The United Nations reports that at least 40 million women in India have died from neglect or were simply never born in the first place. Dr. Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate, first applied the term “missing” to this phenomenon in 1986 when he examined India’s census data. Among Christians and Muslims, the female to male sex ratios were close to normal. Among Hindus, who make up 80 percent of India’s population, the gender imbalance would spark a demographic crisis.
Until the 1980s, when ultrasound machines became more widespread, girls were commonly killed at birth or were neglected of health and nutrition to ensure their death. Baby girls were left in dumpsters, buried in clay pots or poisoned. Shocking, yes, but the practice still continues. Across the country there is a 47 percent excess female child mortality, girls aged 1-to-4 who are dying before their life expectancy because of discrimination. In the wealthy state of Punjab and neighboring Haryana, the excess female child mortality is 81 and 135 percent respectively, according to India’s National Family Health Survey.
SALEM, INDIA – Priya, 4 years old, lives in the Life Line Trust Home. She was taken by the police after neighbors denounced her parents for beating her and burning her face. The Indian government has set up a network of “cradle houses” for unwanted baby girls.
The arrival of ultrasound machines, and its subsequent exploitation, ushered in a silent era of organized crime. Now able to identify the sex of a fetus early in pregnancy, parents who learn their child is a girl often abort her. The government has banned abortions based on gender for the last 16 years. Every ultrasound clinic is required to have a poster explaining the law, yet this $250 million business a year flourishes because of deeply entrenched traditions, official apathy and the lucrative business of illegal ultrasounds.
The role of women in India, a nation which set a global precedent for women by electing Indira Gandhi as prime minister in 1966 and reserves a 33 percent quota for women in village elections, emphasizes the terrible paradox of Indian culture. In 2001, 54 percent of adult women were literate according to India’s 2001 Census. The country’s diversity exacerbates the issue, and divisions by ethnicity, class, creed and culture complicate efforts to advance social justice. Yet no matter their “station” in life, all women confront the cultural pressure to bear a son.
Boys represent a status symbol. As breadwinners, they will look after their parents, perform their last funeral rites and carry on the family name. Many regard girls as a financial drain because parents face the pressure to provide a dowry to marry her off. In rural areas, livestock, furniture and elegant garments comprise the dowry, while in urban areas, a groom’s family expects cash, jewelery, cars, property and lavish weddings.
Ruchira Gupta-Apne Aap
“They feel a daughter will be taking some money out of the family whereas a son will be bringing in money into the family,” says Ruchira Gupta, a journalist and founder of Apne Aap, an anti-sex trafficking organization.
Although the government banned dowry nearly 50 years ago, the law is mostly ignored.
JAIPUR, INDIA – Shahin, 13 years old, earns 50 rupees (US$ 1) per day, polishing semi-precious stones. Most of the money goes toward helping her family save for her dowry and wedding expenses.
The rise of consumerism and economic prosperity has expanded the middle class and increased dowry demands. An insufficient dowry exposes the bride to lethal perils:
“She’s murdered by the boy’s family so he can marry one more girl and bring in more dowry,” says Gupta. India’s crime bureau statistics show one dowry death is reported every 77 minutes.
VARANASI, INDIA – Utma arrived at the hospital with severe burns to 100% of her body as a result of being doused in kerosene and lit on fire — the penalty for her family’s inability to pay additional dowry demands.
Amongst the bamboo forests that skirt the foothills of the Himalayas, Maya and Raju Thapa, haggard and impoverished parents, recount their misfortune. They had four daughters, and despite taunts for not having sons, educated each of them. The eldest, Latika, completed her bachelor’s degree before getting married.
“I just prayed to God that my girls would have no difficulties,” says Maya.
But the morning of Diwali, The Festival of Lights, Maya and Raju’s spirits were forever broken. On October 17, 2009, Latika hung herself from a ceiling fan—according to the in-laws. Maya and Raju were stunned and they refused to believe it. The village and the police determined that her alcoholic husband had strangled her.
DEHRADUN, INDIA – Raju and Maya Thapa mourn their daughter’s death.
“We sold half our land and we gave them so many gifts. We didn’t give a [refrigerator] but we gave everything else,” says Raju.
The police arrested Latika’s husband for what they call “dowry death.” But they released him within weeks and he continues to live his life unpunished for murdering his wife. He has left the 5 year-old girl he had with Latika with his relatives. Maya and Raju are desperate to bring home their granddaughter because they fear she could be the next victim, the last evidence that he ever married.
Maya and Raju don’t have the money to go to court. Even if they did, they would face long odds: Indian courts rarely hand down convictions against husbands who murder wives, beset as they are by corruption, huge case back-loads and the same gender bias as Indian society at large.
On the outskirts of South Delhi, through a maze of ruptured sewage pipes, stray animals and ditches, is the home of Sukhwanti. The 27-year-old mother of a girl and three boys underwent sterilization, a one-time procedure to ensure she would not get pregnant — and have any more daughters. She believes the popular ‘80s slogans proclaiming that it’s better to spend $100 to get rid of a girl now then spend $1,000 on her dowry later.
“One daughter is enough. Don’t need anymore daughters,” she says.
NAJAFGARH, INDIA – Sukhwanti, 27, sits with her daughter.
Sukhwanti is one of many women in the village who must prostitute herself 10 to 15 times a week to pay back the dowry loaned for her marriage, feed her children, and to earn enough to pay for her daughter’s dowry. While she says she will not prostitute her daughter, Sukhwanti admits that daughters become the first resource in poverty.
But income disparities alone fail to explain the preference for sons. Prosperous states like Punjab suffer the worst sex ratios. In 2008, a joint study by the development group ActionAid and Canada’s International Development Research Centre revealed that higher caste families in Punjab produce just 300 girls for every 1,000 boys. (The natural rate would suggest 950 girls). Thus, this region of relative education and privilege had at least twice as many “missing” girls than in poorer regions.
Kanta Singh-Women Power Connect
Dr. Mitu Khurana plays with Pari, one of her twin daughters.
Skewed gender demographics is not a problem of the poor, says Kanta Singh, a policy coordinator at the lobbying group Women Power Connect. “The tribal belts in the country are still having good sex ratios. The poor slums still have good sex ratios,” she says.
In a West Delhi apartment, above a pale gray clinic run by her parents, Dr. Mitu Khurana impatiently waits for justice. Five years ago, she filed a case against her husband, also a doctor, and his parents for dowry harassment, illegally determining the sex of her twins, harassing her to abort them because they were girls and then attempting to murder them.
“This is the worst form of genocide where you’re killing 50 percent of the population,” she says.
Her story has sent alarm bells ringing across the nation, upending conventional wisdom in India that gender-based abortions are primarily a problem of the illiterate and poor.
Yet this educated, wealthy woman has faced discrimination. She’s had to fight ingrained cultural biases to get her case heard with the police, government and the courts.
“I was told by a [government official] that, ‘What’s the problem if your husband wants a son? You are young, you can again get pregnant.’ [The official] said ‘I’m giving you a fatherly advice.’ So I asked him, ‘Sir what do you mean by a fatherly advice? Does this mean that in the next pregnancy you’re asking me to go for a sex determination test? Or you mean to say that we women are just machines and we should go on producing children until we get a son?’” “[Officialdom] see a woman who is coming to fight against her husband and in-laws as somebody who is doing something which is a sin,” she says.
Traditionally, once a woman leaves her father’s house, the husband assumes responsibility and property rights over her. This leads parents to marry girls off early —before developing her own personal will. Girls are taught to suppress their identity and opinions to cater to their new family.
Women’s rights activist Ruchira Gupta says such attitudes have been passed down from generation-to-generation, permeating into the very support systems that are meant to help women.
“An independent woman is considered bad and a dependent woman is considered good.”
As a result, so few women stand up for themselves because they don’t know where to turn. Even if they speak out, men rarely get blamed and if a woman has no financial means, she cannot survive on her own.
BHUTTA, INDIA – A woman cleans the street as her husband and son look on.
Dr. Mitu Khurana, the twins’ mother, acknowledges that she’s fortunate to have supportive parents. Her father has doubled his work hours to support her and her daughters. They’ve given her the courage to continue.
“If all this can happen with an educated woman like me, what is the guarantee my future generations, my daughters, will not face the same harassment when they grow up?” she asks.
If avoiding the burdens of dowry fuel one side of this “gendercide,” then profit among unscrupulous medics fuels the other. A minority of doctors, medical technicians and managers of portable ultrasound clinics know disclosing the sex of the baby to parents is illegal and that abortions based on gender are too, but they continue unabated.
MORENA, INDIA – A doctor performs an ultrasound examination at a medical clinic in Morena.
Out of a meagre 400 cases filed against these medics, less than a handful have been convicted for performing gender-based abortions.
These disappearing daughters can be saved if the government is more vigilant about controlling those profiting off of cultural pressures and if the government makes women’s rights a focus of development.
Dr. B.S.Dahiya, a former Director General of Health Services in the state of Haryana, decided to take action.
Dr.B.S. Dahiya-former Health Dept. of Haryana
Hailed the “crusader of the girl child,” the senior medical officer implemented the law which bans sex determination tests in Haryana, a state with the second lowest male to female sex ratio. Employing pregnant women as decoys, he ran a sting operation on doctors suspected of disclosing the sex of fetuses. Once he gathered enough evidence, he had them arrested.
“This is noble profession and [doctors] should not work as demons in white coats,” he says.
Dr. Dahiya believes at least 30 percent of all pregnancies in the country have undergone an illegal sex determination test.
“If a person is murdered you have a case launched in court,” the doctor says. “Here she’s already dead and nobody is there to look after her, even as a legacy.”
In 2006, after waiting six years for a decision, Dr. Dahiya won the first conviction of a doctor in India. The sentence was two years in jail and a $108 fine.
The law, he says, is a blunt instrument that is not suitable to the magnitude of the problem.
“States and the union territories authorities did not take any interest to implement the law.”
But Dr. Dahiya did. Between 2001 and 2005, doctors feared his strategy so much that the male-to-female sex ratio started to improve. It wasn’t without a cost though. Medical lobby groups harassed Dr. Dahiya and his family, aided by government officials who had investments in the illegal world of sex-selective abortions.
“The things are happening right under their noses. Every appropriate authority knows where [illegal ultrasounds] are happening. That means it is consented,” he says.
The decline in India’s gender ratio has steadily affected 80 percent of India’s states since 1991.
Having fewer women in the country have forced bachelors to look beyond their own culture and caste to seek brides from as far away as Nepal and Bangladesh. This causes its own set of challenges, including resentment among men in those countries at what they view as bridal tourism, and for the women, a pressure to adapt to different cultural, language, diet and social customs.
HARYANA, INDIA Suman, 19 years old, eats on the floor while her husband sits above. Suman was forcibly brought to Madina by a trafficker and sold to her husband for 40 000 rupees (US$ 842) at the age of 17.
“They are brought in merely to produce another son,” says Kanta Singh, an advocate at a national women’s lobby group.
The practice of wife-sharing has emerged also, with brothers often sharing the same wife.
HARYANA, INDIA – Shanti Devi, 60 years old, is surrounded by her sons’ wives. Ranjana, on the left, is her daughter-in-law twice over; following the death of her first husband, the eldest son, she was passed on to become the wife of the youngest son.
On the border of Nepal and India, a nexus of brothel owners and smugglers supply a growing demand. These syndicates purchase girls from Nepal and West Bengal and sell them in Indian regions with a scarcity of women.
Ruchira Gupta, whose film “Selling of Innocents” documents this sex trafficking, says she came upon clusters of villages in Nepal missing 15-to-45 year-old women who were sold in India.
In Haryana state, Singh says, “Each village you will go to, you will find 10, 15 women who are not from Haryana.”
Politicians feed on the problem. In an effort to garner votes, some local politicians in Haryana have pledged to find brides. Slogans read: Vote for us and we’ll find you a wife.
What unites the women in this story—in spite of their regional, educational and income differences—is that all of them have endured the rigid, oppressive and dangerous cultural practices of Indian society.
PUNJAB, INDIA – A group of women sits idly in a “protection home” in Rothak (Haryana). Many of the residents were rescued after being trafficked to be sold as wives or to work as prostitutes.
Some traditionalists contend that fewer women in society will improve their status. But study after study, by the United Nations, independent NGOs and academic researchers, refute this concept.
Even in India’s increasingly modern capital, New Dehli, two in every three women faced sexual harassment in the last year, according to a U.N. and government backed survey.
“No nation, no society, no community can hold its head high and claim to be part of the civilized world if it condones the practice of discriminating against one half of humanity represented by women,” he declared.
Gupta adds, “The culture of domination replaces the culture of collaboration in society and that can lead to the stifling of ideas, creativity, entrepreneurship.”
In spite of the official rhetoric, what little progress that can be cited has originated at the grassroots—among concerned activists like Gupta, Dahiya and countless brave mothers, grandmothers and brides who seek justice against the odds.
So what can be done to accelerate change?
For its part, India’s government now offers parents incentives to have girls. Girls get free education and cash stipends and “cradle homes” have been established to care for unwanted girls.
JALANDHAR, INDIA – A group of girls stand in a crib at “Unique Home”, a “cradle house,” in Jalandhar where parents can leave unwanted baby girls.
But these government provisions address the symptoms of the cultural disease: the disease itself—the obsession with male children—remains as powerful as ever.
Technology may offer hope, too. Doctors in the state of Maharashtra have invested in a new technology called the “Silent Observer,” which records ultrasounds as evidence in cases where doctors are suspected of disclosing the sex of the child. If this technology deters parents and corrupt doctors in the state, it could be implemented across India.
Gupta says we can turn victims into survivors if we tell their stories internationally.
“Just as fear is contagious, courage is contagious and it can lead to big movements and the entire violence against women movement has to be based on us speaking up,” she says.
With the help of media, youth, celebrities, religious leaders, and community activists, a multi-pronged advocacy campaign could change mindsets, create government accountability and give women the strength to speak out.
Gupta also says society must also provide girls the freedom and possibility that education promises.
JAIPUR, INDIA – A group of children take classes in an exclusive government school for child labourers.
“Nobody is thinking of the simpler solution. That she could also earn as much money as her brother if she was sent to school. And the school fees would cumulatively and including the college fees be less than the dowry that most people put into the marriage of a child.”
In order for these solutions to be effective, India must become more conscious of its cultural belief system. Beyond the human tragedy, this discrimination will stunt India’s growth at precisely the moment in history when the nation is rising toward real global influence.