‘Too Patriarchal’ Father in India Now Champions Women’s Rights

by Pelican Press
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When the nurse stepped out of the delivery room, her face turned somber as she approached with a baby in her arms wrapped in a blanket. Her voice dropped to a hush, almost like she was ashamed, as she announced to the family: “It is a daughter.”

Nothing about the nurse’s negative demeanor surprised Sunil Jaglan, the newborn’s father. Growing up in the northern Indian state of Haryana, he was accustomed to parents’ strong preference for having sons over daughters.

But something within him snapped, he said, when he offered the nurse money as a thank you gesture, and she refused because she had not handed over a boy.

“Are you also ashamed of yourself?” Mr. Jaglan recently remembered asking the nurse when his daughter was born 11 years ago.

That episode transformed him into an unlikely champion of women’s rights in a deeply patriarchal society. He turned the nurse’s four words, uttered almost as a curse — “It is a daughter” — into a slogan for a campaign that health officials say is responsible for saving the lives of hundreds of girls in Haryana.

Historically, Haryana had one of the most imbalanced sex ratios in the country. In 2012, the state had 832 females per 1,000 males. And Mr. Jaglan’s own village of Bibipur, with about 1,000 households, had one of the most skewed sex ratios in favor of males in the entire state.

“No one wanted girls,” said Mr. Jaglan, 41. “But everyone wanted a woman to do everything in their homes, from working in the farms to household chores.”

In India, the world’s most populous nation, and one which has experienced tremendous economic progress, gender inequality remains deeply entrenched. In many households, especially in rural areas, girls are considered a social and financial burden whose parents still pay thousands of dollars in dowry gifts to a husband’s family after arranging a marriage.

Despite an official ban on prenatal sex testing, advertisements for the service were pasted on market walls and highways across Haryana, and aborting fetuses because they were female was common. Although there are some restrictions, legal abortion is widely available in India through the first 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Shortly before his own daughter’s birth, Mr. Jaglan had won an election as the village headman, and he was now determined to use his new role to begin a controversial campaign against the prenatal sex testing that he was sure was responsible for the alarming gender gap in his village, his state and many places across India.

Although it was not within his authority to do so — and some considered it an egregious invasion of privacy — Mr. Jaglan made it mandatory for village families to report a household pregnancy within four weeks, a decision that angered many in Bibipur and beyond.

Through a network of women informers, he and his team of volunteers would follow pregnant women like detectives when it was suspected they were being taken for prenatal sex tests. If that was indeed the case, they would work to have the woman’s husband or her in-laws arrested, with the police operating on the assumption that the pregnant woman herself had little or no say in the decision.

The fear of prison worked.

In four years, the sex ratio in the village improved from 37 girls/63 boys per hundred newborns to 51 girls/49 boys, according to government health records.

This model of reporting pregnancies was soon copied in other parts of Haryana — though without Mr. Jaglan’s contentious mandatory requirement.

The latest results of India’s national health survey show that the state has improved the sex-ratio balance to 926 women per 1,000 men in 2020-21, from 876 in 2015-16.

“He has been extremely effective in delivering the message,” said Pratibha Chawla, a professor at Delhi University, who specializes in gender studies and has conducted research in Haryana. “People listen to him because he is one among them; he knows how to connect with them because he understands how a deeply patriarchal society works.”

Emboldened by this success, Mr. Jaglan has become a crusader to change entrenched attitudes about rural women, with his growing national prominence stemming in part from his ability to spin up attention-grabbing phrases in the Hindi language that he then uses social media to spread.

In 2015, he launched #SelfieWithDaughter, urging people to take photographs with their daughters and share them on social media. His effort got a major boost after Indian cricketers and movie stars started participating.

In one campaign, he encouraged men to make a pledge against saying sexist slurs at home, and in another, he convinced villagers to install nameplates on their homes for their daughters, a tradition formerly reserved for boys.

And as with his first effort, he has not shied away from controversial initiatives, with one calling on girls and women to maintain menstrual charts, visible to all in the household, to let the men know when they should be spared from hard labor on farm fields. While some have welcomed this, others worry it violates privacy and reinforces stereotypes about what menstruating women can or can’t do.

The charts are also an attempt to destigmatize menstruation, Mr. Jaglan said, to make the men in a household “comfortable with the idea that periods are a normal routine for women.”

More than a dozen of his 100 or so social media campaigns have been adopted as policy by the Haryana government, including that the hoisting of flags in all villages on two of India’s most important holidays — Republic Day and Independence Day — should be an honor reserved for girls who have scored top ranks in school exams.

Born and raised in Bibipur, Mr. Jaglan — who conceded that as a younger man he was “too patriarchal” in his own attitudes — earned a college degree in computer science and then taught math, before quitting in 2012 to consult for educational institutions seeking grants. His village headman term ended in 2015.

On a recent afternoon, Mr. Jaglan was walking through the lanes of Bibipur when several women recognized him. One by one, they lifted their hands and placed them on his head as a sign of blessing.

“He made us realize what a woman is capable of doing,” said Shanti Jagda, 62, about Mr. Jaglan. “And more important, he taught us to say no.”

In 2012, he organized a Khap Panchayat in Bibipur. A powerful body of male elders, the Khap is often considered anti-women in its approach toward resolving marriage and family disputes. When he invited a woman to speak on the stage, he created a public fury.

That speaker, Santosh Devi, talked about female infanticide and dowry deaths (when a woman is murdered or kills herself over a dowry dispute) and said she wanted women to join the decision-making process in village development.

“After giving birth to six children, he gave me the courage to stand up and speak in front of 4,000 people for my rights,” said Ms. Devi, now 90.

Mr. Jaglan’s dedication to promoting women’s rights began drawing national attention after this. Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned him four separate times in his monthly radio addresses that he sometimes uses to discuss ordinary individuals shaping Indian society.

But Mr. Jaglan says there’s still so much to do, and he pointed to an informal survey he has been conducting over the last three years: He asks prominent Indians — business executives, government officials, professors and police officers — about their family compositions.

Out of around 200 people, he said 95 percent told him they have a “perfect family”: a boy and a girl.

“How is that possible?” Mr. Jaglan said. He said the answer perhaps lies in the more educated and rich knowing how to circumvent Indian laws, or being able to afford to travel abroad, to continue using prenatal sex determination.

Mr. Jaglan said it’s his own two daughters, Nandini, 11, and Yachika, 9, who motivate him to do whatever he can to stamp out female feticide.

“I will not rest until the last culprit is held to account,” he said. “Every day, my two daughters inspire me to keep fighting.”

And he can hear around him a sound tied to his first successful campaign: In his village and many others across Haryana, the birth of girls is now celebrated with the banging of pots and pans by family members, a ritual earlier reserved for the birth of a boy.



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