A GIRL in India is up against it right from the start. The skewing against her life chances begins at the moment she is conceived: even before that, when she is merely a possibility, a dread thought to be prayed against. From that moment a girl’s worth, particularly in the states of northern India, the amount of money spent on her health and education, the attention invested in her, starts to diverge from a boy’s.

She is more likely to be killed before she is born, stands more chance of perishing in the first few years, is less likely to be vaccinated against disease, and less likely to be given the medical treatment she needs to thrive.

Being conceived a girl in India is a severe disadvantage.

It puts you at risk of foeticide, infanticide, neglect, abandonment, bride burning, wife-torturing, dowry killing, and domestic violence.

Since December 2012, when a young woman was gang raped on a Delhi bus, the spotlight has been on how India treats it women. That shocking crime triggered a wave of protest and outrage within Indian itself, as well as horror across the rest of the world.

India has done a lot of brow-beating in the intervening years: the Justice Verma commission created a report, identifying a "failure of governance" as the root cause of sexual crime, and a gender rights movement has burgeoned. But shocking stories still emerge, many in recent months: four boys arrested last week for gang raping a 15-year-old in Mumbai; a two-year-old sexually assaulted and dumped in a park; four-year-old girl raped, slashed with a knife and left by a railway track in Delhi.

These tales of horror and violence, however, are the tip of an iceberg, a distraction from the bigger story about gender in India, which isn’t one of stranger rape. Rather, as I found when last month I travelled with the Edinburgh-based charity EMMS International to New Delhi, and Bihar, the country’s poorest state, it is of what happens in home and family. It is what happens when a whole gender is devalued. It is a story that begins in the womb.

India, of course, is not alone in experiencing gender violence. It is, as the organisers of last Wednesday's International Day For The Elimination of Violence Against Women, point out "a global pandemic".

But such is the culture of male favouritism and subordination of women in some parts of India that being born a woman is a profound health risk, and one that is seen regularly in the wards of hospitals and in maternal health clinics. Cathy Ratcliff, Director of International Programmes at EMMS International told me she felt the situation for women in some parts of India was one of the most shocking things she had seen.

For her, the work that the agency is doing with maternal and child health projects at Duncan Hospital in Bihar was ultimately about gender.

In the villages of Bihar, one of the northern states with the worst sex ratios (877 girls to 1000 boys in the 2011 census), it is a rare family for whom, “It’s a girl” is received as good news.

Regardless of religion, Muslim or Hindu, girls are unwanted. In an EMMS-supported hospital in northern Bihar, a longed-for first son is often referred to as “precious baby”.

A family and village celebrates when a boy is born. When a girl is born, one of the doctors told me, it is sometimes as if there has been a death in the family. Regularly, the nurses have to counsel women, "Keep your baby daughter, care for her."

Nevertheless, even when a girl has evaded abortion, she is still in peril. If she is ill, a girl is less likely to be treated. At the hospital, a survey of the gender bias in the babies coming into their neonatal ward, found that the ratio was 200 girls to 500 boys.

One doctor described how she came across a woman who had given birth to non-identical twins, a male and a female. The boy was at her breast, the girl laid out at the end of the bed, crying.

The doctor took the baby girl up to the mother’s chest, saying, “You must feed her.” The woman replied, “You can make me do it now, but when I get home I will just throw her away.”

The result is more girls die. Research by economist Sanjukta Chaudhuri has revealed in Bihar, a 23% "excess" of female mortality – girls dying at a rate far higher than the boys.

The problem is particularly bad in the state, she writes, because women, are “at the intersection of a web of disadvantages woven by an agrarian mode of production, an exploitative feudal system, oppressive caste system, and patriarchy.”

But this problem spans India, and is particularly bad in the northern states, including Delhi. Last year, a UN report warned that the steadily declining child sex ratio in India has reached “national emergency” proportions. Some call what is happening here gendercide.

Let’s say the girl survives and gets older. In the villages around Raxaul it’s unlikely she will be sent to secondary school. Across Bihar the female literacy rate is only a little above 50%. Few of the girls I met in the small huts of Khurmaniya village had received much of an education. Amongst a chatty crowd of women preparing for their yearly Chhath festival, only one could write. Family focus instead, is on protecting girls, keeping them “pure” and getting them married. An education would only get in the way, expose her to other boys, the possibility of physical relationships, and when it comes to making the marriage deal, result in having to pay more dowry.

Bihar state has the highest incidence of child marriage (below the legal age of 18) in the country, at 68%, according to a 2012 UNICEF report. But across India approximately 23 million girls are in early marriages.

Most of the Bihari village women I saw were placed in arranged marriages before they had their first menstrual period. A community worker who runs a United Against Child Marriage project in the area, explained, “The villagers think that before the menstrual cycle starts in a girl they should be married, because after that this she will be impure, and the god will punish them.”

The girls, who mostly never meet their husband-to-be before they marry, have no opportunity to reject him. Once married, at usually around eleven years old, they, for the most part, remain cloistered in their own family’s home for several years, until they are considered mature enough to have sex and live with their husband and his family.

This period however is not always observed. Some, I found, were sent away younger. One sexual rights worker was married at eleven and immediately sent to live with a 35-year-old husband. Physical contact started soon after; sex before her first period. She was also regularly beaten by her husband.

Most agree that at the heart of the problems for women is the dowry system. This practice of gift-giving by a bride’s parents as a condition of marriage has been illegal in India for over half a century but is still practised across much of India regardless of class or caste.

Dowry turns daughters into a burden, a financial liability. Give birth to too many girls, and the question arises how will you afford their dowries? Dowry is an issue for the rich as well as poor; perhaps more so because greater wealth and status is at stake. However, Amitabh Kumar, a gender activist who works at the gender advocacy organisation Centre for Social Research, says that dowry is no longer the only reason families don’t want girls.

“It used to be dowry. Now it’s also their protection. People are worried about crime against women,” says Kumar.

Dowry is also a hazard for a woman even after marriage. She may be sent back home because her family's gift is not big enough. She may even be killed. In the past three years, 24,771 dowry deaths were registered under section 304B of the Indian Penal Code (Dowry Death), 3,830 of these took place in Bihar, the second worst state in the country. Burning by dousing a woman in kerosene and lighting a match is not uncommon in Bihar. One woman was admitted, to the hospital her body covered in third degree burns after her mother soaked her with kerosene. “They burnt her,” recalled one staff member, “because she could not bring more dowry. She was eight months pregnant and she died. These are the common cases in this area.”

As in all parts of the world, the most dangerous place for a woman is the home. But in the villages of northern India, what is shocking is that the beating of women appears a matter-of-fact part of life. There, I met women who were beaten not only by a husband, but by every single member of their family of in-laws: because they didn’t work hard enough, didn't give birth to a girl, or just didn’t cook a good enough meal.

In Bihar there was 22-year-old Seema Devi, for instance, who lost six babies to jaundice, and was beaten after her loss as if it were her fault, and because her in-laws believed she was cursed.

Or one young woman, who arrived at the hospital having walked the miles from her home, bleeding and battered. She recalled being beaten by every single member of her husband’s family. Her father-in-law would strip her naked and then beat her. “When I was pregnant,” she said, “My husband would put my hand on my stomach. He would say, where is the baby? Then he would beat me across my abdomen.”

And rape, too, is part of this story of women in the home. In India marital rape is still legal and one third of men admit to having forced a sexual act on their wives, while 60% admitted using violence to assert dominance over their partners. A great many cases of rape in India are also committed by other family members. At Duncan Hospital, nurses and doctors said that most of the rape cases they saw involved brothers-in-law.

Of course, the Indian government is attempting to tackle these problems At the beginning of the year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched "Beti bachao, beti padhao" (save our daughters, educate our daughters), in an attempt to tackle the sex ratio. In recent state elections in Bihar, women turned out in greater numbers than men and voted back in chief minister Nitish Kumar whose scheme to give bicycles to schoolgirls resulted in a 32% increase in enrolment in secondary school.

In fact most of the previously mentioned misogynistic practices mentioned are already illegal. Sex determination tests are, as is dowry, as is early marriage, as is burning your wife or smothering your infant daughter. But there is a huge gap between the legislature and what happens in the culture. In a village in Bihar it often feels like the law might as well not exist.

What do the women here know of divorce? What do they know of their property rights? What awareness have they of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act?

One of the staff at the EMMS-supported hospital recalled that a recent exercise done with some of the girls in the local village asked them to answer questions like, “Who am I?” Almost all the girls seemed confused by the question. In the end, many answered, “I am nothing.”

These women know little of what it means to be part of the other, modern India, a world of wealth, feminism, rights, global connectivity, and to some extent, sexual liberalism.

That India is easily found in New Delhi. It was there, for instance, in the Taj Mahal hotel, where I attended a summit, packed with women of influence, all clamouring for change.

It is there in the swelling gender rights movement. Amitabh Kumar of the Centre for Social Research says, “Is there a gender movement in India? You only have to look at December 16, 2012 to see there is. The doors were opened. Nobody could stop you by saying this is a fake thing you are talking about: this does not happen in India.”

It was there too, in Anamika, a PhD student I met in a New Delhi mall, who told me she had just split up with her boyfriend.

“Change is happening,” she said, “But I think we are a patriarchal society. Not only in India, but all over the world. Feminism is really needed now. It will take another twenty years in India, till we can say that we are equal with our counterparts in the west.”

In poverty-stricken rural Bihar, though, where the infrastructure is stretched and cultural traditions entrenched, it feels as if it will take much longer. Change is happening, but slowly. Women are taking a stand. In one village, for instance, inspired by self-help and advocacy groups run in northern Bihar, one young woman put a stop to her own arranged marriage, and helped three other girls prevent their marriages.

She funds herself by working as a tailor, and pays the school fees for her brothers. She is creating her own small revolution in her village. Not far away Shoba Devi, mother of four, shows us an exercise book in which she has been teaching herself to write. She wants, she says to work. She wants her daughter to have an education. And at the hospital itself there is hope that things will be different: perhaps not for these women, but for their daughters.

There is hope that girls will one day be wanted; that they will one day have the same survival chances as boys; that one day on their labour wards there will joy at the words, "It's a girl."


Text GIRL to 70660 to donate £5 to EMMS International whose projects help break this cycle of darkness for girls in Bihar, India’s poorest state. Donations will be doubled as part of the Send a Light appeal. Or donate online at emms.org/sendalight