I am an Indian woman born into a middle-class family in the bustling city of Mumbai, Maharashtra. Mumbai, the financial capital of India, is one of the most developed metropolitan cities in the country. Like numerous families in the city, my family had a moderate standard of living. We had access to fundamental amenities like adequate housing, education, healthcare, and transportation. In India there is a strange duality, women are often revered as goddesses and held in high regard while at the same time subjected to heinous acts such as infanticide, abandonment, and neglect. While the Indian government has implemented laws to combat female foeticide and launched campaigns like “Save the Girl Child,” daughters continue to be seen as a burden in many families. The birth of a boy is celebrated with pride and joy, resonating throughout the village; while the birth of a girl is met with shame and sorrow. Girls face struggles right from birth at times even before, their mental and emotional struggles often go unnoticed and unaddressed. The birth of a girl child is often viewed as an unwelcome and burdensome financial responsibility that lasts a lifetime.
I am an “unwanted daughter” of one such Indian family. Even before my birth, my father held deep-seated prejudices against the idea of having a girl. Through conversations with my mother much later in life I got to know that my mother struggled through her pregnancy. Throughout her pregnancy, she endured daily arguments and domestic violence at home. My father, who consumed alcohol regularly, would physically, sexually & emotionally abuse my mother. During one of their arguments when she was seven months pregnant, she fell down, adding to an already precarious situation. Moreover, my mother was deprived of proper nutrition owing to the tense environment. Much later when I began to ask questions my mother, aunt and relatives told me that, when I was born, my father never bothered to visit or acknowledge my existence. Have you ever wondered what it feels like to be a child who is not welcome or celebrated? Now, imagine the implications of growing up in an environment where your birth itself is met with disappointment and disdain. The very foundation of your existence is questioned, leaving you to wonder about your place in the world and your worth as a human being. The lack of acceptance and love from those closest to you creates an internal battle that is often invisible to others.
I was raised in my aunt’s house, amidst a family that was not my own. My childhood was marred by constant confusion. Who were my real parents? Are my parents still alive or not? Why wasn’t I with them? Where was my rightful home? How long would I stay in this state of limbo? Nobody could provide satisfactory answers to my questions; instead, my family opted to avoid discussing the matter altogether. My aunt’s children had a rightful place in a loving home and family, I yearned for that same sense of belonging. Sometimes my parents teased me saying, “You were picked up and brought home from the garbage dump…hahahaha.” (“Tula Kachryachya Dabbyatun Uchlun Anli Ahe. Haha hahahaha…”) At school, I often felt that other children had stable homes and a supportive family, except for me. My parents believed that by keeping me away or hiding me, the situation would somehow resolve itself. However, this confusion only bred negative thoughts that plagued my young mind. The avoidance gave rise to various feelings and thoughts of inadequacy, self-doubt, and a sense of being unwanted or unimportant. I often questioned my worth and wondered why my presence seemed to be a burden or something to be avoided. These thoughts created a constant internal struggle which in turn affected my sense of self.
The plight of unwanted daughters in India goes beyond societal exclusion and familial neglect, extending to a silent psychological toll. From birth, these girls face rejection and marginalization, which breeds a deep sense of unworthiness and a distorted self-perception. Their internal struggles often remain hidden, perpetuated by societal silence surrounding mental health. The long-term effects are profound, manifesting as low self-esteem, emotional distress, and difficulty forming healthy relationships. My story is an attempt to unmask and acknowledge the psychological toll this takes. I want to emphasise the need to provide essential mental health support for girls to heal and flourish. And to foster a culture of acceptance and empowerment.
Nobody noticed the toll it was taking on my body and mind. At the tender age of nine, I began experiencing seizures, accompanied by a loss of appetite and sleep. My physical health deteriorated with each passing day. Once or twice a month, my parents would visit me at my aunt’s house. At the time, I was not aware that they were my parents. They would come as guests, meeting me for half an hour. I thought of them as visitors, never realizing they were my parents. By the time I turned eleven, a psychiatrist prescribed medication for the seizures. The medication induced sleep and heightened my anxiety. I was restless, I had difficulty concentrating, I became easily irritable and fearful of the dark. I withdrew from interacting with relatives and friends. I sought solace in solitude, yet my mental health showed no signs of improvement. For the next ten years, I endured the same ineffective treatment method. The seizures stopped but I had been to multiple doctors by then. It is disheartening to note that the l turmoil I endured went unnoticed. Society failed to recognize the profound impact it had on my overall being. As a result, my body and mind bore the brunt of these struggles, deeply affecting me at such a young age.
Due to illness and medication, I experienced both physical and mental distress. The distress increased significantly when I became an adolescent. At the age of 13, I was sexually abused by my cousin brother. Prior to that, I had stopped socializing and had withdrawn myself, but after this incident, I started to feel unsafe at home. That same year, I lost my mother to blood cancer. Surprisingly, I did not shed a tear. I lacked that profound sense of motherly love that I yearned for. Shortly after, my grandmother and aunt also succumbed to blood cancer. Since then, I began to experience sleep disturbances. At night I found myself unable to move, trapped within the confines of my own body. My muscles rendered immobile by an invisible force, leaving me in a state of paralysis. Despite my eyes being open, my body remained frozen. Overwhelmed by panic, I struggled to comprehend the bewildering predicament that enveloped me. The loss of the three women in my life made me feel alone. Trusting people became very difficult. All of this had an impact on my academic performance. I had difficulty concentrating in school, and I failed in my school tutorials. I even contemplated suicide several times during my childhood. One day I tried to jump from the balcony. These thoughts led me to a state of depression. I couldn’t form friendships easily because I felt too scared of getting close to anyone. Even simple gestures like a friendly touch or a comforting hand on my shoulder made me uncomfortable.
During my darkest moments, I was consumed by a profound lack of emotion, support, and care. I repeatedly harmed my body with blades and even overdosed on psychiatric medication. Desperate for a lifeline, while in college I attended a captivating lecture on psychology, which sparked a deep fascination within me. The lecture covered various topics such as the connection between physical and mental health, different aspects of human psychology, and the concept of self. It explored the nature of emotions and their role in human experience. It was through the compassionate guidance of my professors that I entered counseling. And gradually my reliance on allopathic and psychiatric medications diminished.
As I embarked on my journey of healing, I actively engaged in small group activities within my college community. I formed meaningful connections with two boys and three girls, and their friendship became instrumental in restoring my shattered self-confidence. Through trust, support, and acceptance, we built a bond that helped me rediscover my worth. They believed in me, celebrated my successes, and encouraged me during challenging times. These relationships played a pivotal role in rebuilding my self-confidence and shaping my journey towards personal growth. Moreover, my newfound awareness of the prevalence of domestic violence, which had previously eluded my attention, deepened my understanding of the crucial role played by family care and attachment.
The long-lasting psychological effects of my experience cannot be overlooked. The constant feelings of fear, isolation, and uncertainty took a significant toll on my health. Neglect and lack of support perpetuated a sense of worthlessness and despair, leading to experiences of anxiety. These psychological wounds became deeply ingrained, shaping my perception of myself and impacting my ability to form healthy relationships. The significance of addressing the psycho-social aspects of such experiences cannot be emphasized enough. It is essential for society to recognize the psychological well-being of individuals, especially children who endure similar circumstances. Early intervention, therapy, and support networks can play a pivotal role in mitigating the long-term psychological consequences and promoting resilience.
My journey serves as a reminder that psychological healing and support are crucial alongside addressing the socio-cultural factors that contribute to these hardships. It is vital to create a society where the mental and emotional well-being of all individuals, irrespective of their gender, is valued and prioritized. The more I delved into the subject, the more I recognized the disheartening reality of gender discrimination and the significance of legislation combating domestic abuse. This realization compelled me to become an advocate for women’s rights and a staunch opponent of domestic violence. Upon completing my post-graduation, I made a resolute decision to dedicate my career to empowering oppressed women.
Through my own experience and my work with women and survivors of abuse, I recognize the pivotal role of social support and counselling. The absence of such support perpetuates cycles of violence and hinders the healing process. I believe there is a need to address the broader social causes that perpetuate violence and hinder support for survivors. With a deep sense of responsibility towards my community, I take it upon myself to raise awareness and foster support on this pressing issue.
In conclusion, it is imperative that we shed light on the silent psychological toll endured by unwanted daughters in India. By acknowledging the existence of such experiences, we can break the cycle of rejection and empower women to embrace their inherent worth. Only then can we truly create a future for unwanted daughters.
Anjali Pravin is a social worker living in India. She has a passion for social justice and a commitment to work towards a more equitable and compassionate society. Anjali has worked as a Legal Fellow as part of the Fair Trial Fellowship programme of Project39A under the National Law University Delhi. Through the project she worked on cases of undertrial prisoners with a focus on ensuring fair trials and access to justice for all. At present she works as a data analyst in the criminal justice system and on mental health research projects. In her role she uses her analytical skills to gather and interpret data to help inform policies and interventions that promote fairness, justice and improved mental health outcomes.