By Siddharth Singh, 23 Oct, 2011
22nd October, 2011 is an important date for the 265 girls from the rural Indian province of Satara. This was the day they were given a new name, a new identity, and hopefully a new life of dignity.
In 2007, the health officials in this region discovered a rampant practice in Satara where parents would name their girl children ‘Nakoshi’, which means ‘unwanted’, in the hope that their next child would be a boy. Consequentially, these girls would grow to live in a world where they would be stigmatized and discriminated against, more often than women already are.
On 22nd October this year, the administration organised a public event and renamed the girls. The girls were allowed to choose any name they wished, or select one from a list provided. The girls went ahead and chose names such as Aishwaria (meaning ‘wealth’). The Indian Express reported that these girls claimed that for the first time in their lives felt ‘loved and accepted’. They recounted how they were previously treated with disdain, and would often return from their schools crying because they were bullied.
Such practices, however, are not localised to the district of Satara. This happens to be symptomatic of the preference of the girl child by parents across most regions of India. While the average sex ratio of the world is 101 males to 100 females, it stands at 112 males to 100 females in India. In certain areas, such as the city of Chandigarh, it stands at 123 to every 100. Such a skewed sex ratio has resulted from the practice of female foeticide (the abortion of the female foetus), which is rampant in India.
What is important to note, however, is that female foeticide is not a rural-poor phenomenon only. Studies show that this practice is relatively more rampant in urban areas and in the middle and upper class wealthy families rather than the poorer ones. One of the possible causes of this is that the poor cannot afford the sex determinatation tests and abortion procedures.
The poor are hence left with venting their frustration of not having a male child by adopting practices such as naming and shaming the girls who are already born.
However, the practice of giving children such names is not only determined by gender: such practices are common along caste lines too. In fact, it may well be the case that it is more prevalent by caste.
In rural India, casteism is expressed in a more violent and unabashed way than in urban India. Every year, hundreds, if not thousands of people from the ‘lowest’ castes are killed by the ‘higher’ castes. While accurate statistics of this are not readily available, evidence of such a high number can be observed in the daily reports of such killings in national and regional newspapers. The triggers of such violence is usually the ‘lowest’ castes ‘daring’ to assert their equality in the society, such as by entering temples where the ‘highest’ castes frequent, or using communal wells for water which the ‘lowest’ castes are forbidden to do.
An example of such brutality can be seen in this short documentary.
One of the outcomes of such violence is the naming of children of the ‘lowest’ castes as the regional-language equivalents of ‘dirt’, ‘garbage’, ‘filth’, ‘fool’, ‘stupid’, etc. Some parents do so willingly in order to prevent their children or the parents themselves from being beaten up or killed by the ‘upper’ castes for having names that they use on their own children.
This results in these children getting discriminated at every turn in their lives. It becomes difficult to find meaningful employment or be treated as equals. Their caste becomes apparent the moment they introduce themselves, so they aren’t even given an opportunity to prove themselves anywhere.
I have personally witnessed such a case in rural Rajasthan. A young man in his twenties who had good bachelors and masters degrees could not find employment in any private company in his district in spite of being more qualified than most other people across castes. This man had, after all, committed the ‘crime’ of being born in the ‘wrong’ family.
It is time regional administrations from around India made serious attempts to identify such cases and reverse this trend just as the Satara administration did in the case of the ‘Nakoshis’. Importantly, these children must be given caste-neutral surnames too. In doing so, they would be doing a lot to reduce the inequalities and injustices that have been thrust upon them.
The Shakespearean quote from Romeo and Juliet, ‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’ unfortunately does not hold true everywhere.
The author can be followed on Twitter @siddharth3