THE BLOG

WATCH: The Indian Girls Who Refuse to Accept the Stigma Society Places on Them

04/24/2015 03:51 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2015

For most women in India, gender discrimination begins before they're born.

In 2011, a study published in The Lancet found that 12 million Indian baby girls were aborted between 1980 and 2010.

When India's ruling party, the BNP, banned a BBC documentary on the Delhi gang rape from being aired in the country, the rest of the world began to understand why India still has a long way to go in terms of gender equality.

For some teenage girls at The HOPE House, a NGO in the South Indian town of Vellore that's helping children who've lost their parents -- some to AIDS, the cultural prejudice they face is not only based on their gender but also on the families they are born into.

In most Indian societies, a girl's family represents her financial clout, the likelihood of her getting married, her chance to get an education and have a decent future. Within these communities a girl who has lost her parents, or worse still has family that have been affected by AIDS, faces a painful exacerbation of the gender discrimination that's already working against her.

I was pleasantly surprised when I met the The HOPE House girls in 2013, who seemed completely unfazed by society's prejudices against them. There was no trace of self-pity in their voices when they confidently recited their plans to become nurses, accountants and fashion designers.

This year, three of them Gayathri, M. Priya and Sandhya, successfully completed their year 12 exams.

A photo posted by Nitya Rajan (@nityamusic) on

For most of us in the West, an exam is merely an educational passport that moves us from one year of schooling to the next. For M. Priya, who is the first person in her village to complete the year 12 tests, it's a victory for her extended relatives, the village and all the other young women in her community who would've been eagerly waiting to see if she'd beat the odds against her.

Help for young women like Gayathri, M. Priya and Sandhya is not uncommon. There are several charities dedicated to helping young girls and boys, who don't have the support of their families or have lost their parents. Many organisations rely on charitable donations and support from the surrounding communities. Society's charity, however, is often framed by an inexplicable superiority complex.

One of the founders of The Hope House, Mr. Ruby Nakka, told me how a member of the local community once offered to give the organisation's residents a good meal. When the food arrived, however, Nakka learnt that it was leftovers from a function. Nakka sent the food back.

It's this incessant refusal to occupy the seat of a second class citizen that has helped The HOPE House girls overcome the stigma the culture places on them

Nakka said:

When children are from a HIV background, they are treated with very little respect. Their parents sometimes are thrown out of the houses.

Lawfully, they are protected from discrimination but not from subtle intimidation and insults that in itself could have far reaching implications on the well being of a child.

Even educated communities are averse to be associated with HIV affected or infected children.

The Hope House girls are adamant to maintain their rightful place in society. They once told Nakka to stop referring to the house as an orphanage.

When Nakka asked them why, a teenager said: "It constantly reminds me that I have lost my mother and father."

Ever since then, The HOPE House has been called a children's home. And nobody ever calls the girls orphans.