Britain's hidden gendercide: How Britain's Asians are copying Indian cousins and aborting girls

Britain’s hidden gendercide: How Britain’s Asians are copying Indian cousins and aborting girls

By Kishwar Desai
Last updated at 3:44 PM on 11th May 2010

For the hospital sonographer, it’s just another routine 20-week ultrasound scan. The baby is developing perfectly and, helpfully, is lying in the right position to make identification of its gender straightforward. ‘Would you like to know the sex?’ she asks. The anxious-looking Indian woman who has been staring so intently at the monitor, smiles nervously. ‘Oh yes, please,’ she says, her slight Midlands accent betraying the fact that she was born in Britain.

‘Well, you’re having a little girl. Isn’t that lovely?’ If the sonographer had been a little less tired, she might have noticed the slight hesitation before her patient’s reply, the fleeting look of desperate disappointment that crossed her face. But both are gone in a split second. ‘Oh yes, wonderful news, my husband will be pleased.’

But the woman is lying – just as hundreds of other British women of Indian origin do every year. Their husbands certainly won’t be pleased by news of another daughter and nor, more often than not, are they.

What was it daadi (grandmother) used to say? Bringing up a baby girl is like watering a neighbour’s garden. What her grandmother meant, of course, is that it’s an absolute waste of time and money.

As she straightens her clothing and walks out of the hospital, the woman shudders, knowing full well what lies ahead. The long flight to India, the noisy taxi ride through the crowded Delhi streets to the clinic, and the pain and horror of a late abortion. But her husband was adamant; they simply could not afford another daughter.

And so, ten days later and despite the fact that abortion on the grounds of gender is technically illegal in India, the life of yet another British Indian baby girl ends on the bloodied operating table of a Delhi abortion clinic before it has even begun. She is killed simply for being a girl.

Having carried out extensive research into the subject for my new novel, I’m convinced that scenarios like this are played out regularly in most of Britain’s major cities. Indeed, research from Oxford University has estimated that girl babies are ‘disappearing’ from British Indian families at a rate approaching 100 a year. As with all official estimates, the reality could well be more.

By ‘disappearing’, I mean British Indian communities in this country are failing to produce the number of girl babies that science tells us to expect, which, broadly speaking, is 950 girls for every 1,000 boys.

It is difficult for those of white British origins, who come from a culture where the safe arrival of a healthy baby girl is a cause for celebration, to understand the deep-rooted commitment of British Indian families to what has become known as ‘son preference’.

And how are they doing this? By pursuing a determined programme of sex selection, either by aborting female foetuses or, increasingly – particularly among more affluent families – by doing everything in their power to ensure that the fertilised egg implanted in the mother’s womb is a male one. This can be done by a technique known as ‘sperm sorting’ – where sperm carrying the male Y chromosome are separated from those carrying the female X chromosome – or, more reliably, by IVF.

For a few years, such techniques seemed the answer to an awful lot of devout prayers, but in 2007 – amid mounting controversy about babies being designed to order – the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority outlawed gender selection in this way. Specialist clinics in London, Birmingham and Glasgow which had been offering couples the chance to choose the sex of their babies – and which had been advertising extensively in the Punjabi press in Britain – were forced to close.

But the practice goes on, with wealthier British Indian families travelling to the U.S., Europe or indeed to India in their efforts to have a male child.

It is difficult for those of white British origins, who come from a culture where the safe arrival of a healthy baby girl is a cause for celebration, to understand the deep-rooted commitment of British Indian families to what has become known as ‘son preference’.

You have to travel to India itself to even try to understand it. For it is only there that you begin to grasp the extraordinary paradox that is modern India.

On the one hand, you have one of the most vibrant and fast-growing economies in the world; on the other, you have a deeply patriarchal society, where women are not just seen as second-class citizens but as potentially ruinous economic liabilities, too.

It seems impossible that the country which gave the world one of its first female prime ministers, Indira Gandhi, and produces an ever-growing number of glamorous, highly paid film stars – such as former Miss World Aishwarya Rai, Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty and Slumdog Millionaire star Freida Pinto – could also be the country where millions of women live a life of degradation and humiliation. But it’s true; Indian newspapers are routinely filled with stories of rape, honour killings and domestic violence.

But the worst-kept secret is this preference for sons, an almost visceral need for male progeny that not only transcends class, caste and religion, but which has spread across oceans to every Indian community in the world; Britain’s, of course, included.

When I was born many moons ago in Ambala in Northern India, I was fortunate that my parents were delighted by my arrival; they’d wanted a daughter.

But other relatives were horrified and my mother remembers being taken to a neighbour’s house, where the matriarch was to be found sitting on her daybed. My mother was told firmly that the matriarch had buried six daughters. The visit was supposed to teach her a lesson she would never forget.

For British women pregnant with a daughter, the cost, pain and terror of a late term backstreet abortion in India await

It didn’t work for my mother, but such harsh lessons have certainly left their mark on millions of other Indian women. Traditionally, unwanted girl babies are fed opium and left to die; others, I’m afraid, meet far nastier ends as India’s poor do what they have been doing since before the Raj – murdering their unwanted daughters.

But with abortion available pretty much on demand up to the 20th week (and illegally much later for a price) more affluent Indian women are getting evermore resourceful at using medical science to find out the sex of the baby they are carrying.

If the technician from the mobile ultrasound clinic isn’t sure, there’s always a corrupt doctor who can carry out an amniocentesis test (which analyses chromosomes) for a price. If the result comes back ‘female’, the foetus’s grim fate is sealed, as the statistics make clear.

In 1991, the child sex ratio was already a depressed 945 girls per 1,000 boys in India – instead of the usual 950. But by 2001 it was down to 927, and in some of the worst regions, such as Punjab and Delhi, it’s heading towards 800. One particular hospital in the Punjab has not registered the birth of any baby girls at all.

Estimates vary as to how many Indian women are now ‘missing’ from the population, but it’s thought to be somewhere between ten and 35million over the past 20 years. Female foeticide, gendercide – call it what you will – it’s a terrible and chilling statistic.

By most western standards this is horrific, but in India – and, by extension, in Indian emigrant communities throughout the world – the brutal practice makes sound economic sense.

What is surprising, at least to Western eyes, is that this preference for sons is most actively passed from one generation to the next by the women.

It may cost money to bribe a doctor to carry out an illegal sex test and then for the subsequent abortion, but compared with the cost of raising a daughter it’s a pittance.

In Britain, the father of the bride symbolically gives away his daughter on her wedding day. But in India, the giving away is literal. We call it Kanya Daan and it means that from the day she gets married, an Indian girl – and all her possessions – belongs to her husband’s family.

Hand in glove with this goes the tradition of dowry, which more or less died out in Britain with Jane Austen but is of tremendous importance to Indian families, whether they are in Mumbai or Birmingham. Jewellery, cash, cars, even houses – the value  of the dowry an Indian girl’s family must pay to the family of her future husband can run to tens of thousands of pounds. Marrying off one daughter can be expensive, but two, three… that can be ruinous.

As a result, Indians remain wedded to the idea of boys being best and girls little more than a liability. Small wonder that Indian families place such importance on marrying off any daughters as quickly as possible.

What is surprising, at least to Western eyes, is that this preference for sons is most actively passed from one generation to the next by the women. A British-Indian friend of mine recently gave birth to a daughter and while there was a younger generation of Indian women like me, keen to celebrate the arrival, we were outnumbered by an older generation of female cousins and aunts, some of whom were in tears at the wretched fate that had befallen my friend. It was as though someone had died, not just been born.

The problem is that educated, emancipated Indian women are the exception, while more traditional women, the sort who sit sobbing over the arrival of an unwanted girl, are the rule. They pass on to the next generation what they have learned from bitter experience: that they are subservient to men; their usually loveless marriages will be arranged for them; and the size of their dowry matters more than their education.

Kishwar Desai’s novel Witness The Night explores the lengths Indian families go to to ensure they do not have female babies

Living in liberal societies such as the UK puts another strain on families: they have to guard the virginities of their daughters from the moment they reach puberty. It’s not always possible to do so. For sons, the same pressure does not apply.

Put like that, it’s no wonder they greet the birth of a girl with tears.

And so the tradition passes on from one generation to the next, its passage eased in this country by the fact that if a British Indian girl doesn’t marry a British Indian man she tends to marry a man from India itself. So the tie to the mother country – and all its traditions – is constantly renewed, and therefore remains as strong as ever.

I discovered this while doing some research for my new novel, Witness The Night, which has sex selection as one of its central themes. Almost everyone I met knew of British Indian families who remain strongly prejudiced in favour of sons.

No one wanted to talk about the highly sensitive subject of abortion on the grounds of gender, but many knew of couples who had gone abroad to pursue the IVF option offered by gender selection clinics.

Daughters are welcomed into some British Indian families, they said, but they will often be treated – at least in terms of education and career opportunities – in a way that is far inferior to their brothers.

Which is yet another reason why I so passionately believe that this wholesale and, at times, lethal oppression of an entire sex cannot be allowed to continue. And given the strengths of the ties between India and its emigrant communities, the solution must lie in India itself.

It’s striking that the problems women face in modern India are not dissimilar to the problems women faced in this country a century ago, when primogeniture ensured property passed from father to eldest son, women didn’t have the vote and a good marriage was considered more important than a good education.

Thankfully, Indian women do have a vote in the country that remains the world’s biggest democracy, although whether they get the chance to use it properly is a distinctly moot point. But real gender equality will require far more radical change.

India’s complex inheritance and divorce laws require further reform, but Indian women also have to be given the same economic opportunities their brothers and husbands enjoy. They need to become economic assets, not liabilities, and the only way of doing that is by ensuring they have equal access to education, jobs and careers.

Recently, I was in Mumbai, the heart of India’s booming stock market, and yet in this bustling, metropolitan city the bodies of newborn baby girls were still being washed up on the beach.

It was there, too, that I read a tiny newspaper story about a woman who had three daughters but was under huge pressure from her husband and his family to produce a male child. In desperation and despair, the poor woman took her three unwanted daughters and jumped into a well. She survived, but tragically not her daughters. India’s secret gendercide had just claimed another three innocent girls.


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