Dottie Lamm: Ensuring women's rights around the world

By Dottie Lamm

There are times and places in which I could become staunchly “anti-choice.”

Like today in India, for example.

New York Times reporter Heather Timmons, who covered the horrific gang rape and resulting death of a 23-year-old physiology student in New Delhi last December, suggests that one root cause of such rampant sexual violence against women is the existence of excess males.

“Thanks to years of aborting female fetuses, India has about 15 million ‘extra men’ between the ages of 15 and 35, the range when men are most likely to commit crimes,” Timmons writes.

What? There should be a law against such abortions.

But then I discover there already is a law. In 1994, because of the alarming increase in widespread use of fetal ultrasound, the very process of determining fetal gender was forbidden and the aborting of female fetuses was made illegal. The law was modified in 2003 to make medical professionals “responsible,” along with the pregnant women. (And now a law is being proposed to punish the husband and his family for forced female feticide.)

These laws, however, are scarcely, if ever, enforced. Why? Because family preference for sons is as deep-rooted and prevalent in India as it has always been.

A Dec. 9, 2011, New York Times article tells of Mitu Khurana, a 34- year-old pediatrician, who, pregnant with twin girls, fled her in-laws’ house when they tried to make her miscarry through “torture and starvation.”

After delivering the twins, she filed suit against her husband and his family. Despite death threats, Khurana was determined to fight. “How do I safeguard (my daughters) when they get married?” she asked. “If this can happen to me, it can happen to them when they grow up.”

How does she safeguard her daughters, not only against forced female feticide, but also against the myriad other insults foisted on the women of India, which can eventually culminate in violent rape?

Too many men is only a part of the problem, and female feticide is only the beginning of a life-long disregard and disrespect of girls and women. A huge factor in the preference for males is economic. It is linked to another ancient custom (also outlawed, but still practiced) of dowry. The amount of money that a girl’s parents must pay to a suitor’s family to marry off their daughter can be astronomical.

“A boy’s birth is greeted with great joy,” says Gita Aravamudan, women’s rights activist and author of “Disappearing Daughters.” “Because he is going to bring in the ‘moolah.’ ”

Females are neglected, and sometimes abandoned after birth. A United Nations report estimates that Indian girls die at twice the rate of boys before they reach the age of 5.

Clearly the mere existence of laws against any of these violent actions against females will do nothing without an accompanying culture change. Look at how the police, the government, and other public officials, at first, tried to ignore the horrendous New Delhi rape, and to instead punish the protesters.

But the judicial system’s quick turnaround and the Jan. 3 charging of the perpetrators with criminal kidnapping, rape and murder gives me hope.

As the protesters grew in to crowds of thousands — not only made up of rage-filled women demanding the death penalty, but with hundreds of men who supported them as well — one could almost feel the continent shake with an impending paradigm shift.

Now, if these women and men, most of them young, can stand up to their own families against the practice of dowry, the forced abortion of females, rape, and other egregious violations the way they did against police barricades, there is hope.

So I find myself back in a 100 percent “pro-choice” position for Indian women. When a woman anywhere is free to make her own choice, she usually makes the right one.

Dottie Lamm, former first lady of Colorado, worked on reproductive health issues as a member of the U.S. delegation to two U.N. conferences in the 1990s.



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