Photographer: SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/Getty Images

Tweets Won't Save India's Baby Girls

#SelfieWithDaughter shows the disconnect between Twitter speak and real action

Few world leaders know how to work a room quite like Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He has quickly become the face of India—its top brand ambassador, its chief marketing officer and primary diplomat.

And he's done much of the work on Twitter. Modi is the second-most-followed world leader with 13.4 million followers. He's behind only U.S. President Barack Obama, with 61.2 million. Modi has begun to use his clout on social networks to advocate for his policies in the hopes of making them go viral.  Take #SelfieWithDaughter.

Using tweets associated with the hashtag, Modi is raising concerns about the declining female-to-male ratio in some parts of the country. He urged India to celebrate the nation’s daughters by sharing photos under the hashtag #SelfieWithDaughter, and it went viral with photos flooding Twitter from Iowa to rural Haryana state, where the campaign began.

But here's the thing: While Modi has pressed all the right buttons in selling social campaigns like gender imbalance and equality, his public spending hasn’t backed it up. Last year, Modi's administration spent about a third of the 900 million rupees ($14.15 million) budgeted for India's flagship child-sex ratio program. And this year, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley cut the Ministry of Women and Child Development’s total budget by 45 percent. There's clearly a disconnect between Twitter speak and action.

Female feticide, feeding infant boys over girls, and child marriages have produced the lowest child-sex ratio in India’s history. It's also the lowest in the world among major countries, after China. Not a good showing by any scale.

Can social media campaigns like #SelfieWithDaughter make a difference? Are they effective in educating people and changing attitudes? Gender equality advocates are skeptical. “It’s not inherently a bad thing, [but] this is a distraction from the real issues of patriarchy and inequality that make India so inhospitable for women,” says Kerry McBroom, director of the reproductive rights initiative at the Human Rights Law Network in New Delhi. “Smiling photos with daughters make the current administration look like they care about girls. … It’s a lot of talk and not a lot of action for the poor people, especially the poor women.”

The thousands of cute parent-daughter photos posted on Modi's Twitter feed likely come from the affluent and well-educated families. Gender imbalance, however, is particularly acute in poverty-stricken regions like Haryana and other places where few people can afford smartphones to take selfies with. It's those stories that aren't being told, those people who aren't being reached and those people who need the most education.

This is an update to an earlier version that removes a quote from seventh paragraph, the opinions of which did not represent those of Bloomberg News.

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