You can choose to look away

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With Aicha

India is a very large country, it is on the seventh place counted on size. According to a headcount two years ago India had 1,324 billion citizens. Yes, billions! India is the second populous country, beaten only by China.
India is the most populous democracy in the world, it is even said to be the largest democracy in the world.
That sounds good until you begin to scratch the surface. Behind all the pictures of beautiful women in colourful saris (sari is a traditional two pieces dress), the smiling brown eyes and the bows with their hands folded hides a deep misery.
In India you divide the people in different castes, the lowest caste called dalits and the highest called brahmins.

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The difference in living circumstances is larger than anyone can imagine. The caste system is ancient and it is made to keep order in the society, to make people stay in place and not mix or challenge the system. If a boy and girl from different castes meet and fall in love it can be fatal for the young couple. The caste system is rooted so deeply so it is almost impossible to get out from it , it is not like you can get a higher rank if you suddenly make a career and begin to earn more money. No, you are supposed to stay put and accept your fate. Forget your dreams; if your parents are street sweepers or poop bin emptiers that will be your fate too and you can do nothing about it.

I watched a documentary about women and child abuse in India, one woman said that it is safer to be a cow than a woman in India. The cows are considered as holy so people are not allowed to slaughter and eat them.
A woman has no value of her own, she is just a child bearer and an unpaid maid.
Baby girls have no value, they can even be aborted when the mother finds out she is expecting a girl. There are special buses driving around on the country side, equipped with a certain device where they can see with an x-ray called ultrasound if the unborn child is a boy or a girl. If it is a girl it can be aborted if the woman chooses to do so, or if she is forced to do so by her husband. Sometimes, if the pregnant woman doesn’t know the gender of her child and gives birth to a girl, this baby girl ends up on a dump outside town where it lays until it is dead. Either it will starve to death or get attacked by stray dogs.

Paying the dowry, when a girl gets married, is a huge expense for her father. This is one of the reasons why the families don’t wish to have girls, they are considered as an expense – boys are valuable because they can work outside the home and help to provide for the family. When the girl has gotten married but her husband is not satisfied with the size of the dowry he can punish his wife for that. She can be beaten and abused both by her husband and her mother in law, and she can even be killed for it. They call it ”kitchen-accidents” where they claim that the young woman has been clumsy when she handled cooking oil. Instead it was the husband or some other relative who poured oil on her and set her on fire. After the young woman has died the man can remarry and get another dowry. The man can remarry, but if he dies first the young widow has to mourn him for the rest of her life.

In the old times the widow had to die too, in India they burn their dead so she knew what kind of fate would await her if her husband died.
As the dowry is a great expense the families prefer the girls to marry their cousins, by this the wealth stays in the family. A huge problem, caused by that custom is that a lot of babies are born with different kind of disabilities as the parents are too closely related.
As I began to say; India is a very large country so it takes long before new customs reach out to the country side. In the larger cities life has become more modern and with greater knowledge people valuate human lives higher – even the life of a girl.
According to a report made by the Indian ministry of finance there is a lack of 63 million girls and women in the country.

63 million! ”Sex selection” is illegal in India but the custom still exists. There is no use of investing in an education for the girls as they are going to get married and move to the husband’s family. It will only be the husband’s family that will benefit from the money the girl can make by her greater knowledge .
The custom of choosing the gender of the child you want to keep is nothing new. It has existed in all cultures all over the world, longer in cultures that are not as evaluated as others. In the old times people were forced to choose because of poverty. There was no birthcontrol so if the woman gave birth to too many girls, these girls had to die to save the rest of the family . Desperate times – desperate means.
I remember from the history lessons at school that our teacher told us about baby girls carried out to the wolves to be eaten. As soon as the girl child was born someone took it and carried it out deep in the forest. The baby was placed on the ground, left to die. I remember how awful it felt to think about this barbaric custom in the old times Sweden.

How come that still the future of a girl is less worth than a boy’s? Haven’t we learned anything from history? You might disagree and say that more girls go to school now than ever, and that is true but still a lot of kids are out of the system. About a year ago I visited the Gambia and sat one evening outside a restaurant waiting for my food. As I sat there, the time was around 10 PM, I was approached by a little girl who asked me if I wanted to buy some bananas from her. This girl looked like she was about 8 years old, but it was hard to tell. She might have been older but she looked malnourished and that affects the growth of a child’s body.
10 PM is far beyond bedtime for a little girl, she looked so tired but she still had bananas to sell so she couldn’t go home.

I didn’t buy anything but I gave her some dalasi hoping it would help her a bit.
I wondered if anyone was considering the great risks this girl is facing when she is walking up and down the streets? A child of that age shouldn’t be out in the evening, unattended, she is too vulnerable. The traffic is dangerous but that is not the only danger she is facing. A small girl is an easy prey for a man who wishes to use her body to satisfy his sinister lust. He doesn’t care about him destroying her body, her innocence, her trust and her future. She is only an item he is using for his own selfish purposes.
Isn’t this girl’s life and future worth more than the bututs she might earn on selling bananas on the streets? At 10 PM a child must be in bed so it can go to school the day after and learn things to get a better life. I do understand that there are families poor and desperate enough to even use their children as help to provide for the family , but small children are vulnerable! Don’t let them be out on the streets in the evening time, it is too risky.

During my last visit in the Gambia I went with the ferry to Barra. As I and my company were waiting at the ferry station to get back from Barra again we noticed another little girl who was supposed to sell oranges. She had put the bowl of oranges on the top of a low wall and instead of trying to sell the oranges she was dancing. She must have heard some inner music because there was no music there as anyone else could hear. It sounds rather innocent that the girl was dancing, but the problem was the way she danced. Her movements were clearly sexual and it was embarrassing to watch her. It wasn’t only embarrassing, it was shocking too when we suddenly realised that this little girl must have learned these movements somewhere.

As it is not allowed to send movies with sexual contents in Gambian TV she must have either seen it on internet or learned to dance like that from someone. This was in the afternoon, at the ferry station in Barra, and the girl danced there like she was trying to appeal to some customers. Where were her parents? Did they know she could dance like that? This girl looked like she wasn’t older than 12 so she was not supposed to be able to dance like a woman who is pleasing her husband.

I find it strange that we choose to look the other way in some cases. We are used to see kids out on the streets late in the evenings. We are used to see kids begging or selling fruit or some items, but just because we are used to it it doesn’t make it better. Instead of looking the other way we should look straight at the problem and demand a solution.
As the Gambia is such a small country it should be easy to make sure that all kids are safe and well looked after . Education is a way out of poverty, so keeping kids home from school to save some money will increase the poverty instead of decreasing it.

Education is important for both boys and girls, but still more girls are kept out of the education system for different reasons. A lot of girls don’t complete their education, the reasons can be poverty, early pregnancy or the embarrassment of menstruation and a lack of proper toilets and running water. I have written about that issue before but it is worth mentioning again.
So why did I begin this article by telling about India and the situation for women and girls there? Maybe because we are so many times blind for what is happening outside our own doorstep. It is easier to see what is happening somewhere far away, sometimes we need to be a bit shaken to understand that there is a lot going on in our own country that needs to be changed.
You can choose to look away, but you can never claim that you haven’t seen.
Please don’t look away, look straight at the problem and find a solution.

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