In India, gender testing is illegal under the Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (PNDT) Act of 1994. Yet an estimated half-a-million female foetuses are terminated each year, creating a ‘missing generation’ of women and growing concerns about the negative impact this has on Indian society.
Dr Mitu Khurana, an Indian paediatrician, is making legal history, by taking her husband to court for illegally procuring a gender test during her pregnancy and subsequently pressuring her to have the pregnancy terminated.
“When the doctor said I was carrying twins I was very happy. But the moment we entered into his house my in-laws were mourning and they said we can’t bring up two girls,” Khurana remembers.
Khurana took the pregnancy to term and gave birth to twin daughters in 2005. She subsequently left her husband, alleging abuse both from him and his family, and with the support of her parents launched her legal challenge.
By Hazel Chandler
I started following Dr Mitu Khurana’s story in 2009, after I read her account of being abused and pressured by her husband and his family to abort the twin girls she was carrying.
She was one of a few voices talking about her personal experience and the impact the preference for boys was having on the gender balance in her country, India. Unlike many other women in her situation, Mitu was lucky to have a supportive parental home she could run back to when the problems with her husband and his family started, a safe place to spend the remainder of her pregnancy, before finally giving birth to her twin daughters.
Mitu acknowledges that without her family she would not have been able to face the long battle for justice.
Although it is illegal in India to conduct a gender test during pregnancy, or to abort on the basis of gender, it is estimated that at least half-a-million girls are aborted every year.
Despite such a high number of these illegal abortions, it was very hard for me to find people willing to talk on camera, even when I promised to hide their identities.
There were many occasions when my fixer and I would travel for hours, on one occasion for two days, to meet women who had previously said they would talk to us, only to find out once we arrived that they had changed their minds.
It was always for the same reason: fear of punishment from their in-laws, husband or even their own parents for bringing shame on the family. No-one wanted to talk about femicide.
It was all the more remarkable then that Mitu, by nature a shy and unassuming woman, found the strength to take her husband, his family and the hospital where the gender test was allegedly conducted, to court under the PNDT act which outlaws these illegal tests.
Even now, several years after Mitu first started her legal battle, there have been only a handful of successful prosecutions for gender testing. The process is long, expensive and, as Mitu has found, can be hampered by the fact that many women find themselves facing a dismissive male judge who thinks they should stop complaining and just give their husbands a son.
Although people do not speak openly about gender-selective abortion, the boy/girl birth ratio in India speaks for itself. In 2011, there were 914 girls born to every 1,000 boys. In some high-income areas, such as Delhi, the gap is even wider at 870 girls to every 1,000 boys.
I witnessed the consequences of this as they become adults. Some women illicitly marry several brothers at the same time, while others are trafficked from different parts of India or nearby countries to be sold into a marriage they do not want and to live with a culture and language they do not understand.
Mitu is still waiting for a court verdict on her case, but whatever the final judgement, she certainly cannot be blamed for not having tried, for not having turned up in court again and again, for not repeatedly finding the courage to face those in power who felt she should just stop complaining and go back to her husband. Mitu hopes her struggle will inspire others.
“I am just waiting for the day when every girl’s mother comes out and says, ‘No, we will not kill our daughters’,” Mitu says.
I personally hope that enforcing the law that makes gender testing on unborn babies illegal will also help bring about a fundamental attitude change towards women in general, for, without this, people will continue to find ways of not having daughters.