Published March 28, 2013
Selvi holds her tiny baby girl
somewhat clumsily in her arms. She
carefully strokes the thin legs of the
helpless creature and pulls a soft
white blanket over her body. There is
a sense of disbelief in Selvi’s face. If
her husband had his way, the little
girl would have never been born. He simply did not want a girl.
He and his mother tried to push Selvi into having an ultrasound scan to
reveal the sex of the child. Even though sex-selective screening is against
the law in India, every year thousands of fetuses are aborted for being
female. Indian society wants sons, heirs to the family name and its
fortunes, somebody to look after the parents when they are old. Girls are a
financial burden, their future marriages clouded by dowry payments that
ruin families for decades.
Having a girl, an Indian proverb says, is like watering your neighbor’s
But now, the first cracks are appearing in the sexist system. Selvi (who
asked that her real name not be used) was born and raised in Dharavi, a
sprawling slum in the heart of Mumbai. Dharavi is like a petri-dish
culturing India’s future from a disorientating variety of traditions and
beliefs. What unites the one million people who live in Dharavi’s
impenetrable maze of dark alleys is the ambition for a better future. If not
for them, then for their children.
Selvi deeply believes that this future is for boys and for girls. “I refused to
have an ultrasound,” she says. “Would they have found out I was carrying a
girl, my husband and my mother in law would have forced me to have an
abortion.” But Selvi’s strong will enraged her husband. He beat her, kicked
her in the stomach, forced her to do hard labor. Anything that would make
Selvi lose the unwanted baby girl.
She resisted and filed a police complaint against her husband. Then she
moved back in with her parents and sought help from Nayreen Daruwallah,
a doctor of social psychology who runs SNEHA, a nonprofit that fights
violence against women and children.
SNEHA works out of Dharavi’s local hospital; its offices betray a constant
struggle for funding, which is offset by the dedication of its staff. Selvi is
just one of dozens of cases that arrive at SNEHA for help, some of them are
no less savage than the Delhi rape case, that has woken up the whole
“Nothing extraordinary about this Delhi case,” says Daruwallah. “Nothing at
Here, just a couple of months ago a woman was raped by twelve men. They
threw the 18-year-old into the gutter, where she was left to die. The
parents refrained from filing a case against the men who killed their child.
“They were too scared”, says Daruwallah. “They said that this wouldn’t
bring back her daughter.”
What was the sense of pursuing justice, when this would taint the honor of
their surviving children?
“When you commit a crime you have all the possibility of not paying for the
crime,” Daruwallah explains. Even though Indian law in theory punishes
assault, rape and female feticide, it is rarely enforced. Women who have
been raped are often told by police that they must have provoked the man
to end up in such a situation. “This regularly happens when a women has
been filing a complaint against rape or sexual assault,” says Daruwallah.
Add corruption and a judiciary that moves at a glacial speed it is hardly
surprising that violence against women is still so common in India.
“I think women are really fed up,” Daruwallah said. They are now
mastering up the courage to talk about what is happening to them. Only in
this respect the Delhi rape case was unique, a genuine watershed moment.
Now, women from all strata of Indian society feel encouraged to raise the
issues of abuse, violence, and a skewed sexual morality.
“From the moment of my birth my parents treated my brother better than
me,” says Sunita, who lives in a crammed house in one of Dharavi’s narrow
lanes. “I had to work, got less food, and no money was invested into my
When Sunita was 14, her mother wanted to marry her off to a known
alcoholic who was much older than her. So Sunita decided to run away
with the boy from next door. “I knew that would dishonor me, and the
alcoholic would not want to marry me anymore. Well, the downside was of
course, that I had to marry the runaway,” she adds with a smile. He at least
did not abuse her.
Today Sunita works for SNEHA where she gives other woman moral
SNEHA has managed to establish a lose network of activists who work
together to confront the multitude of problems Dharavi’s women face. In a
society with rigid morals, girls are not just a financial burden. Many fathers
are worried that their daughters might become victims of sexual abuse,
which will taint the family’s honor. So they marry off their girls as early as
possible, which again makes them vulnerable to abuse.
Sex education is unheard of in Dharavi. “The girls are not prepared for
what the men do to them after marriage. Their mind and bodies are just
not ready for sex,” says Nitya, one of SNEHA’s street workers.
Until recently, it was unthinkable for a woman to refuse her husband’s
sexual advances. Now, more and more women in Dharavi dare to raise their
voices, even if they risk alienating the men. “The more we fight for our
rights the more viciously the men will react,” says Nitya. “Our
empowerment endangers their patriarchal system.”
Selvi, meanwhile, is convinced that she has taken the right decision. “I
won a battle,” she said, “but the war is not over yet.” She hopes that one
day her husband will come to his senses and will finally accept their little
daughter. Selvi is ready to forgive.
“My husband is innocent. It is our society that has made him like that.”
Published March 28, 2013