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Where are all the women?

Walking the streets of Bhubaneswar in north-east India, I often find myself struck by the same question: where are all the women?

Groups of men swarm the streets, but typically in the company of other men. There is a noticeable dearth of women.

There are two reasons for this. The first is the patriarchal culture in India which keeps many women in the home, tasked with childcare and domestic duties. The second reason is more startling, significant and worrisome: there are simply far more men than there are women.

Women from Bhubaneswar

Recent census data suggests that there are as many as 200 million more men than women across the whole of India.

Driving this gender imbalance is the structural makeup of the Indian family system, which ensures a son is more economically viable by way of avoiding costly dowry payments. Once married, a son will remain in the family home to look after ageing and ailing parents, as well as carry on the family name. These factors have created an explicit cultural preference for sons over daughters.

When this cultural preference is combined with ultrasound technology, we find ourselves in a dangerous place where people can make deliberate decisions on the gender makeup of their family. Sex selective abortion is so prolific in India that it is now illegal for medical practitioners to inform expecting parents of the sex of the unborn foetus.

The practice of sex selection is a form of violence against women and has led to an increase in the gap between numbers of women and men in Indian society. This is evident in the particularly large demographic imbalance in the population under 6 years. What will happen to these boys and girls in 15 or 20 years when they are grown up and seeking a partner?

There will not be enough women for each man to have a bride, so potentially this could result in forced polyandry, where a woman has to marry or cohabit with several men. A scarcity of women could also lead to an increase in the number of rapes, abductions and trafficked women, and therefore an overall rise in gender based violence. Women could become a scarce commodity, and brides purchased and sold.

Trócaire is working with local partner organisations in Orissa such as NAWO (National Alliance of Women in Orissa) and local government bodies in order to combat this alarming trend, both at local and policy level.

By engaging with government bodies, female activists, health practitioners and local communities, we are supporting the birth of a movement which rails against the culture of male dominance and promotes women’s rights in India.

Captions: All Photos: Joanna McClatchie/Trócaire.
Top: Birajani Pani, from the Gajapati district in South Orissa, who set up the villages’ first shop with the help of a micro-finance project supported by Trócaire.
Middle Left: Tunguru Kamala and Jani Sabitri show off the successful results from their attendance at a kitchen garden programme where they learned techniques on sweet potato cultivation.
Middle Right:
Damayanty Sabara, who purchased goats through a micro-finance project supported by Trócaire.
Bottom: Garila Jhara and her friends in the crop fields in their village.


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