Things are getting heated in a Brampton office space where three pairs of grandmothers and granddaughters are competing to see who can build the best newspaper tower.
One pair’s tower topples, while another young granddaughter quits in a huff because her grandmother won’t listen to her opinions.
But Saanvi Gupta, 14, and her 71-year-old grandmother, Kavita Gupta, build theirs with strategy and patience, working together to create a strong base that carries them to victory.
The exercise, run by South Asian gender equality non-profit group Laadliyan, is meant to symbolize the importance of building a strong base in a family, a role that South Asian women often take on but aren’t always appreciated enough for, says Laadliyan founder Manvir Bhangoo, 27.
But it’s also just meant to be a fun activity to encourage bonding between these girls and their grandmas, in a community where Bhangoo says preference for sons and grandsons can still exist in subtle ways.
About once a month, since the Biji & Me program (Biji means mother or grandmother in Punjabi) was created in 2018, family pairings come in to Laadliyan’s headquarters to eat samosas and other treats while painting, dancing, making DIY lip balms or doing other activities. It’s a chance to spend some quality time together while promoting the idea of valuing granddaughters and the joy they bring. This type of one-on-one time is different from hanging out at home, the participants say.
“(My grandmother) comes over quite a bit but we don’t really get to talk that much because I’m always at school and then I come back and I’m tired,” Saanvi says. “Over here we talk more openly when there are discussions like what we like about each other … When we go home these times are what we remember.”
Bhangoo created Laadliyan — meaning “loved ones” in Punjabi and used to describe daughters — as a Facebook group when she was 21, after noticing subtle differences in how her cousins’ or friends’ parents treated their daughters versus their sons, such as only enforcing a curfew on the daughters, she says. Her own parents never fit that stereotype.
“No opportunity was denied because I was a girl,” Bhangoo says. “I think that always empowered me to say if my parents can treat us like that, why can’t other parents see the value of having daughters?”
She incorporated Laadliyan and started running programs and workshops to empower young South Asian girls, primarily reaching out to the Punjabi community in Brampton. Then in 2018, Bhangoo was part of a study at St. Michael’s Hospital in partnership with Punjabi Community Health Services that looked into a preference for boys in the community, interviewing older Punjabi women to get their views on the issue.
“Some of the grandmothers had really negative things to say about granddaughters,” Bhangoo says, adding it wasn’t always explicit but the desire for a grandson specifically would often emerge. “It’s very easy to say we don’t believe in inequality, we treat our grandson and granddaughter the same way, but then you can hear it in the way they have their views and opinions.”
That’s when Bhangoo decided to create Biji & Me, funded by the federal government’s New Horizons for Seniors program, hoping to address some of those ideas. Though she admits her program attracts women who already hold positive views of their granddaughters, she says she hopes it promotes a positive example for others.
They typically get half a dozen or more pairs, but it’s a rainy day and their initial plan for a picnic was cancelled so Bhangoo is glad even a few pairs showed up.
It’s a fun outing that Parmjit Kaur looks forward to each month with her granddaughter Ashleen Sohi, 7. Kaur lives with Ashleen but most of their time together involves just watching TV rather than fun activities like making do-it-yourself moisturizers that she still uses every day.
Before she became a nani (maternal grandmother), Kaur admits in Punjabi that she initially wanted a grandson because she only had one daughter of her own and always wanted a son. Kaur’s daughter did end up having two sons after Ashleen, but Kaur says she’s now grateful for her “laadli.”
Kavita Gupta says she never cared about the sex of her grandchild. Before Saanvi was born, Kavita says she travelled to Montreal for a special prayer and asked the priest for a grandchild, never bothering to specify whether she wanted a grandson or granddaughter. Four days later, she learned her daughter-in-law was pregnant.
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“She’s precious,” Kavita says of Saanvi. Coming to the Biji & Me program makes her feel like, “she’s my friend.”
She says she has two grandsons who she thinks are “brilliant,” but she believes in her heart that Saanvi will grow to be the most successful of them all.
But Kavita recognizes that not everyone feels that way about granddaughters. As a poet, she often writes in local South Asian publications about issues like female feticide. She said she saw a lot of it back home in India, but she says it happens everywhere.
Programs that promote gender equity was one of the recommendations out of a study Bhangoo co-authored with St. Michael’s Hospital researchers in 2018, which found that preference for boys persisted even in among second-generation South Asians in Ontario.
The study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health analyzed data on women who had given birth up to three consecutive times in Ontario hospitals between April 1993 and March 2014. The researchers identified women of South Asian descent by surname algorithm, and then compared it with immigration data, marking all those who weren’t immigrants and were born in Canada as second-generation South Asians. Out of a total sample of just under 1.4 million women, the study identified nearly 60,000 of South Asian descent, and 10,273 second-generation South Asian Canadian-born women.
The researchers found that, among the second-generation South Asian women who already had two daughters, and had also had at least one abortion (38 women, according to lead author Susitha Wanigaratne of St. Michael’s Hospital), the number of male births was at a ratio that was higher than normal: 280 boys for every 100 girls. The ratio among second-generation South Asian mothers who had not had abortions was normal, a range of 103 to 107 boys for every 100 girls, the researchers found. The ratios for boys were also elevated amongst first-generation immigrants from India regardless of whether they had a record of past abortions.
“While the proportion of births occurring after (one or more) prior abortion between the second and third birth was lower among second-generation mothers (13 per cent) compared with first-generation mothers (26 per cent), it appears likely that some mothers in both groups selectively aborted at least one girl, which led to the excess in sons,” the researchers write. “After having two girls, second-generation Canadian-born mothers with (South Asian) ethnicity were two times more likely to have an abortion prior to a third male child compared with a female child.”
The study authors wrote that they do not recommend criminalizing sex selection or forcing disclosure of the reasons for an abortion; that could further marginalize South Asian women and push them to seek unsafe abortions elsewhere. Instead, the authors suggested community-based interventions and programs to promote gender equity.
That’s the role Bhangoo hopes the Biji & Me program will play. But it can be a challenge to bring up such topics, during their group discussion session, when everyone is having fun socializing.
“It’s always a battle because it’s such a sensitive topic. Nobody wants to be the person in the room who admits to it,” Bhangoo says. “We’re not here to point fingers at them. How we tackle that is no matter which activity we do, we bring it back to look at you having this moment with your granddaughter, this is priceless.”
That’s a point that hits home for Amrit Sohi.
She and her granddaughter, 9-year-old Yashnoor Gill, live in opposite ends of Brampton. But the program gives them a chance to dedicate some time to each other every month.
Their favourite activity has been singing and dancing together during one session last year.
“I feel like she’s my partner in everything,” Yashnoor says about her nani.