NEW DELHI: The birth of a girl, so goes a popular Hindu saying, is akin to the arrival of Lakshmi - the four-armed goddess of wealth, often depicted holding lotus flowers and an overflowing pot of gold.
That should assure pride of place for women in Indian society, especially now the country is growing both in global influence and affluence.
In reality, India’s women are discriminated against, abused and even killed on a scale unparalleled in the top 19 economies of the world, according to a new poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The survey, polling 370 gender specialists, found Canada to be the best place to be a woman amongst G20 nations, excluding the European Union economic grouping. Saudi Arabia was the second worst, after India.
“It’s a miracle a woman survives in India. Even before she is born, she is at risk of being aborted due to our obsession for sons,” said Shemeer Padinzjharedil, who runs Maps4aid.com, a website which maps and documents crimes against women.
“As a child, she faces abuse, rape and early marriage and even when she marries, she is killed for dowry. If she survives all of this, as a widow she is discriminated against and given no rights over inheritance or property.”
Many of the crimes against women are in India’s heavily populated northern plains, where, in parts, there is a deep-rooted mindset that women are inferior and must be restricted to being homemakers and child bearers.
In addition, age-old customs such as payment of hefty dowries at the time of marriage and beliefs linking a female’s sexual behaviour to family honour have made girls seem a burden.
The poll results - based on parameters such as quality of health services, threat of physical and sexual violence, level of political voice, and access to property and land rights - jars with the modern-day image of India.
India had a female prime minister, or head of government, as long ago as 1966. Well-dressed women in Western attire driving scooters or cars to work is now an everyday sight in cities. Women doctors, lawyers, police officers and bureaucrats are common.