Overcoming The Stigma Of Daughters In Poverty-Stricken Rural India — By Having 6 Of Them

An excerpt from the new book, "The First 1,000 Days."

by Roger Thurow
Originally Published: 

The following is an excerpt from Roger Thurow’s book ‘The First 1,000 Days’ that was syndicated for The Fatherly Forum, a community of parents and influencers with insights about work, family, and life. If you’d like to join the Forum, drop us a line atTheForum@Fatherly.com.

Rajender wasn’t home in the village of Pure Baishan, India, when his wife Shyamkali gave birth to their fifth child. He was in New Delhi, about 300 miles away, scrounging for day jobs, any work he could find to support his family. It was always hard manual labor, the only work available for men like Rajender from the lower castes.

He had been anxiously awaiting news of the birth, excitedly making arrangements to come home for a celebration. But then he abruptly canceled those plans. He’d gotten a call from a neighbor that Shyamkali had given birth to a daughter, who was named Anshika. It was their fifth daughter. What was there to celebrate?

Anshika had been conceived to be a boy. In fact, all of her sisters were conceived to be boys. It was the desire of most every family in India, particularly in the rural areas, to have at least one son. Boys would carry on the family line; they were seen as having a greater economic value through their earning potential. They would bring honor to the house, and care for the parents in old age. Thus they often received a greater share of food and education within the family. Girls were seen as bringing certain economic loss. A girl would leave her home after marriage, and a “giving away” dowry was paid by her parents to the husband. She would go and live with the husband’s family and work in their household. Her children would live there, too. There would be nothing left for her parents. So why even welcome the birth of a daughter? A celebration would just cost more money.

Shyamkali worried that her husband was angry with her for having another daughter. They were struggling to feed and clothe and educate the first 4 girls, who were 12, 10, 7 and 5 years old. They all had dark, soulful eyes and delicate features that radiated beauty beyond the tattered dresses and smudges of dirt.

Boys would carry on the family line; they were seen as having a greater economic value through their earning potential.

Now Shyamkali wanted to stop, with 5. But she fretted that her husband would want to have another child, to try once again for a son. She knew that her neighbors and everyone in the community would insist on it. She feared that Rajender would blame her for the lack of a son.

Just a few hours after Anshika’s birth, in May 2013, Poonam Muttreja, the executive director of the Population Foundation of India, walked onto a stage in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Speaking at the Women Deliver Conference, a huge international gathering of maternal and infant health advocates, she described how India’s cultural preference for having male children has left the country with tens of millions of girls missing as a result of female infanticide and feticide and the neglect of the well-being of daughters. She proposed launching a “Y Chromosome Campaign” for her country.

“The majority of women and men do not know that it is the Y chromosome of the man that determines the sex of the child,” she explained. “We need … a growing movement of men who acknowledge this, who assume responsibility, and who stand alongside women who speak against sex selection, who condemn discrimination of mothers who have daughters.” Men, she insisted, needed to be a part of the discourse. “It is just as much a men’s issue; it is a societal issue, it is a moral issue, it is an ethical issue.

It is about social justice and human dignity. Yes, enlist men who will speak up against violence and any form of discrimination. Yes, engage men and women as responsible partners and parents.”

In reporting my new book, The First 1,000 Days: A Crucial Time for Mothers and ChildrenAnd the World, I followed families in India, Uganda, Guatemala and Chicago through this most crucial time of individual human development – the 1,000 days through pregnancy to the second birthday. In all these places, I saw the growing recognition of the vital role of dads in children getting off to a good start in life – ensuring good nutrition and a clean environment for the mother during pregnancy and the child during infancy, and being active in the caregiving. The book’s narrative provides an insight into the evolving role of fathers in different societies, and highlights this universal truth: dads must be included in any community outreach and educational program, whether abroad or here at home, to be successful, especially in the first 1,000 days. “Don’t forget the dads” was a mantra I heard everywhere.

It was their fifth daughter. What was there to celebrate?

Rajender’s evolution during Anshika’s first 1,000 days was particularly fascinating. Rajender finally met his fifth daughter when she was more than a month old, as he returned home from his itinerant labor. He was immediately captivated by her; he said her expressive dark eyes commanded his love. It was then that he realized his lot in life was to have daughters.

“I have wanted a son, but in the process I’ve had 5 girls,” Rajender told me with a laugh when I first met him, when Anshika was a toddler. “I now know that whatever has to be given is given by God. If God says it is to be a girl then that is how it is. God won’t give you a buffalo if you are meant to have a cow. It is my place in life to have girls.”

He was a gregarious man with a big smile beneath a pencil-thin mustache. He was wiry and short – barely 5-feet tall. It was obvious he was proud of his girls: Pooja, Sashi, Tulsi, Shivani and Anshika. He gathered them, and Shyamkali, around him as he sat on the floor of their veranda. He held Anshika by her hands and helped her take a few steps.

“Meri Rani,” he said. “My Queen,” he beamed. “She is very friendly. She goes to anyone. She hardly ever cries.”

Rajender declared that his daughters would all have an education – something neither he nor his wife had. That was his dream for them; he hoped he would be able to send each to school for 12 years. But it wouldn’t be easy, he knew. He’d work 2 jobs a day to make it happen.

Over time, in conversations with community health workers, Rajender had learned that his wife wasn’t to blame for having girls; he heard about the responsibility of his chromosomes. And he confessed that he had been foolish to listen to all those around him who had been insisting that he must have a son. He had heard a parable that really made him think: A father and son were walking through town with a mule. One of the villagers said: “Look at those 2 idiots. They have a mule and yet they walk.”

Hearing that, both father and son jumped on the mule and rode together. They passed another group of villagers. One said, “Look at these 2 selfish guys. They make such hard work for the mule to carry them both.” So the son got off and walked beside his father riding the mule.

“God won’t give you a buffalo if you are meant to have a cow. It is my place in life to have girls.”

They proceeded on and passed another group of villagers. One said, “Look at that father, he makes his son walk.” So they switched. The father now walked beside his son riding the mule. They passed another group of villagers. One said, “Look at that son, he makes his father walk.”

Rajender summed up the moral of the story. “You can never satisfy the crowd,” he told me. “If you listen to them, you’ll be ruined.”

So I asked him, will you try again for a son?

“No, he said, “this is enough.”

On my next visit, several months later, Shyamkali was pregnant again. She and Rajender said it was unexpected. Because they weren’t trying to have another child, Rajender thought maybe this one would be a boy.

He was working as a gardener close to home. So this time, he accompanied Shyamkali to the clinic to deliver. Rajender stayed outside, in the dark of night, and waited for word. He dozed off, and then awoke with a start. There was great commotion in the clinic. A baby cried. “It’s a girl,” he heard. Was he dreaming?, he wondered. He ran into the clinic and found confirmation of his fate: he was indeed meant to be a father to girls. He was now 6 for 6.

“You got emotional. You cried,” Rajender said to Shyamkali as they described the night of the birth.

“You’re lying. You were the one who was crying,” Shyamkali said. “Why would I cry? I had 5 daughters and now I had a sixth. I didn’t cry when the others were born. Why would I cry for this one? There’s nothing to be gained by crying. It’s not going to change my destiny. I am proud and grateful to have 6 girls. I know they will always stand by me.”

Rajender looked at me with a smile. “I was fine,” he insisted. “I had to complete the streak of having so many girls.”

His lungs filled with black coal dust and the dry brown dust of the plateau. For all this, he was paid about $2 a day.

Anshika was 20 months old when her new sister was born. Now that she was walking and talking, she was even more endearing to her father than I had observed on previous visits. Rajender doted on her.

“Anshika is very fond of me, as I am of her,” he told me. “We are close. When she sees me, she comes running to me. I feel very special to have her. Of course, I’m attached to all of my daughters.” He didn’t know how much harder he could work to provide for his family, especially food and school fees. But he would try. “It is what I must do,” he told me.

On Anshika’s second birthday, Rajender came home early from his morning shift of work to be with Anshika. No party was planned; they couldn’t afford that. Rajender’s presence would be his present.

He was working 12 hours a day carrying coal to a brick-making kiln. It was a horrible, dangerous job; a task from hell. With temperatures soaring past 100 degrees every day, the sun of a clear sky beating down, heat rising from the barren ground, it was like he was firing up the devil’s furnace. His assignment was to shovel coal shards into 2 metal baskets hanging from opposite ends of a wooden yoke. Once the baskets were full, he squatted deeply and lifted the yoke onto his shoulders. Slowly straightening like a weightlifter – the burden passed one hundred pounds – Rajender scrambled up an incline to a plateau topped with a smokestack, dropped the yoke, and emptied each basket into a bin. He then picked up the yoke, turned, and hustled back down the incline and over to the coal pile again. All day long, he performed this agonizing shuttle. His lungs filled with black coal dust and the dry brown dust of the plateau. For all this, he was paid about $2 a day.

“I’ll do what I have to do. You can see how hard I work; there is no way out of that,” Rajender told me as he again loaded up his yoke at the kiln. “It’s difficult, because I now have 7 with my wife to support.” He had a nasty hacking cough. He spoke morosely, fatefully. “As long as I am alive, I will take care of them. When I die, my responsibility will be over. But before then, I must do what I can.”

He worried about his girls’ future, doubting now whether he could send them to high school. “I don’t have big ambitions. I’d like to give each of my daughters a sewing machine, so they can work in the clothes business. They must be prepared. If anything happens to me, they’ll have to provide for themselves.”

It was a birthday, so Rajender made jokes. He teased his girls, imagining their wedding days. There were 6 in the future, which meant there would be 6 dowries to be paid. “I will place an upper limit on the dowry that I can pay, so the boys will have to agree if they want to marry my girls,” he said playfully. “Boys around here have trouble finding a mate, there are more boys than girls. They marry even if the woman is feeble.” He winked at his daughters.

“But my girls are healthy, and strong. I hope they will be educated. And they are beautiful. The boys, they will agree.”

Roger Thurow, a former foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, is the author of The First 1,000 Days: A Crucial Time for Mothers and Children – And the World.

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