THE BLOG
12/08/2014 05:10 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2015

Laadli and the Vital Importance of Girls in India

India is a country rich in opportunities for growth, but much of its vast potential is linked to the status of the girl child. While many factors will affect India's future economic and social development, few are as important as the promotion of gender equality and the protection of the reproductive health and rights of girls and women. So long as social norms diminish the importance of the girl child, discourage the education of girls, and force girls to marry before reaching adulthood, girls will never realize their full potential. And as long as social norms conspire to deny girls and women in India the ability to space or limit their pregnancies, the economic contribution of girls and women will be limited, and India will be the poorer for it.

Over the past quarter century India has made notable progress in improving standards of living for a rising middle class, but poverty persists. The 2014 Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) gave India a Human Development Index (HDI) score of 0.586, and ranked it 135 out of 187 countries.

Since 1980 India's HDI -- which measures life expectancy, per capita incomes, and schooling -- has risen by over 60 percent, but when it comes to women, India is still an underachiever. The latest Gender Inequality Index published by the United Nations Development Programme, scored India very high for gender inequality, ranking it 127 out of 152 countries. India also performed poorly in the 2014 Global Gender Gap report issued by the World Economic Forum. India ranked 114 out of 142 countries, and while it was given a very high score for political empowerment of women, it received very low scores for economic participation, educational attainment, and female health and survival.

Gender inequality, wherever it exists, is usually rooted in social norms. That applies with special urgency to India, where child marriages remain prevalent in many rural areas and where sexual violence is a country-wide problem. In response to rising domestic and international concern about gender inequality in India, including high-publicized cases of sexual violence and brutality, the Indian government has been taking steps to improve the status of girls and women. For the first time in over four decades, the government last year established a High Level Committee on the Status of Women to examine the status of women and assess the impact of policy and legislation on women's equality.

While new laws may help to bridge the gender gap and criminalize 'honor killings' and marital rape, existing bans on child marriage, pre-natal sex selection tests, and dowries are poorly enforced. Moreover, without changes in social norms and the underlying attitudes and behaviors of boys and men, laws promoting gender inequality and outlawing sexual violence against girls and women will have limited practical effect.

At least one organization, however, is committed to changing the gender norms that are at the heart of gender inequality in India. Seven years ago, Population First, a Mumbai-based organization founded by Bobby Sista, created the Laadli Media Awards for Gender Sensitivity. At first, the awards were only local in nature, but in 2008, with support from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the awards program went national.

Since then five annual awards events have been held. Nearly 500 awards have been presented across 28 States and 6 Union territories of India, covering 13 languages. More than 200 of the most distinguished names in advertising, film and media have judged the awards, and numerous media icons and artists across India have supported the Laadli campaign through sponsorships and free performances.

The Laadli awards recognize and celebrate the efforts of those in media and advertising who highlight pressing gender concerns and promote gender sensitivity. Dr. AL Sharada, who directs the awards program, says that there is a growing willingness to discuss gender issues in the media. In a recent interview, she was quoted as saying, "There is definitely a positive change in the way issues are being covered, with many publications giving more editorial space to articles on gender issues." She was "very pleasantly surprised to find even the most traditional women's magazines weaving in messages about the importance of women having an identity of their own, pursuing their aspirations and negotiating their space in family and society."

Laadli is a term of special endearment meaning 'cherished daughter' in Hindi. With the objective of making the term "Laadli" synonymous with women empowerment and a celebration of womanhood, Population First recently launched a social media campaign titled, "I am Laadli," and has even started using 'flash mobs' to promote the campaign and raise public awareness of gender issues.

Programs, like Laadli, that help to changing gender norms are vital to India's future. Gender inequality, including gender violence, is not just a violation of human rights; it is a denial of human potential, an obstacle to reducing poverty, and an impediment to national economic development.