Born to die: why India’s girls die before being born, by Sofiya Azad
By Sofiya Azad
New Delhi, India
The idea of finding babies in trashcans might sound a little too extreme to believe in today’s day and age. However, the practice of killing a girl child has been around for thousands of years and has also been mentioned in the Hindu religious scriptures such as the Vedas and the Upanishads.
Dr. Harshindar Kaur, a consultant Pediatrician at the Government Medical College in Patiala has been fighting for the cause of female infanticide for over a decade and has had some very bitter experiences in her profession. To her, a regular day looks like visiting a mother who has flushed her baby’s head down the toilet to choke her or counseling a bitter father who left his daughter in a large beehive case, who is stung to death. These are all incidences of barbaric behavior towards girls that are prevalent in certain rural as well as prosperous parts of India today.
While some mothers might be willing to give up their child without guilt, others are pressured into it by their in laws and husbands. Take, for example, Mitu Singh, a newly married housewife who was pushed from the second floor of her building by her in laws when she refused to abort her twin daughters. Despite her repeated attempts to make amends with her in-laws and her husband, a pediatrician by profession, she was physically abused and even poisoned by them.
One of the most reputed hospitals in India, the Jaipur Golden Hospital, openly practices ante-natal tests and performs abortions on a daily basis. Mitu Singh was rushed to this hospital after being poisoned and the doctors forcefully tried to perform an abortion on her. However, she managed to escape and finally delivered her daughters a few months later. Stuck in a legal battle for the past couple of years, Mitu has found very little consolation in the judiciary. Unable to succeed in putting her culprits behind bars, she now lives in constant fear and worries about her daughters’ safety when they’re at school.
Just like her, there are many Mitu Singh’s in India who have been wronged and discriminated against and not been able to do anything to put an end to their misery.
Over the centuries, many girls have been discriminated against and slayed in the name of religion or culture and tradition. However, the idea of killing a girl child inside the womb became more rampant with the advent of ultra sound machines that came to India in late 70s. At that time, every family planning clinic offered female foeticide on demand and it seemed like a more humane option to kill the baby in the womb instead of waiting for it to be born and then killing it.
According to Government records, 1975 was the year of emergency and sterilization driven by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s son, Sanjay Gandhi as a way to control population. This period also experienced a great shift from female Infanticide to foeticide.
What needs to be understood is that women have been able to survive discriminations of all kind in the past but with direct violence, they had little option. Ultrasound machines make a lot of money just by telling if it’s a boy or a girl and therefore, the machines seemed like a very attractive option to people setting up private practices at that time. Action India activist, Gauri Chaudhri says that today the cost of getting an ante natal test is about 500 Indian rupees and the cost of getting an abortion is around 5 000 rupees depending on how well reputed the clinic is and depending on the stage of the pregnancy, the rates go up.
Leading gynecologist Puneet Bedi is always requested by his clients to perform an abortion on them but he always refuses. He describes foeticide as a consumer choice offered to a particular social class for money and since the technology is readily available today, more and more people are indulging in it.
If we look at the pre-conceptual and pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques Act 1994, it clearly states that a pre-natal test can be conducted only under the following conditions:
(i) To detect chromosomal abnormalities
(ii) Genetic metabolic diseases
(iv) Sex-linked genetic diseases
(v) Congenital anomalies
If a person, organization, clinic or genetic laboratory violates this law by using any technology capable of undertaking sex determination tests as well as advertising it in any form (internet, published material or spoken word) before conception available at such center, clinic or place, they shall be punishable by law for up to three years with a fine of 10 000 rupees or more.
Under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act 1971, abortion is only legal when:
(i) The mother’s life is at risk
(ii) Fetal abnormality
One of the major flaws in the system is that the appropriate authorities deputed by the law are in the hands of the doctors. Every practitioner is aware of those who carry out such tests and the rates they charge yet, have failed to report them and hence, they go undetected. The local police are not well versed with the laws and play more of a role of the security guard. And this is one of the reasons why foeticide has proliferated. Now it has spread across the length and breadth of the country, across class and across caste.
Dr. Bedi points out that the Indian society already practices seven different ways of eliminating a girl child. These are – infanticide, girl child neglect, early marriages, bride burning, honour killing, domestic violence and sati. Yet all of these are considered a social evil and not exactly represented as punishable crimes.
As far as the societal norms are concerned, activist Bijayalaxmi Nanda believes that it is a deep-rooted social conditioning in the society that women have led terrible lives and they do not want to bring their daughters in this world.
She claims that one of the major reasons responsible for female foeticide in the society is dowry. Paying huge sums of money to the bride’s husband’s family can literally cripple a poor family. Also, in an agrarian society like India, a boy is more valued than a girl because he can do more labour work while a girl is seen as a liability. Such stereotypes in the society only worsen the position of women.
Another reason is that in the Hindu tradition, the son carries out the last rites on his parent’s funeral while a girl is not allowed to do that. Most of the Indian families believe that their family name can be carried on through the son and not the girl child and therefore, they don’t want the hassle of nurturing an extra person.
Also, the idea of a small family looks more attractive to the educated masses and for the average middle-class working couple, having one child is the only priority and they want that one child to be a son. Therefore, son preference in India evolves from the patriarchal order prevalent in the society.
An example of this is when Dr. Kaur went to a village in Punjab to spread awareness about the issue of female infanticide, she found a new born baby being ripped apart by stray dogs on the street and the baby was already missing a limb when she got there. She described it as the most gruesome sight she had ever seen. The mother who had given up her child up was depressed because she couldn’t produce a son.
Needless to say, this is a highly organized, cold-blooded murder that takes place every few minutes in various parts of India. According to the Indian population mapping website, in some districts of Jammu and Kashmir, the sex ratio of girls is 796 (per thousand boys) which means that nearly 15% of the girls are eliminated. Infanticide is very rare in comparison.
Activist Sabu George feels concerned about the skewed sex ratio of girls in the Indian society and believes that crime against women has increased considerably. There is a lack of potential brides as a result of which people have resorted to abducting women from urban cities and marrying them off to strangers in far-flung areas of a village for money.
Ena Singh, the representative for the United Nation’s Population fund, mentions how in certain parts of Rajasthan, men sell their wives as sex-slaves and also have ‘wife bazaars’ where such bargains are carried out. In some cases, where there aren’t enough girls for boys to marry, one girl is married off to a number of boys. Others are trafficked or migrated (probably forced) for marriage purposes from different parts of the country and quite often, that can result in isolation and discrimination against the girl who has no networks or no support system in that new region and this may have adverse effects on her health and safety.
Solving the problem of gender genocide is much bigger than we can imagine. The stereotypes associated with women are countless as well as inter-related. Wherever you look, dowry is related to violence, which is related to her subservient position in the society, and it is all a part of a vicious circle. A need for better education at government schools is necessary to promote the right value system and change the youth’s mind set about social taboo’s that inflict our society.
Effective counseling needs to be provided to couples that addresses gender issues as well as give them a basket of options.
In addition to this, the authorities responsible for handling such activities in hospitals and clinics need to implement more stringent laws as well as sensitize the judiciary towards the issue.
Dealing with female foeticide has not just been difficult for doctors, activists or the government officials but most importantly the mothers who have to deal with the brunt of it everyday.
For the last few decades or so, the government has been mulling over solutions to solve the problem of female foeticide as well as infanticide. In its attempt to rectify the situation, the government launched the Ladli scheme that offers monetary benefits to parents who can’t afford to raise a girl child.
However, in this ping-pong of the State versus the Centre, it is the girl child who suffers inevitably. While Bijayalaxmi Nanda believes that the government should offer incentives like the Ladli scheme or tie up’s with carrier opportunities to promote child support in the society, Dr. Bedi thinks that it is a complete insult to the intelligence of the Indian society. He believes that the people kill the girl child not because they can’t afford to raise her but because they simply don’t want her.
In this society of conflicting viewpoints and ideologies, the debate on pro-life and pro-abortion is so jumbled up, it is difficult for people to take a stand. Perhaps the only cure to this is time, which will at some stage change the opinion of the masses and educate them about the threats associated with gender genocide that surrounds the Indian subcontinent today. After all, development is the best contraceptive.