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 Table of Contents    
Year : 2015  |  Volume : 57  |  Issue : 6  |  Page : 212-215
The Indian "girl" psychology: A perspective

Asha Hospital, Hyderabad, Telangana, India

Click here for correspondence address and email

Date of Web Publication27-Jul-2015


India has one of the fastest growing youth populations in the world. Girls below 19 years of age comprise one-quarter of India's rapidly growing population. In spite of India's reputation for respecting women, to an extent to treat her as a goddess, the moment a baby is born, the first thing comes to mind is "boy or girl?" as the differences are beyond just being biological. This article examines the significance of various psychological constructs and psychosocial issues that are important in the life of a "girl" baby born in our country.

Keywords: Discrimination, gender, girl, psychology

How to cite this article:
Rao G P, Vidya K L, Sriramya V. The Indian "girl" psychology: A perspective. Indian J Psychiatry 2015;57, Suppl S2:212-5

How to cite this URL:
Rao G P, Vidya K L, Sriramya V. The Indian "girl" psychology: A perspective. Indian J Psychiatry [serial online] 2015 [cited 2020 Apr 9];57, Suppl S2:212-5. Available from:

   Introduction Top

"The hand that rocks the cradle, the procreator, the mother of tomorrow; a woman shapes the destiny of civilization…the little girl of today."

Gender seems to be one of the most dominant variables that influence human development from conception to death, particularly in Indian society. Apart from class, race, age, religion, and ethnicity, gender is another vital dimension of social stratification, putting the female at a level of disadvantage; though the scenario is changing at least in urban habitat. The Government of India has taken several legislative measures relating to issues from female foeticide, practice of child marriage, widow re-marriage to women's right to property etc., which have impacted the Indian family system and society in many ways. The twenty-first century witnessed huge changes in the Indian way of life under the influence of modernization, westernization, industrialization, technical advancement, and population mobility across the globe. [1] However, the moment a baby is born the first thing that comes to mind is "boy or girl?" and the issue is beyond just the biological one.

   Historical Background Top

In spite of India's reputation for respecting women, to an extent to treating woman as a goddess, history tells us that women were ill-treated or neglected in various spheres of life across religions, regions, and communities. Except for a few revolutionary movements, the situation remained more or less the same in the ancient, medieval, and early modern times. Women are seen as nurturers and the providers of emotional caretaking, while men are considered providers of economic support. As a girl develops, unknowingly, the lines of Manu-Smriti, "by a young girl, by a young woman, or even by an aged one, nothing must be done independent, even in her own house," gets incorporated in her mind. Girls inherit their mother's domestic chores and adopt stereotypical gender roles. Low self-esteem and self-worth are common. After marriage, her husband and in-laws control her life. Consequently, the girls enter a state of silence. [2]

The practice of "sati" or "widow immolation" and young widowhood were the rule once, but vanished gradually because of the constant efforts and movements by a few pro female leaders. However, discrimination of a girl child, child marriage, dowry system, etc., continued to exist even after independence. The Government of India has been intervening and introducing laws to combat these issues.

   Current Indian Scenario Top

India is a country of demographic diversity. There exist differences in the lifestyles of people of different regions, communities, cultural backgrounds, urban-rural habitats, etc. Similarly, the psychological development of a child differs in various contexts. The male: female ratio as per census 2011 [3] is 933:1000, which is alarming. Given the biological norm of 100 newborn girls to every 103 newborn boys, millions more women should be living among us. If they are not, if they are "missing," it means either they have been killed or have died through neglect and mistreatment. In India, the birth of a boy is a time for celebration, while the birth of a girl - especially a second or subsequent daughter - is often perceived as a crisis. [4] Three-quarters of the population of India still resides in rural areas where the problems related to girl child are predominant. Contrary to this, female foeticide seems to be more in urban areas owing to the technical advances. Despite the hue and cry about women liberation, the 2011 census gives the shocking sex ratio of 900:1000 [3] among urban population showing the ground reality.

Female foeticide and Infanticide

The four-fold system of "purusharthas," which outlines an ideal Hindu life cycle, is directed toward the goal of attaining "moksha." This form of salvation or perfection could be achieved through sons, who after lighting the funeral pyre can offer ancestor-worship. Women are not considered suitable for acquiring the knowledge or religious training. They are therefore expected to lead a life of devoted subjugation, so that they may be reborn as a man in the next life and thus be gifted with religious privileges. In other religions like Islam or Christians too the status of females is no better. [5] Even before the commencement of pregnancy, expectation of a male child builds up. [5] Though matriarchal families exist in some parts of the country, they are rare. Even in matriarchal families, the functional head of the family remains the elderly male. [5] Dowry system is prevailing to the extent that birth of a baby girl is considered a huge burden to the family in certain communities. Further, the female is not considered a successor as she would move on to another family. Laws combating these concerns remain on papers alone. Regardless of existing stringent laws against fetal sex determination and gender specific foeticide, the state of affairs is completely different. [5] Illegal abortions are overpowering. [5] An additional threat that causes serious concern is the development of new preselection techniques, such as, electrophoresis, Ericsson's method etc., which involve prior manipulation of the sex of the child. What will be the future of the female race is an unanswerable question. [5]

In the less privileged rural population, where fetal sex determination is still not popular, brutal acts of infanticide take place. Authentic data on the same is not available as they happen in the dark. Sacrificing a girl child in the name of cultural belief is also reported. [1] Prevalence of female infanticide in the postindependence era has been reported from Rajasthan, Bihar, Orissa, Maharashtra, and Madurai district of Tamil Nadu. According to Athreya and Chunkath, [1] there is a "female infanticide belt" that starts from Madurai, extends across the districts of Dindigul, Karur, Erode, Salem, Dharmapuri to North Arcot districts of Tamil Nadu state. Thus, the fact is that the right to be born and right to live is being denied to the girl child.

   Gender Role Development Top

Although true sex differences are far less apparent in childhood, gender differentiation seems to have more significance for children than adults. As soon as children are born, society identifies them as either "she" or "he." Parents select gender distinct clothes, blankets, and even toys. By age two, children already know their own sex and become more aware of gender as they grow. By age three, there is a rudimentary understanding that sex distinctions are life-long. This is the phallic stage of Freud's psychosexual development. Freud called the feelings and thoughts a girl develops at this stage as the well-known "Electra complex" and "Penis envy." However, Karen Horney and Clara Thompson shared a view that culture and the social context were important determinants of personality differences. They also opined that females envied male status rather than the penis itself. [6]

As the girl starts growing, she gradually gets exposed to a set of rules, defining appropriate feminine behaviour in a given culture, which is known as "gender norm." She likes playing with dolls rather than trucks, and starts mimicking the role of a mother. Up to this stage, girl's understanding of gender is still limited and based on very concrete rules like girls having long hair or wearing frocks/skirts. As she grows further, gender constancy brings an understanding that even changing the outward physical appearance of a person does not change their underlying sex category.

Though the process of gender socialization begins when children develop a gender identity, at the age of 2½-3 years, actual gender-typing does not begin until children achieve gender constancy at age seven. At that point, children begin to actively select from their environment the behaviour that they see as consistent with their gender. The basic idea is that once a girl sees herself and others as gendered, she gets self-motivated to engage in feminine behaviour, and to model herself on other people she identifies as women in her environment. [7]

Once the girl enters the school age, she becomes more aware of herself as an individual. The age between 5 and 12 years has been explained by Erickson as the stage of "industry versus inferiority." [6] It is the stage in which she works hard to attain competence. Erickson viewed these years as critical for the development of self-confidence. Discrimination at this stage by parents, teachers, or society is likely to develop feelings of inferiority in the girl child.

   Gender Schema Theory Top

A gender schema is a cognitive structure that segregates qualities and behaviour into masculine and feminine categories and associations between the categories. Children learn the content of their particular society's gender schema. They also know that they fall into one or other of those categories based on their own sex. When they begin to think of themselves as masculine or feminine, that particular gender schema is also associated with their sense of identity. They learn that when they are picking behaviour and ways of thinking to assimilate into their own sense of selves, they should limit themselves to the particular subset of behaviour and attitudes appropriate to their own gender. [7],[8] In India, girls start acquiring skills like cooking, knitting, applying rangoli, singing, etc., as all these are perceived as feminine characteristics. Girls are socialized to accept male domination and ignore their own needs, especially in rural areas.

   Menarche and Adolescence Top

In India, school systems are ambivalent about imparting sex education. Even in some schools where sexual and reproductive health education exists in the curriculum, teachers are often too embarrassed and uncomfortable to effectively instruct. Most adolescent girls in India have little knowledge of menstruation, sexuality, and reproduction. Large numbers of rural and urban populations believe that menstruation contaminates the body and makes it unholy. In certain cultures, girls are isolated in a separate room for 3 days and are untouchable during this period. As a consequence, the girl often sees herself as impure, unclean, and dirty.

Even before menarche, the onset of puberty by itself decreases autonomy and mobility, with increasing restrictions on clothes, appearance, conduct, speech, and interaction with the opposite sex. Girls drop out of school because of lack of female teachers, distance of schools from homes, and parental fear of daughter's safety as she is "growing up." Girls inherit their mother's domestic chores and adopt conventional gender roles as this is the only option. After marriage, husband and in-laws control her life. In certain communities, girls are taught to walk with a downward gaze. Consequently, the girls enter a state of "learned helplessness." [6]

   Child Marriage and Teenage Pregnancy Top

In India, early marriage of girls has received religious and social sanctions. Despite the laws increasing the legal age of marriage to 18 for girls, there are strong cultural pressures on parents to marry daughters early. The median age at first marriage among women, 20-49, in India is 16.7. [3] Among married young girls aged 15-19, autonomous decision making and freedom of movement is very low with only 38.6% involved in decisions about their own health care and 86% needing permission to go to the market. [1] Investing in girls' education is perceived as a waste of resources since families believe that a girl's education will only benefit her husband's household, and not the family of origin. In urban areas of India, only half of girls between 15 and 17 years of age attend school. [3] The situation is even more acute in rural areas, where less than a third of the girls in the same age group attend school. [3] 5.8% of girls in the age group 6-17 years in rural areas dropped out of school as they got married. [3] Child brides are frequently compelled into early childbearing and social isolation. This further exposes them to a higher risk of domestic violence and abuse, increased economic dependence, denial of decision-making power, inequality at home, which further perpetuates discrimination, and low status of girls. [1]

Early marriage usually translates into repeated pregnancies at a tender age when the body is not fully prepared for childbearing. Girls age 15-19 are more likely (66.6%) to experience delivery complications compared to 30-34-year-old women (59.7%) and neonatal, infant, and child mortality rates are much higher for younger girls. [9]

   Domestic Violence Top

In India, violence within the home is universal across culture, religion, class, and ethnicity. Girls face violence at the hands of their husbands, fathers, brothers, and uncles in their homes. [10] The abuse is generally overlooked by social custom and considered a part and parcel of marital life. It may also include rape and sexual abuse. Psychological violence includes verbal abuse, harassment, confinement, and deprivation of physical, financial, and personal resources. They are often caught in a vicious circle of economic dependence, fear for their children's lives as well as their own, ignorance of their legal rights, lack of confidence in themselves, and social pressures. These factors effectively force women to a life of recurrent mistreatment from which they often do not have the means to escape. The sanctity of privacy within the family also makes authorities reluctant to intervene, often leading women to deny that they are being abused. This is equally common in the higher as well as in the lower segments of the society. Domestic violence has devastating repercussions on the family. Mothers are unable to care for their children properly. Often they transmit to them their own feelings of low self-esteem, helplessness, and inadequacy. [11]

   Immoral Trafficking and Sexually Transmitted Diseases Top

Trafficking in its broad sense includes the exploitation of girls by pushing them into prostitution, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, and trade in human organs. In case of children who have been trafficked or have become victims of child marriages, it violates their right to education, employment, and self-determination. In the existing social scenario in India, vulnerability is a product of inequality, low status, and discrimination, and of the patriarchal authority unleashed on children, especially the girl child. This is further compounded by the apathetic attitude of society, fuelled by a mindset which views women as mere assets with no freedom of choices and options to lead a life with dignity. Women and children are trafficked and exploited, and forced to lead a life of indignity, social stigma, debt, bondage, and a host of ailments including HIV/AIDS. [11] These developments have made parents extra cautious. They are taking greater care in bringing up daughters.

Another way by which girls are forced into prostitution is in the name of custom. The practice of "Devadasi" is practiced in Southern part of India, in which a girl is "dedicated" to worship and serve a deity or a temple for the rest of her life. [1] Bound by the poverty and lack of social support they may eventually land up in prostitution. [1]

   Gender Bias and Impact on Young Girls Top

Abuse and violence against girls in the society may contribute to the development of dysfunctional behaviour, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, somatization disorders, etc. [12] Discrimination and neglect can result in lowered self-expectations, negative attitude toward self, lack of initiatives, and so on. [12] Many a times on probing further, the symptoms can be conceptualized as exaggerations or stereotyping of female gender roles and sex-typed behaviors. It is also documented that girls tend to somatize and dissociate more owing to their status in authoritarian patriarchal society. [12]

   Drug Addiction Top

Women, who traditionally appeared to have some kind of immunity to drug abuse, at least in terms of "social inoculation," are now recognized as also being susceptible to drug use and its related problems. Teen girls used to be less likely to be abusers of alcohol and drugs than boys, but they are catching up. [11] The cultural and social transitions in India have caused an increase in drug abuse in women. The major causes for drug addiction among girls are peer pressure, stress, family disputes, failure in life, examination stress, unhealthy novelty seeking, love affairs, and psychiatric disorders. This is especially because youth is a time for experimentation and identity formation. [11] Positive parenting would go a long way in protecting girls from falling prey to drug use and its related problems.

   Conclusion Top

India has one of the fastest growing youth populations in the world. Girls below 19 years of age comprise one-quarter of India's rapidly growing population. Unfortunately, the majority are out of school and have limited choices available for the future. They are caught in the cycle of early marriage, repeated pregnancy, and poverty. Industrialization, liberalization, and urbanization, and female foeticide have brought about some obvious changes in stereotyped concepts of masculinity and femininity, affecting household composition, residence patterns, specific kinship relationships, and male and female attitudes and behavior. Family and society together can lead girls toward the positive psychology of increasing optimism, strong social connections, and healthy self-confidence.

   References Top

Chunkath SR, Athreya VB. Female Infanticide in Tamilnadu: Some Evidence. Economic and Political Weekly 1997;32:22-9.  Back to cited text no. 1
Chowdhury A, Patnaik MM. Understanding the Indian family tree; the gender perspective. Int J Multidiscip Manage Stud 2013;3:57-67.  Back to cited text no. 2
Census of India 2011. Available from: [Last accessed on 2013 Aug 8].  Back to cited text no. 3
Bumiller E. May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons: A Journey among the Women of India. New Delhi: Penguin Books; 1991.  Back to cited text no. 4
Larsen M. Daughter discrimination in modern South India: The role of family structure, maters dissertation. Sweden: Gothenburg University; 2004.  Back to cited text no. 5
Morgan CT, King RA. Personality in Introduction to Psychology. 7 th ed. New York: Tata McGraw-Hill; 2008. p. 257-94.  Back to cited text no. 6
Bem SL. Gender schema theory and its implications for child development: Raising gender-aschematic children in a gender-schematic society. Signs 1983;8:598-616.  Back to cited text no. 7
Bem SL. The lenses of gender: Transforming the debate on sexual equality. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; 1993.  Back to cited text no. 8
Tandon SL, Sharma R. Female foeticide and infanticide in India: An analysis of crimes against girl children. Int J Crim Justice Sci 2006; Available from: [Last accessed on 2013 Aug 8].  Back to cited text no. 9
Rafferty Y. International dimensions of discrimination and violence against girls: A human rights perspective. J Int Women′s Stud 2013;14:1-23.  Back to cited text no. 10
Vlachovd M, Biason L. Women in an Insecure World. Geneva: DCAF Publications; 2005. p. 1-33.  Back to cited text no. 11
Rao GP, Rao TSS. Women′s mental health. In: Rao TSS, Rao GP. editors, Indian J Priv Psychiatry, Special Supplement on Women and mental health 2013. p. 7-8.  Back to cited text no. 12

Correspondence Address:
G Prasad Rao
Division of Schizophrenia and Psychopharmacology, Asha Hospital, Road No. 14, Banjara Hills, Hyderabad, Telangana
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/0019-5545.161480

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