Female foeticide continues in India as new law falters

Shaikh Azizur Rahman, Foreign Correspondent

  • Last Updated: May 20. 2010 9:19AM UAE / May 20. 2010 5:19AM GMT
Indian schoolgirls attend a rally calling for the end of female foeticide. Unicef says the country is short of as many as 50 million females because of sex discrimination. Prakash Singh / AFP

Kolkata // The discovery of 15 aborted foetuses and dead newborn children in a rubbish dump is being described by activists as a sign of the Indian government’s refusal to enforce its laws against sex-selective abortion.
Describing the incident last month in Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat state, as “just the tip of the iceberg”, Puneet Bedi, a Delhi-based obstetrician and gender-rights activist, said Indian authorities are not serious about curbing the practice of killing female children and foetuses.
“It is illegal in India for a doctor to tell parents the gender of their unborn child, or to abort it on the grounds of sex. But rarely do we see one getting prosecuted for this crime,” said Dr Bedi.
Last month in Ahmedabad, passers-by spotted an apparently dead newborn baby being pulled out of a pile of rubbish by stray dogs at a street-side waste disposal site.
From the spot police soon recovered the remains of eight aborted foetuses and seven newborn babies hidden inside the rubbish. An initial investigation found that they had been secretly dumped by a private hospital in the city, in a grisly case that highlights the persistence of foeticide and infanticide.

As a medical examination soon revealed, more than three-quarters of the foetuses were female and the state’s health department ordered a detailed probe into the incident.

Determining the sex of an unborn child was banned in India in 1994 and the practice of female foeticide went mostly underground, but it continues to be a booming business for medical professionals who perform these operations illegally.

After the 2001 census illustrated the horrifying reality and prevalence of foeticide in the country, pressure from rights groups forced the government to develop initiatives to alleviate the crisis. These included giving cash incentives to parents to raise female children and conducting campaigns to make people aware of the future societal crises such a skewed sex ratio would create.

But such efforts have not been enough. Last year, a study by ActionAid, a global antipoverty agency based in Johannesburg, found that the gender gap in some parts of Punjab had increased to 300 girls per 1,000 boys – a scenario worse than that revealed in the 2001 census. ActionAid carried out the survey in five states and in all states it found that the proportion of girls to boys had fallen further.

Unicef says India is short of up to 50 million females due to systematic sex discrimination. The skewing of the sex ratio in favour of males has resulted in a scarcity of brides in northern and western India, where the female foeticide rate has been highest. In these areas, men are buying brides from other, more impoverished areas of the country.

Campaigners against sex selection believe that societal attitudes change too slowly and only a stricter enforcement of laws can ensure that fewer female foetuses and babies are killed in the short-term.

“Foeticide was invented, touted and sold by the medical profession, and it operates with the complete consent of all factors of our society. So, you can kill a daughter and get away with this crime,” said Dr Bedi, adding that any effort to educate the parents of the value of a girl child would not be of any help at this point.

“We do not have the time to play around with these chocolates and ice-cream solutions. We have to do something more serious. All agencies must immediately join hands and launch a stricter crackdown so that no medical professional in this murderous practice can escape. There’s a genocide on.”

India’s patriarchal society emphasises the need for male heirs and a son is considered an extra pair of hands to earn income for the family.

On the other hand, girls are viewed as economic and social burdens as they will eventually marry and leave home with the bride’s family having to pay a large dowry. “Grooming a girl,” an Indian maxim says, “is like watering a neighbour’s garden.”

“For hundreds of years in many regions of India communities have indulged in female infanticide, either by throttling, poisoning or killing newborn female babies by overdose of opium,” said Amarjit Singh, a Punjab-based activist with the non-governmental organisation Voluntary Health Association of India.

But the rate of disappearance of girls shot up when sex determination facilities arrived in the market in the late 1970s and the practice of female foeticide began in earnest, Dr Bedi said.

However, it was not until the beginning of this century that the staggering scale of the problem, and how badly the sex ratio was getting skewed, became clear.

The last national census, in 2001, revealed that the overall birth rate for India was 927 girls per thousand boys, a steady decline from 945 girls per thousand boys in 1991 and 962 in 1981.

In one of the richest north Indian states, Punjab, the census found that 793 girls were born per thousand boys, which was the worst ratio for female children in the world. In 2006, the National Family Health Survey reported that the child sex ratio in Punjab had fallen to 776.




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