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  • Robert Benson

How A Single Conversation May Save Girls' Lives

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

A girl born with a cleft lip in India ... a common birth defect that often leads to tragic consequences. (photo from Smile Train India)

In January of this year, I traveled to India with one of my board members, Dr. Joya Chatterjee, to visit potential partner organizations in Kolkata. We were laying the foundation for our current Love Forward program, which provides girls aging out of orphanages the opportunity to attend a local college and pursue a higher education. During our trip, we spent a day with a craniofacial surgeon, who took us to an educational center in a village near Kolkata.

Two days ago, Joya and I gave a presentation at my law offices in Irvine, California, on the subject of understanding cultural gender bias, using India as an example, and the gender inequalities that can result. We then facilitated a discussion of ways that we can become more aware of and mitigate our personal gender bias while also working cross-culturally to reduce gender inequalities through the empowerment of individual women. The seminar was part of an annual event at Orrick called DIVE/IN, designed to promote conversations and awareness around issues of diversity and inclusion.

A few weeks prior to our lunchtime DIVEN/IN presentation, Joya spoke with her surgeon friend in Kolkata shared with him the presentation we were working on about cultural gender bias and our recent success helping girls leaving the Refuge orphanage gain admission into local colleges through Love Forward.

The surgeon shared with Joya that he does about 50-70 surgeries a year to fix cleft palates for very young children. According to his recollection, he thought about 30% were girls and about 70% boys, but he decided to check his actual logs and review the data.

Earlier today, the surgeon called Joya and asked how our DIVE/IN presentation went. Then he shared what he had learned: after studying his records, he discovered that over the past 10 years or so, he had performed cleft surgeries on more than 500 boys …

And only one girl.

He was shocked. He knew there was a skew, but he had never realized the magnitude of it.

So last week, he went back to some of the villages that referred the children, and asked, “Why aren’t you referring any of the girls?” They told him that when the girls are born with such defects, they typically let them die as infants or abandon them.

I did a bit of research, and sadly, I found many articles corroborating this phenomenon. There is a significant gender skew in India - about 108 males for every 100 females - which is rooted in various forms of cultural gender bias. Allowing girls with birth defects to die is simply one of many manifestations of this bias.

Our surgeon friend has decided to begin telling the village elders that he has a new requirement for performing the reconstructive surgeries: they need to refer both boys and girls. Our hope is that a greater number of girls will be referred for the surgeries, and that some girls’ lives will be saved as a result.

We never know the impact that just one conversation might have.

That is why we need to have the conversations.

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