Dying to Live: Gender Discrimination and Child Mortality in India

Cross posted from UN Women

“He used to beat me up without any reason. It was an everyday affair. I had multiple miscarriages,” recounts Bhuri Bibi with a forlorn look in her eyes. She now works as a casual labourer and lives with her 4-year-old daughter in her maternal village in the Sehore district of the province of Madhya Pradesh, in central India.

“Six years ago, my husband threw me out, as he did not want to stay with me anymore,” she says. “I lost three children. They were stillborn. He accused me of not being able to procreate healthy babies and deserted me.”

The experiences Bhuri Bibi has endured have scarred her and she doesn’t trust easily today. Her life revolves around her daughter, who she says is her sole reason for existence. The little girl clings to her mother without letting go even for a moment.

Bhuri Bibi’s story is not uncommon. According to the 2005-2006 National Family Health Survey, in India, about 37 percent of ever married women had experienced violence at the hands of their spouse.

Domestic violence during pregnancy is a major contributor to child mortality, a predicament Bhuri Bibi is all too familiar with. Research shows that in these instances there is an increased likelihood of premature labour, lower infant birth weight and stillbirths. Millennium Development Goal 4 calls for a reduction in child mortality, aiming to reduce the under-five mortality rate by two-thirds between 1990 and 2015.

To be launched on 10 March 2014, a new UN Women report, Hearts & Minds: Women of India Speak, sheds light on this important issue by sharing the stories of Bhuri Bibi and other women.

Shunned: A mother and daughters struggle to survive

“When he finally abandoned me, I was already expecting again, although I was not aware of it then. I was staying at my mother’s home when my daughter was born and this time the baby survived, maybe because I was not beaten and tortured during pregnancy,” Bhuri Bibi reflects, in the report.

Although her husband and family shunned her and her newborn daughter, she was able to find the support and care she so desperately needed in her mother. But just as she thought her life was finally turning around, her mother passed away, leaving Bhuri Bibi to live in a house with her brothers. They tried to force her to leave by inflicting more violence upon her. After her persistent refusal to leave the house, the brothers agreed to give Bhuri Bibi and her daughter a small space in the home.

“I take my daughter with me wherever I go, as I don’t trust anyone… I’ll never let her out of my sight,” she says. “I really hope that I get money to build a small dwelling for her and myself to live peacefully.”

As victims of domestic violence, Bhuri Bibi and her daughter are now particularly vulnerable to economic and employment-related disadvantages. Their future is unclear, but Bhuri Bibi’s maternal protective instinct will go far. Her experiences with domestic violence and its impact on child mortality have hit her hard, but she still believes in a happy future for her and her daughter one day.

Reducing child mortality in India

India has a Gender Inequality Index ranking of 132 out of 148 countries in 2013, according to UNDP’s Human Development Report. Its child sex ratio (the number of females per thousand males from 0 to 6 years of age) has declined rapidly in recent years – meaning fewer girls are being born. According to the 2011 Census, from 927 girls for every 1000 boys in 2001, the ratio has dropped to 919 girls in 2011.

In India, as well as in several other countries of Asia, female infanticide and son preference based on deeply rooted patriarchal cultural and religious beliefs has been pervasive for centuries. According to a study conducted by the International Centre for Research on Women and UNFPA’s Asia Pacific Regional Office, “women experience intense societal and familial pressure to produce a son and failure to do so often carries the threat and consequences of violence or abandonment in their marriage.” The study says the advent of prenatal diagnostic technology since the mid-eighties has also made it easier to practice pre-natal sex selection and subsequent sex-selective abortions.

“In India, UN Women tackles domestic violence and son preference by working with elected women representatives and other women in villages across five states. We encourage them to speak of their concerns and increase their participation in local decision-making through panchayats (village councils) and gram sabhas (public village meetings),” says Rebecca Reichmann Tavares, Representative of UN Women’s Office for India, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka.

Between 2011-2013, UN Women trained 800 female motivators to encourage other women to participate in special meetings meant only for women or mahila sabhas, where they spoke about domestic violence as well as other social issues such as alcoholism, dowries sex selection and child marriage. Over the same period, 6 million women participated in 1,172 Gram Sabhas, 5,163 ward sabhas and 3,179 mahila sabhas (women’s meetings at different local levels).

Photo: Bhuri Bibi and her son. Credit: UN Women/Swapna Bist-Joshi


Jerome S
Jerome S10 months ago


Jim V
Jim Ven10 months ago

thanks for sharing.

Nils Anders Lunde
PlsNoMessage se4 years ago


Gina H.
Gina H4 years ago

I agree with Marilyn L. that India does not deserve being seen as part of the free world. The only free people in India are male and born to the proper caste system. What a farce! Let all of the men that think women are nothing more than a sperm bank and punching bag become extinct. Only then will India make progress towards being a free country. The US really isn't much better with the GOP and tea baggers trying to instill xtian patriarchy however.

Jelena Radovanovic
Past Member 4 years ago

Thank you

A F.
Athena F4 years ago

thank you

Marilyn L.
Marilyn L4 years ago

The respect and recognition giving India as being part of the free world is shameful. They do not deserve that recognition and respect because they still have a cast system although they continue to say they don't; they don't treat their women and girls any better than the Taliban and the rights of men far outweigh any meager rights the women and girls have. We should be demanding more from India but instead we give preference to Indians when it comes to green cards and citizenship; and we send way too many of our jobs to their citizens; and please remember many of those who labor in those jobs and many no more than slave factories are women; they don't get the management jobs.

I think we should boycott India and other countries that have these archaic religious beliefs and/or cultural beliefs that deprive people of their human rights and dignity. Let’s get serious about making women and girls’ lives and human rights for everyone better throughout the world; let’s stop our own greed that motivates us to do otherwise and let’s but these countries’ leaders on notice; no more business, no more assistance, no more imports or exports to/from the USA and no more green cards, in fact, we will halt all entry to the USA from these countries except for the abused.

Natasha Salgado
Past Member 4 years ago

A pity we can't transport every woman child from these countries.

Rhonda Bird
Rhonda B4 years ago


Peggy A.
Peggy A4 years ago