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Where Are Our Girls?

I was at my son’s school this weekend to attend the first Parent Teacher’s Meet for the academic year, now that he’s in Grade I. Was somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer number of children in Grade I alone. Over 400 of them, as sections run from A through M with each packed to capacity of 40 plus students, which meant some 800 parents! A microcosm of the Indian situation: overpopulated. But what brought on a smile was the impressive number of girls present. The reason I found that important was that at the previous school my son attended, which was more high-profile and elitist, there were only an average of 15 children to a class, but I really had to search out the girls. This has got me wondering whether wealthier families that prefer the sparser expensive schools have fewer girl children compared to the middle of the middle schools that are chock-a-bloc. If that isn’t a mere coincidence, then is it far more sinister and deliberate, indicating gender selection to favour boys?

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Here’s how the numbers stack up in my analysis. At the expensive ‘international school’, that cost me about 3 lakhs in fees and additional amenities for one year of Kindergarten (probably more than the entire cost of my life’s education- upto my Master’s), my son was one of 17 students in his class. Of these 17, only 5 were girls. The school itself was excellent. There were two teachers per class assisted by a helper. Impressive infrastructure, a swanky new building set on acres of open well-landscaped property, big pool, cricket nets, football field, tennis and basketball courts, a cycling path, all the latest amenities, personalised care and feedback, iPads to reinforce Math and English concepts, all school buses fitted with GPS-tracking facility and a guard who’d ping you, in case you were late at the pick-up point- things you can hardly expect to be the norm. But that’s how it seems to work everywhere. You pay more, you get more! Honestly, I couldn’t afford the costs, so I moved my child to a lower-profile school a year later. The differences were striking. For one, the new school was like a bee-hive. Now, not all schools in India are like that. The reasons why so many people flock to it are two-fold: Its well managed, and more affordable. Here, there’s no pampering student teacher ratio to ensure personalised attention to individual students, but surprisingly, the one big change is the improvement in sex ratio.

I realise that this is not much of a survey to draw empirical outcomes from. I am comparing only two schools based on their profile, and drawing a conclusion about the missing girls in two sections of population defined by their financial status. But this is a first-hand observation, one that seems to tell a story. It seems to suggest that the higher-income group, that frequents the so-called ‘international schools’ a segment that has grown considerably lately, has a relatively poor sex ratio (number of girls per thousand boys) as opposed to the middle class segment.    

The new ‘international schools’ cater mostly to the Indian expat, returning home in the hope that that the India story is now looking up and his children can receive quality education here. These schools are also quite popular with the nouveau riche class- mostly those in the real-estate business who have new money, to those who’ve benefitted from Bangalore’s prime export- IT/BT. Then there are foreigners and diplomats in transit to whom these schools appeal.  Their curriculum is more in tune with the international standard, and they offer a host of extra-curricular activities ranging from theatre to rock-climbing even at the age of 5 yrs plus. But these schools have to also often employ aggressive marketing strategies to reach out to prospective clients because of the high costs involved. You can’t miss their big newspaper ads, radio spots and huge hoardings across the city.

But despite this, it is the other school that attracts admissions in their droves. The school incidentally, is only relatively cheaper. At about 2 lakhs annually per child, it is quite expensive for an average middle class Indian parent, especially if they have more than one child. Interestingly, the infrastructure and amenities in this model are also strong. Not the same as the elite schools but most ‘extra’ courses or amenities can be had at additional cost. That way, the school ensures that those who can afford more, get more, but that those who can’t don’t feel bad about it. So, for instance, my son gets to acquire a few extra skills like learning to use the Abacus, or to play the Piano, dance, play tennis etc, all at an additional fee. Those children whose parents don’t pick these ‘optional courses’ on the other hand, are kept busy with the regular fare. Its a win-win.

I’m really curious however, about where the little girls are in all this. Can you think of a plausible explanation for the bizarre sex ratio of 12:5 at the international school? It would have to imply that there are fewer daughters in that segment, or the daughters were sent off to another school! I suspect it is the former rather than the latter.

So what is it, the infamous Indian trend- female infanticide through the pathological preference for the male-child?

I don’t know. A statistical report from 2012 puts the sex ratio in Karnataka, where I live, at only 950 women per 1000 men. This year, my son’s class has 42 students. Only 16 of them are girls. Although the average is higher than at the previous school, the boys still outnumber the girls. The trend seems somewhat consistent with the state’s imbalanced sex ratio. So then, one would have to wonder where the girls have gone! Not a happy place, I presume.

For now, I’m just relieved that my son gets to attend a school where there’s at least a healthy mix of boys and girls, even if its not ideal. At least he won’t grow up with the skewed notions that are widespread in this part of the world!

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I don’t want to imagine the situation in parts of northern India, where the numbers of girls dwindle frighteningly in states like Haryana. The sex ratio there as of 2012 is merely 857. In Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, the sex ratio is 874. In the union territory of Daman and Diu, there were only an abysmal 618 women for every 1000 men. The ramifications of this frightening imbalance have been manifesting in a range of abnormal social behaviours and trends, all of which could have been avoided with timely and effective intervention. But here’s where we stand… wondering where our girls have gone!

Despite the imbalance, its quite amazing how girls have consistently outperformed boys at all levels academically across India. But whether they are getting their due after that in a patriarchal society remains an open question…

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