In 2011, the UN General Assembly declared 11th October as the International Day of the Girl Child to raise awareness about the unique challenges girls face and the need to address those challenges, including promoting girls’ empowerment and the fulfilment of their human rights.
It is an appropriate occasion to take stock of how we in India are faring on these parameters.
Specific laws have been introduced to tackle challenges facing women and girls, such as dowry harassment (1961), the practice of sati (1987), female foeticide (1994), domestic violence (2005) and sexual harassment at the workplace (2013).
Other laws protecting the rights of children generally emphasize the equal status and protection for girls, for example with trafficking (1956), child labour (1986), juvenile justice (2000), child marriage prohibition (2006), the right to education (2002 amendment to the Constitution and 2009 act), and protection from sexual offences (2012).
Where governments have been slow to act, courts have stepped in. For example, sexual intercourse with a minor wife was declared an offence by the Supreme Court in 2017.
The Yawning Gap Between Law & Implementation
Still, there are glaring gaps in implementation of these laws and principles to benefit all girl children and young women.
They continue to be targets of violence and discrimination, starting with their birth. Female foeticide continues to be dangerously prevalent in India.
A UN Population Fund report on the “State of the World Population 2020” showed that India is responsible for one in three “missing girls” globally – that is, 46 million girls were killed in India either at a pre-natal or post-natal stage (within five years).
Girls in India also have less access to education. A ten-year status report by the Right to Education Forum in 2020 found that girls are twice as likely as boys to have less than four years of school education, with the gross attendance rate for girls in higher secondary school being 58 in urban areas and 75 in rural areas settings.
Education has a direct impact on the ability of girls to seek formal employment and gain economic independence, which is crucial for realizing their rights and freedoms.
Girls also continue to be victims of the illegal practice of child marriage. According to UNICEF’s pre-pandemic estimates, every year at least 1.5 million girls under 18 get married in India, which makes it home to the largest number of child brides in the world – accounting for a third of the global total.
A Disturbing Rise in Child Marriage – and What it Means for Girl Children
National Family Health Survey data shows that there had been a decline in the number of girls married before age 18 – from 47 percent in 2005 to 27 percent in 2015.
However, we have not been successful in eradicating the practice and with the pandemic, research by the Observer Research Foundation shows more minor girls are being forced to marry by families pushed into poverty.
This has been evident since June 2020 when the child rights helpline ChildLine reported a 33 percent increase in reports of child marriage just between January-June 2019 and January-June 2020.
Child marriage is often just the beginning of a series of violations against the girl child: child sexual abuse, child labour, along with violation of the right to education and the right of sexual and reproductive freedom.
Trafficking also continues to be a threat to women’s safety. There were 2,797 reported female victims of trafficking in 2020 according to the National Crime Records Bureau – a number which might be a third of the actual figure, thanks to problems with the reporting mechanism for these cases.
Often, recruitment for trafficking and other sexual exploitation occurs online, through use of popular social media and messaging applications. Increased internet usage makes this an easy way for traffickers to stay anonymous while young girls and women are given little guidance on how to stay safe online.
Can Increased Legal Literacy Ensure Better Enforcement of These Rights?
The fact is that while our laws may promote equality of status and opportunity, our society is still a long way from considering girls and young women as human beings with equal status who must be treated with respect and can make their own choices.
What is the solution? The time has come to encourage legal literacy on a mission mode.
First, there must be a dedicated effort to educate girls and women of their rights and entitlements. Awareness of the law is absolutely necessary and NGOs working on the ground can take the assistance of the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) in reaching out to millions of women, to tell them about their statutory rights and entitlements under various schemes.
For example, how many women know they are entitled to benefits under the bank savings scheme, education scheme or disability pension? It would be wonderful if Beti Bachao Beti Padhao is extended to legal literacy.
Second, legal literacy can encompass enforcement of rights and benefits to enable young girls and adolescents to access their entitlements. Access and enforcement must also be made easier and citizen-friendly.
For example, minor girls may know, generally, that marriage under the age of 18 is illegal, but do they know how to report such a proposal in their family or whether they can leave or annul the marriage after it has been solemnized?
They may not have the resources to do so, but NALSA is obliged, by law, to provide them free legal assistance and aid.
They may also fear repercussions from their family or community if they lodge such reports. It is up to law enforcement and social welfare workers to provide a confidential and accessible reporting mechanism to these young girls.
And it is up to all of us with the knowledge, expertise and access to resources and platforms, to support and educate them.
To further the goal of empowering girls, NGOs and particularly children’s rights organizations should celebrate October 11th for these girls. At least one such leading NGO is launching a long-term effort with the theme of “Equal for Better”, to highlight the need to promote girls’ rights with a focus on giving them the boost they need to flourish.
By focusing on legal literacy and improving access to rights and entitlements, concrete links need to be built between the needs and entitlements of girls and young women and their implementation.
This is a welcome step toward meeting Sustainable Development Goal 5 –of Gender Equality by 2030 – and providing a better future for the girls and young women of our country.
(Justice Madan Lokur is a former judge of the Supreme Court of India. Shruti Narayan is an advocate and legal researcher based in Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)