Disappearing Daughters – Female Feticide in India – by Amrita Guha


By Amrita Guha
Mitu Khurana, a Delhi pediatrician, claims she was tricked into a sex determination test by her husband. Her husband and in laws abused her verbally and physically so that she would abort the twin girls she was carrying. Mitu refused, moved to her parents’ house and filed a case against her husband under the PCPNDT (Pre Conception and Pre Natal Diagnostic Techniques) Act. “An official told me I’m wasting my youth and my life,” she recalls. “Just give him a son if he wants one, they said.” (Khurana’s story is told in the documentary, It’s a Girl.)
Suvarna Gaikwad’s husband and her mother-in-law kicked, punched and ‘stomped on’ her belly after they were told she was having a baby girl. When she refused to have an abortion, they savagely attacked her. The husband, mother-in-law and two others stomped on her stomach, killing the unborn baby, which had to be aborted. Three-month-old Hina was admitted to a hospital’s intensive care unit struggling for survival. Hina’s father Umar Farooq confessed trying to kill his daughter. Reshma Banu, Hina’s anguished mother, recalled how her husband Umar sent her to buy biscuits and then stuffed poison-laced food into the infant’s mouth to get rid of her.
Sadly, the murder of the girl child, whether as a fetus, or immediately after birth, has reached epidemic proportions in India. Female feticide, or the selective abortion of a female fetus for no other crime but being a female, is becoming increasingly common. A strange combination of patriarchal attitudes and access to modern medical procedures have made it a menace of comparable magnitude to poverty or malnutrition, as the numbers will demonstrate. Whether seen from a purely moral, or a purely pragmatic point of view, this type of violence on women has the potential to create tremendous demographic and social turmoil in the near future.
One of India’s oldest and crudest means to alter the gender composition of children, i.e., female infanticide relies on a set of procedures to kill girls within a few days after their birth. Techniques vary locally according to indigenous know-how and available resources (such as local poisonous plants). Such techniques have also evolved spontaneously over the years, incorporating newly available elements (such as pesticide). Horrifyingly, infanticide’s “efficiency” is beyond doubt, and its financial cost is also extremely limited because of its reliance on local resources. Another disgustingly effective and more common practice is neglect. It consists of a passive strategy intended to deprive girls of fair access to and share of resources, with a reduced probability of survival as a consequence.
In recent years, sex-selective abortion has become another technique to murder girls, using pre-natal sex determination. Pre-natal diagnostic techniques involve two main technologies, i.e. amniocentesis and ultrasonography. In India, pre-natal sex determination relies mostly on the latter, a non-invasive technology that is also easier and cheaper to conduct than amniocentesis. Most physicians are largely conscious of the ethical implications of this technology and are opposed to sex selection. However, as always, a small number of unscrupulous practitioners have become rich by performing illegal sex diagnoses or sex-selective abortions, given the strong social bias towards boys.
In traditional Indian culture, the female, and especially the mother is revered and there are significant female oriented religious cults and observances in the dominant Indian religion, ie Hinduism. However, there have always been significant restrictions on the freedom of a woman in all major Indian religious traditions. The Manusamhita, which tends to drive traditional Hindu rituals and accompanied behavior in Northern India, clearly specifies an inferior role for women as a whole, and specially wives. While the Independence Movement earlier and the Indian Constitution later codified formal equality of men and women, the laws are often very difficult to implement. In the context of a deeply conservative social structure, enforcing women’s rights runs right into the patriarchal views of the larger society. For example, even though dowry, a practice where parents of brides have to pay large gifts to the groom’s family, has been outlawed, there has been very little prosecution over the years.
In a traditionalist, agrarian society where the vast majority of Indians still live today, children are viewed as sources of labor and future income. Male children are valued since they can perform physical labor, and will likely fetch a dowry at time of marriage. Daughters are physically weaker, socially restricted from performing labor, and may offer the prospect of severe financial hardship for families at the time of weddings (cost of weddings are usually borne by the bride’s family). By this view, poor rural families are likely to have the highest rates of female feticide.
The reality, as usual, is complex. The five lowest states by sex ratio in India are Haryana, Jammu & Kashmir, Sikkim, Punjab & Uttar Pradesh. By per capita income, the poorest states are Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Manipur & Assam. Interestingly, Punjab & Haryana are among the wealthiest states by per capita income, suggesting that it is not just economic deprivation that causes families to kill their girl children. In fact, the so-called Northern Hindi belt states are all below the national average, while all the Southern states are above; it provides anecdotal evidence to us that culture, and not just economic deprivation, plays a significant role in the attitude towards women.
Ironically, the increase in female feticide in India is likely a sad side effect of material progress, as well as aided by policies that would normally enhance women’s rights. Abortion was legalized in India in 1971 allowing for abortion in the case of rape, genetic abnormalities for the child, physical/mental health of the woman, as well as failure of birth control devices adopted by the parents. In practice, it is almost entirely at the discretion of the medical professional involved. Also, given the widespread fears about India’s rapidly rising population, there have been very few practical restrictions on abortion rights. The door was opened for sex-selective abortion in India and the ability to detect genetic abnormalities via medical ultrasound in the child also yielded sex data. My view is that relative affluence, without any accompanying progressive attitudes towards women, have exacerbated the trend towards female feticide. This is the reason as culturally conservative states such as Punjab & Haryana, as well as their much poorer cousins such as Uttar Pradesh & Bihar, have the highest rates of female feticide.
Sex selection appears to have played a major role in causing the deterioration observed in child sex ratio. Excess female mortality among infants and children contributes only moderately to the deficit of girls. The Indian Medical Association estimates that five million female fetuses are aborted each year. India’s child sex ratio (0-6 years) has declined from 945 in 1991 to 927 in 2001 and now to the lowest since independence: 914 females per 1,000 males in 2011. Overall sex ratios in the national capital New Delhi, and two adjacent states Punjab & Haryana are below 900 per 1,000 males as of the 2011 census.
An unbalanced sex ratio, specially in the northern states, has serious implications on social stability. We can foresee gender-related crime growing; the traditional family structure disturbed; the proliferation of prostitution and crimes against women as well as acceleration in the growth of sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS. To us, it is not a surprise that India has been experiencing a tremendous upsurge in violence against women, especially rape. As men see women as the vulnerable group who are a becoming numerically smaller, and the prospects for marriage recede, the incidence of gang rapes can only rise. The rise of forced marriages and bride buying which are common in North India may also be a result of female feticide. Since there aren’t enough local women to marry, Haryana’s (sex ratio 877 per 1,000 men) men pay touts to bring women for them to marry and to work on their farms. Social activists believe most of these women end up being used as sex slaves and then resold to other men in what looks like a flourishing market in trafficking of women.
After years of ignoring the problem, both mass media and government have begun to realize the larger implications of murdering girl children. The Indian Medical Association (IMA) and the Medical Council of India (MCI) have come out openly against the practice of sex-determination by some members of the medical fraternity. The PCPNDT (Pre Conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Technique Act) which banned pre-natal sex determination, provides the tools to act against the misuse of technology but also requires a pronounced effort from local authorities. Initial attempts to use legal means to prosecute unscrupulous doctors who assisted in sex determination and subsequent abortions only scratched the surface of the problem. The Government launched in 2011 a “Save the Girl Child Campaign” and is trying to lessen the preference for a son by highlighting the achievements of young girls.
In our view, the issue of female infanticide or feticide is related to the larger issue of gender equality and respect. Female feticide cannot be combated simply by a legalistic approach. All the best-intentioned campaigns or laws will be completely irrelevant unless society as a whole learns to treat women with respect. India has never had a strong feminist movement, and it is still common for women to completely defer to their father or husband for making crucial life decisions such as marriage, career, children etc. Unless the entire mindset of society improves, and with it the position of women, only very terrible consequences can result from the continuing violence that the women of India face from birth, and sometimes even before they are born.

The author, Amrita Guha, is from Calcutta, India and currently lives in San Jose, California.


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