing field games, suggesting playing field games (hockey, cricket, football) is natural for boys, but not for girl children. Another chapter on Sant Kanwar Ram, a Sindhi poet, in a class VIII text baldly states that “a woman’s duty is to follow her man”. 

Expert opinion is becoming louder that rampant female foeticide and a rising tidal wave of gender crimes in India are rooted in shabbily designed syllabuses and curriculums in early childhood and school education which perpetuate gender stereotypes and biases. “It’s important for government, textbook boards and publishers to purge school texts of gender stereotypes. Children’s textbooks should promote an egalitarian culture in which girl children and women are depicted and lauded for being engaged in non-traditional roles and vocations. Gender equality awareness and training should begin at home and be reinforced in school by textbooks and teachers. Though over the past decade I’ve noticed that some males are becoming hands-on parents, it’s still a struggle to make them understand that they are equally responsible for nurturing their children’s academics and extra-curricular activities. It is not solely the mother’s duty,” says Jyoti Mridul, senior teacher, Carmel Convent Senior Secondary School, Bhopal. 

Regrettably, gender stereotyping and confidence erosion of girl children is not confined to households across the country. School managements and teachers too — perhaps unconsciously — reinforce this regressive social phenomenon.

The ECA-Podar Education Network survey conducted last year highlights that 52 percent of teachers interviewed routinely endorse the traditional roles of women. “We need to train our teachers to practise gender equality in their classrooms. For instance in preschool, if teachers use charts and flashcards to show police personnel, doctors, scientists and learned professionals, they should ensure that both genders are equally represented. Similarly, songs, rhymes and stories need to be revised to eliminate traditional gender biases, and to ensure that girl children are not depicted as meek, mild and accepting supporting actors. This way messages about socially acceptable career choices for girl children are unconsciously ingrained in young minds from early childhood,” says Vats. 

Change gender roles

To counter such in-built societal gender bias and discrimination, women’s rights activists advise parents to encourage male children to do household work to minimise “gendered division” of chores. A 2010 study conducted by the International Centre for Research on Women, Washington D.C, found that only 16 percent of males in India share household chores and parenting duties equally. 

According to Aarti C. Rajaratnam, director of the Child Guidance Centre and Counseling Clinic, Salem, boys and girl children absorb life lessons from family dynamics and parental work sharing, and are likely to imititate their elders when they start their own families. “When male children witness male parents discharging everyday family duties, they learn valuable lessons in gender egalitarianism,” says Rajaratnam.

Providing equal education, sports and social interaction opportunities to girl children has important social and economic consequences. Nation states in which half the population is engaged in routine unpaid domestic work are unlikely to prosper. The contemporary world’s most prosperous countries are those in which women play important — even if not yet equal — roles in politics, industry, business, diplomacy, education and social engineering.

“Children unconsciously absorb and mimic the gender roles of their parents. Stereotypes strongly impact children and should be consciously broken. Parents need to give their male and girl children equal education opportunities and respect. This is not just natural justice, it’s an economic necessity. Currently, women constitute 77 percent of the workforce in healthcare and education — vocations in which employment is increasing. Men constitute 73 percent of the workforce of heavy industry and manufacturing in which employment is shrinking,” warns Nirmala Menon, founder & CEO, Interweave Consulting Pvt. Ltd, Bangalore, an inclusion solutions company which provides advisory services to companies to devise flexible work options to retain experienced women employees. 

Simultaneously with women’s sports and entertainment attracting huge global television audiences and having emerged as full-fledged businesses, it’s become imperative to encourage girl children to develop their co-curricular and sports talents. There is no dearth of narratives which demonstrate that determined parental support can help girl children to break glass ceilings.

A case in point are Tashi and Nungshi Malik (27) who became the world’s first twins to scale Mt. Everest in 2013. Within two years of that feat, they went on to scale the highest mountains of all seven continents and skied to the North and South Poles becoming the world’s first siblings and twins, as well as first South Asians to complete the Adventurers Grand Slam. These high achieving girl children are now propagating a ‘Gender Equality Now: Fight Female Foeticide’ global campaign. 

Although “many well-meaning relatives” discouraged them from participating in the dangerous sport of mountaineering, they received full encouragement from their parents. “Our parents, particularly our dad, Col. (Retd.) V.S. Malik, always encouraged us to follow our dreams. For us, mountaineering became a metaphor for the invisible mountains that girl children have to surmount daily. When traditional parents of girl children meet us, they admit that their outlook towards their daughters has changed. Every parent needs to encourage girls to play sports and games of their choice, and provide equal opportunities and full support,” say these gender equality champions who have also registered the NungshiTashi Foundation to promote empowerment of girl children through outdoor sports.

Propagating gender equality in modern China, Chairman Mao Zedong (1893-1976) presciently observed: “Women hold up half the sky.” Deeply entrenched patriarchal attitudes, misogyny and irrational prejudices continue to deny hundreds of millions of girl children and women their fundamental right to equality under the Constitution of India and discourage them from contributing their best for the growth and development of the Indian economy and society. 

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, progressive, enlightened parents and teachers should make a firm resolution to consciously practice gender egalitarianism at home and in classrooms. Not to take a firm stand on this issue would be to risk half the sky crashing down. 


Also read:

Women’s Day Special: Interview with author Shruthi Rao

Women’s Day: Interview with mompreneur, Ruchita Dar Shah

Gender neutral parenting primer
ParentsWorld presents guidelines to help parents from unwittingly reinforcing gender stereotypes at home.

Ages 2-6

* Children learn of male/female characteristics from fairy tales, cartoons and movies and begin to distinguish boys and girls. 

* But simultaneously they also absorb gender stereotypical colours (girls in pink), role play and gender-based vocations (women in kitchens, men in office).

Recommended parental action

* Prompt questions such as why a female character in a fairy tale is not the one riding a horse, and advise children against unquestioningly accepting stereotypes in popular literature and the media.

* Choose children’s toys carefully and ensure girl children are also gifted science kits, chess sets, magic trick boxes and tool kits. 

* Assign household chores without gender bias. Male parents should be seen to be sharing household duties with their wives.

* Encourage girls and male children to equally role play vocations such as architect, pilot, chef, doctor.

Ages 7-10

* Children begin to understand personality/emotional differences between the sexes. They are likely to perceive women as emotional and soft, and men as aggressive and bold.

* They begin unconsciously to associate occupations such as engineering and medicine with men, and teaching with women.

* They begin to choose playmates of their own sex, especially when playing in groups.

Recommended parental action

* Engage children in discussions about the depiction of gender stereotypes in the media and society. For instance, debate why do Disney princesses always depend on a prince to save them from harm and not vice versa. 

* Purchase books and choose films featuring women heroes and protagonists.

Ages 11-13

* Children begin to experience pre-teen physical changes and become very conscious about their looks and how others perceive them.

* The pressure to conform is high, and children become very sensitive to gender-biased comments — “Why are you dressed like a girl?”

Recommended parental action

* Help children develop healthy self-image regardless of gender. 

* Encourage self-confidence that stems from who they are, rather than what is expected of them by society. Boys don’t need to be ‘strong,’ and girls don’t need to be ‘beautiful’ to succeed. 

* Encourage girls to develop interest in non-traditional subjects — engineering, construction, manufacturing etc. 

Ages 14-17

* Teenagers prefer to hang out with mixed gender groups and become more sensitive to the roles discharged by male and women parents at home.

* They may rebel against traditional family expectations.

Recommended parental action

* Debate gender-related issues and share the life experiences of both parents.

* Talk to other family members and educate them to practice gender equality.

* Include girl children in important family discussions. 

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