Marginal Girlhood: Caste, Girl Child and the Trope of Empowerment

In the wake of the reported rape and murder of a 9-year-old Dalit girl in the metropolitan capital of Delhi, it is paramount to discuss marginal girlhood. Marginal girlhood refers to alternative accounts of non-hegemonic girlhood which does not find a voice in mainstream literature and the story of the girl. Commentators on social media conveniently refer to her being a “girl-child” rather than a Dalit to dismiss the specificity of instances of caste violence against Dalit girls. This pushes the public rhetoric into a pitfall which increases the probability of misidentifying caste-based violence as gender-based violence. The fact that Dalit girls are the most vulnerable among an already marginalised group due to their caste location remains incontrovertible. The Brahminical lineage of the history of the girl child alludes to why we are robbed of a language which can effectively capture the gravitas of this case. 

The term “girl-child” has been invoked in policy discourses of the developing world since the 1990s to draw attention to a range of matters concerning girls (Croll 2006). At the international level, its institutionalisation can be dated to the Fourth World Conference on Women, 1995 at Beijing where, for the first time, girls’ issues found an independent space of their own. E J Croll (2006: 1286) enumerates a few policy objectives for the girl-child outlined at the Beijing Conference: “... eliminating all forms of discrimination against girls in education, health care, and cultural practices; protecting girls from exploitation and violence; and encouraging all forms of girls' participation in social, economic and political life.” Regionally, in the late 1980s, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) had hailed the 1990s as the “Decade of the Girl Child.” As a result, the Government of India’s Ministry of Women and Child Development sanctioned a project titled “The Girl Child and the Family Environment,” to 22 women studies’ centres across India (Croll 2006).

“The Girl Child and the Family Environment” project set a precedent for tracing the evolution of the girl-child in post-independent India. Bagchi et al’s (1997) classic, “Loved and Unloved: The Girl Child in the Family” is a text, based on the study conducted by the School of Women’s Studies, Jadavpur University—one of the 22 centres to which the project was sanctioned. A close reading of the text does not only reveal the genealogical roots of the girl child but also its historically Brahminical lineage. While grappling with the category of the girl child, Bagchi et al (1997) analyse the plight of the upper-caste, middle-class Bengali girl child. They delineate the constitution of the 19th-century Bengali girl child, a child bride/widow. The use of Brahminical metaphors to construct and represent the Bengali girl child is not a matter of chance or accident. They write,

“... the Bengali girl child is perpetuated in the endless songs about Durga (alias Uma alias Parvati), visiting her natal home for the three days of her autumnal worship … Her daily life was one long regulation to keep the Goddess Lakshmi appeased and to thwart the machinations of Alakshmi (the antonym of Lakshmi). On the fragile shoulder of the girl child lay the burden of keeping the patriarchal structure of the caste Hindu family’s gateway to bliss. ‘Shishu-kanya’—‘Girl Child’—has occupied a major space in the emerging middle class[Bhadralok] consciousness of Bengal.” (Bagchi et al 1997: 3–4)

Therefore, as Bagchi et al (1997) ponder, “Was it [girl child] just an empty bureaucratic category dished out by the United Nations for organizing the so-called 'development' funds?” in light of the previous paragraph, one realises that far from being a derivative of the recent international developmental discourse on girls, the girl child is an inherently caste-specific concept deeply linked to 19th-century social reformism (Bagchi et al 1997: 3). This argument is further bolstered by the fact that Raja Ram Mohan Roy along with Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, ardent supporters of the abolition of sati, widow remarriage, and education for women, cited the shastras and invoked Manu’s authority to preach for their cause (Bagchi et al 1997). The figure of the girl child is reflective of a colonial-bureaucratic logic of conforming to the diktats of Brahmin priests to prevent a religious backlash and a revivalist-nationalist uprising against the British (Bagchi et al 1997; Ghosh 2014).

Ghosh (2014) writes about the colonial fixation with defining the age of consent, consummation, and maturity for girls. The term “minor” was intensely debated and as Ghosh (2014) suggests, “By specifically defining the term ‘minor,’ the government was cocooning the child-bride” (Ghosh 2014: 85). The colonial legislation of this period, to curb marital rape by raising the age of the majority, embodies the girl figure of this period. The use of “girl-child” for the 19th-century girl bride/widow should be contested, as at this stage, she is in the process of “becoming” a child and is not entitled to the full protection of the state in this regard. Unlike the 19th-century child bride/widow, the girl child of the 21st century is a full-fledged modern state subject endowed with educational rights and figuratively suspended in a web of legal protections. Thus, the subjectivity of the 19th-century girl child was in the process of “becoming”; whereas the girl child of the 1990s is an interpellation of multiple discursive strands of girl power, girl rights, etc (Lal 2013). 

How Empowering Is Empowerment?

The mere incantation of “girl-child” in public discourse is a reference to a girl figure that has been successfully wrested from the clutches of tradition, family, and history. The girl-child is misleadingly imagined to be a formerly oppressed group which, through timely intervention by the state, has been emancipated. This becomes evident when one looks at the story of Malala Yousafzai—the manner in which she was elevated and appropriated by Western media. In 2012, Yousafzai’s tale of bravery, in the face of Talibani censure of her activism for girl-education, captured the attention of the Western world. In an instant, she emerged as a third-world girl-icon and became a recipient of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize. A new-found fascination with issues pertaining to girl empowerment dominated the political centre-stage from this point onwards (Walters 2017). R Walters (2017), in her scathing criticism of international developmental discourse, interrogates the presumption of vulnerability and victimhood on the part of Muslim girls in developing countries. According to her, contemporary narratives around the girl produce tropes which are conveniently used by the West to present itself as the saviour of girls from the wretched backwardness of the developing countries. The thrust on girl education and its presentation in national and international policy discussions as a solution to all “girl” problems—early marriage, femicide, human trafficking, violence, healthcare and menstrual hygiene, patriarchal socialisation within the family, etc, is one such trope.


Sarada Balagopalan (2010), in her discursive critique of the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya (KGBV) programme under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), discusses how girls from marginal communities in these residential schools are expected to learn to make papads, pickle, sanitary napkins, learn embroidery, tailoring and self-defence as part of their curriculum called “life skills.” The KGBV separated girl students from their families and community based on the notion that they are inherently regressive (Balagopalan 2010). Since the girls would reside within the school premises, they would be away from their families and therefore insulated from the social pressures of early marriage (Balagopalan 2010). It was believed that residential schooling would automatically solve the problem of travelling long distances from home to school, low enrolment and attendance, and also ensure the safety of the girls (Balagopalan 2010). A close reading of the programme reveals how the state, through idioms of empowerment and progress, hides its patriarchal leanings and absolves itself from the responsibility of social transformation (Balagopalan 2010). She draws attention to the “increased surveillance of marginal girls” by the state, as girls’ educational status becomes an indicator of national development―the school space is misleadingly imagined to sever girls from their family’s poverty/tradition/gendered social expectation (Balagopalan 2010). Education for girls is used as a trope to shift one’s gaze from the aforementioned problems.

The Girl Child: Active or Passive?

Croll (2006) postulates that state policies which function within the rubric of the girl child deny agency to girls and should therefore be replaced with a girl-rights centric framework. According to her, the “girl-child” perpetuates the notion of girls as victims, particularly for girls from non-hegemonic communities in the global South. For her, the framework of girl-child is not in alignment with the general trend around the world, which is inclined towards a language of rights (Croll 2006). The use of “girl child” strips girls of all opportunities to lay claim to being agential. In other words, she visualises the discourse around girl-child (girls as victims) as contrary to girl-rights (girls as empowered).

However, in disagreement with her argument, this article suggests that the girl-child as a category of analysis, should be dynamic and devoid of such dichotomisation. The girl-child is situated at the heart of all discussions pertaining to legal protections and rights of girls within South Asia. The discourse on girls often oscillates between two poles―the first kind of narrative shows how girls are victims of multiple intersecting structures of power (Dube 1998; Kumar 2010); whereas, the second kind of narrative focuses immensely on girls’ miscellaneous resistances to show how they are not “docile” or victims (Bhandari 2014; Ray 1988). The narrative of girls as victims can downplay girls’ agential action to bring about social transformation. Whereas, the narrative of “girl power” runs the risk of making invisible their continuing sexual, political and socio-economic vulnerability and marginalisation (Gonick et al 2009). How does one narrate the story of girls to highlight both their vulnerabilities as well as their resistances? It is important that contemporary research does not rush to claim that girls in India are either victims or empowered because such a narrative would be exclusive of the presence of marginal girlhoods and diverse contexts girls in India come from.

Marginal Girlhood: The Intersection of Girlhood with Caste

Marginal girlhood refers to alternative accounts of girlhood which do not find a voice in mainstream literature and the story of the girl. The story of the radical 14-year-old Mukta Salve, one of the first Dalit women/girl writers, is the story of a girlhood marginal to the dominant discourse (Paik 2016). Muktabai was one of the first girls to receive an education under the Phule’s in 1850’s Pune (Javalgekar 2017; Paik 2016). She is known for her 1855 essay titled “Mang Maharachya Dukhvisayi” (The Grief of Mahars and Mangs) (Javalgekar 2017; Paik 2016). The citation of Salve in a narrative of Dalit girlhood is quintessential to highlight the “technologies of the self” deployed by Dalit girls and women in the negotiation of their subjectivities (Paik 2016). As Paik (2016) asserts, “ordinary Dalit women sought to rearrange the shifting social and political conditions to reform their subjectivities, develop dignity, make choices within constraints, and transform themselves …” (Paik 2016: 15). It is important to understand the subversive character of Salve’s writing, its intricate weaving of the personal with the political, and the potential it presents of a radical break from existing conceptions of the girl-child.

In the wake of the reported rape and murder of a 9-year-old Dalit girl in south-west Delhi, the urgency of the hour eggs one to understand: (1) How is the girl-child conceptualised to exclude Dalit girlhood? and (2) Why is the narrative woven by the discourse on girl-child detrimental to the safety of Dalit girls? Contemporary literature in the field of girl studies wholly neglects the intersection of girlhood with caste which makes theorisation challenging. The two proposed questions should become the igniter of a more meaningful and politically empathetic discussion on the lives of Dalit girls. The reportage of the crime demonstrates sheer intransigence to acknowledge the fact that the girl victim’s caste background made her a target of gendered violence. Commentators on social media conveniently refer to her being a “girl-child” rather than a Dalit to dismiss the specificity of instances of caste violence against Dalit girls. This pushes public rhetoric into a pitfall which increases the probability of misidentifying caste-based violence as gender-based violence. Caste-based violence against Dalit girls manifests itself in gendered forms (caste rapes); the fact that Dalit girls are most vulnerable among an already marginalised group due to their caste location remains incontrovertible.

The constitution of the girl-child, as previously discussed, alludes to why we are robbed of a language which can effectively capture the gravitas of this case. The Brahminical underpinnings of the genealogy of the girl-child present her (as in the Bhadralok imagination) as Khukurani (term of endearment for Bengali  middle-class girls), who is on the path of growing up to become a Bhadramahila. Away from the drudgeries and degeneracy of the “common woman”―lower-caste/class women, “prostitutes,” “maid-servants,” the Bhadramahila was hailed as the “New Woman” by the emerging upper-caste middle classes of the 19th century (Chatterjee 1989). The genealogy of the girl-child is rooted in the history of the upper-caste girl bride and therefore is exclusive of the experiences of Dalit girlhood. One would have to radically challenge the manner in which the girl-child has been envisaged in public rhetoric and policy statements for it to become a more dynamic and inclusive entity.

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