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Community Leaders Stand and Speak Up for Girls in India

Last week, the Maternal Newborn Child Health and Nutrition Partners’ Forum hosted an important advocacy event and community dialogue on girls’ rights in the Uttar Pradesh state in India.

The event comes on the heels of a new report from UNICEF, “Boys and Girls in the Life Cycle,”1 which shows that while globally girls and boys are largely treated equally early in childhood, pernicious disparities in health care, education, and knowledge begin in childhood and widen in adolescence.

In India, however, disparities may begin from birth. The report describes notable differences in treatment of male and female infants:

  • Of male infants, 91% are vaccinated against measles compared to only 56% of female infants.
  • In 72% of cases where a male infant was suspected of having pneumonia, the child was taken to a health provider; this was only true in 66% of cases with female infants.

Girls in India are significantly more likely than boys to be married before age 18; and girls in poorer families are less likely to attend primary school. This disparity becomes more pronounced by adolescence, with 59% of boys attending secondary school but only 49% of girls doing so. By early adulthood, gender disparities are evident and can handicap and endanger young women. For example, among young people, ages 15–24, in India, 88% of young men, but only 74% of young women, are literate. Additionally, 36% of young men in this age group have a comprehensive knowledge of HIV as compared to 20% of young women.

In Uttar Pradesh, where the advocacy event was held, disparities in nutritional status between girls and boys are reported in infancy and continue throughout childhood and adolescence.  There are approximately 10.5 million undernourished children in Uttar Pradesh; six million of these children are girls. About 30% of girls in Uttar Pradesh marry before they are 18, despite laws that prohibit child marriage.

Nationally, over the last decade, India also has reported a falling child sex ratio for children younger than seven years old, meaning the number of girls per 1,000 boys has fallen from 945 to 927. A cultural preference for sons drives infanticide of female babies as well as sex-selective abortions and results in an overall gap of “missing girls.”

In an effort to stop the pervasive discrimination against girls, the Maternal Newborn Child Health and Nutrition Partners’ Forum, of which IntraHealth International is a member, hosted a workshop on girls’ nutrition, well-being, survival, and early marriage in Uttar Pradesh. Senior state government officials, including the director general (Medical Health and Family Welfare), the general managers of the National Rural Health Mission, civil society members, subject experts, and members of the media all attended the forum and community dialogue.

Prominent researchers, activists, and staff from key development partners spoke out about female feticide and infanticide, and the need for legal deterrence and ways to charge ethical misconduct in cases of doctors performing sex-selection tests and sex-selective abortions. Forum participants also discussed the need to examine social constructs of gender and how violence against women can become, but should not be, normalized. Following the forum, the participants identified the need to collect, analyze, and use quantitative and qualitative data to better understand gender disparities; to involve civil society in resolving these disparities; and to develop government systems and community responses to gender discrimination, especially when directed at girls.


1. UNICEF. 2011. Boys and girls in the life cycle. United Nations Children’s Fund. New York, NY.