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Riya is Gone

Riya Is Gone - Born August 7, 2015 - Died August 24, 2016

In the Hindu religion there are numerous goddesses. In the slum community, Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth, fortune and prosperity), and Durga (the goddess of divine female energy and power) are worshipped with intense devotion. Diyas filled with ghee light up the night; there is ritual chanting, pujas and days of fasting followed by a feast. In India, numerous goddesses are revered, but the girl child, especially in a slum community, is an economic burden starting in the womb. According to a study by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2012), India is the worst country in the world to be born a girl. In a giant acknowledgement to the problem of female foeticide, deliberate neglect, abandonment and murder of the girl child, there are billboards and bus advertisements in Mumbai and throughout India, with the message “Save the Girl Child” written large on shiny vinyl signage. It doesn’t matter what the message says, illiterate slum dwellers can’t read it. They live on the margins of society where this kind of rhetoric never filters down to them.

Riya at 2 months old.

The girl child continues to be seen as an economic burden because they are born into a families rooted in tradition based on a strict patriarchal society. Female foeticide doesn’t only happen in the slum communities as many women in every caste and class are encouraged by their husbands, their in-laws, and society to rid themselves of a pregnancy if the foetus is a girl. Sex selection via ultrasound scan is available to those who can afford the fees, (illegal in Maharashtra, but performed in many clinics) saving thousands of rupees that it would cost to raise a girl child and removing the burden of paying a hefty dowry when she married - taking family wealth with her. The Minister of Women and Child Development (Maneka Gandhi) recently announced that two thousand girls are killed in India every day, either in the womb or after birth. Ultrasound scans are too costly for slum dwellers, who instead, when they give birth to an unwanted girl, might choose to neglect her or find a way to end her life soon after birth.

Riya, the second daughter born to her impoverished parents, lived to her first birthday on August 7 and died from severe malnutrition and neglect seventeen days later on the floor of the slum home she shares with her father, her eighteen-year-old step-mother and her three older siblings. She never had a chance; her odds of survival were dismal from the moment she was born a girl to a despondent, abused mother, who, at seven months pregnant with Riya took poison and pills to kill herself. She succeeded and died a few days after Riya was born weighing barely two and a half pounds. (See DWP blog post - Expecting Nothing - Riya’s tiny life, April 26, 2016)

Riya has two older brothers who are doted on as much as poverty will allow. Her two-year-old sister, Siya, while reasonably healthy so far, suffers emotional neglect. She is skittish, fearful and cries most of the time. Riya’s father had no intention of allowing Riya to live and was spiteful of our trips with Riya to the Foundation for Mother and Child Clinic. Like many of the poor in India, he chose to allow her to die a slow and painful death full of unreasonable suffering to relieve himself of the burdens she placed on him by being born a girl child. No police will come calling regarding her death, no coroner will attend, no family member will object and the community will mind their business and look the other way.

Karishma, 14 years old.

A week before Riya’s death, on the occasion of her first birthday, twelve-year-old Karishma, who attempted to nurture Riya by carrying her around with her, brought her to the tuition hut so I could see her during our weekly Skype meeting. I last held Riya months ago as a premature, bird-like infant weighing barely two pounds, when we took her to a clinic for weekly visits until her father put a stop to it and gave her to a relative who lived miles from the community. Indu and I continued to ask her father to bring Riya back to the community so we could continue to pay for milk supplements and take her to the clinic. He always managed a quick smile, an ingratiating nod, and left us holding hope that he would bring her back. A few months after I left India to come back to Canada, Indu was excited to tell me that Riya was back in the community, but her father had married an eighteen-year-old girl who was now the overwhelmed step-mother in charge of his children. A few weeks ago, as I gazed at the computer screen at one-year-old Riya sitting on Karishma’s lap, I was not astonished to see that she was obviously malnourished. She whimpered, and despite Karishma’s attempts at mothering her, she seemed detached, her eyes vacant and staring as inhuman as a plastic doll. Indu held her aloft, pointing out her scrawny, pencil-thin arms and legs, her curved back, her oversized head and her inability to straighten her legs which were frozen in a sitting position. Indu reminded me that she was not allowed to interfere with Riya’s care and there was nothing she could do. Days later, I received a text message in the middle of the night from Indu: “Riya is gone”. Karishma had entered Riya’s hut to find her on the floor; cold, slightly blue and obviously struggling to breath. The young step-mother stood over Riya watching her obvious struggle to live and physically held Karishma so she couldn’t run for help. When Karishma’s mother came looking for her an hour later, Karishma managed to leave and run a few laneways away to tell Indu to come and help Riya. Indu and Karishma arrived a few minutes later to find Riya had passed away, her stoic step-mother still standing over her. A few hours later, Riya was wrapped in a white cloth and carried out of the community by her father, buried in the mud somewhere, now forgotten, like a small bag of rubbish removed from his hut.

Indu holding 2 month old Riya.

We deeply mourn for Riya and all the children in India (and other countries) who are born female into societies that don’t value their gender despite honouring and worshipping many female goddesses. In honour of Riya and all the neglected, abandoned, murdered and aborted females, we will soon be back in Mumbai, kicking up dust on our walk to the schools to pay fees for girls who deserve to be educated, who deserve to play a bigger part in the world, who deserve to live a life with a strong voice that will be heard, because it’s the only way forward. We will continue to support the parents who believe their girl child is worth educating, worth feeding and worth keeping.

Beti Padhao, Beti Bachao (Educate the Girl Child, Save the Girl Child) - a scheme of the Indian Government and a small step in the right direction.

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