We, the people of India arrogate to ourselves the mantle of benign lovers of humanity and human beings, a la Abu Ben Adam. And we also undertake to betray all principles of humanity, indulge in killing not only of living beings, but also of those still to born. We say women are the creators and no religious function is complete without them, but follow the example of Lord Rama sending Sita into exile and installing her gold statue for the sake of ceremony. If this not true, the why does the practice of prenatal selection and selective abortion remains a common practice in India, claiming up to half a million female children each year, as revealed in a recent study by the British medical journal, The Lancet?
I am reminded of a story of one British official, James Thomason. While speaking to a group of landowners in Uttar Pradesh in 1835, he referred to one of them as a son-in-law of another. His remark raised a sarcastic laugh among them and a bystander briefly explained that he could not be a son-in-law since there were no daughters in the village. Thomason was told that the birth of a daughter was considered a most serious calamity and she was seldom allowed to live. So, the sex selective abortion is not a fairly recent phenomenon. Is this sex selection a part of abortion?
Abortion has stirred up raging political and legal controversies worldwide. In many countries religious and political groups refer to abortion as murder, while women’s rights advocates insist it forms part of a woman’s fundamental right to have control over her body. In India, however, such a polarization of views has been absent till now. Only now has the Sankaracharaya advocated that there be a ban on abortion, and his demand is for all the wrong reasons. . In fact, there was hardly a fight when the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act legalized abortion in 1971. The law passed quietly, without any significant religious or political opposition.
The Act was quite an advanced piece of legislation for its time, stipulating that abortions (up to twenty weeks of gestation) could be performed by registered medical practitioners. The passage of the Act seemed to imply that a woman who decided to terminate her pregnancy would no longer be hindered by the law in making this choice, nor would she be forced to risk her life doing so. However, in the context of an under-funded and unaccountable health care system, much of what was envisaged during the passage of the Act failed to materialize. But I am here more concerned with feticide.
Sex Determination or girl murder
The use of ultrasound equipment to determine the sex of an unborn child – introduced to India in 1979 – has now spread to every district in the country. It has played a crucial role in the termination of an estimated 10 million female fetuses in the two decades leading up to 1998, and 5 million since 1994, the year the practice was banned. Few doctors in the regular clinics offer the service openly, but activists estimate that sex-selection is a $100 million business in India, largely through mobile sex-selection clinics that can drive into almost any village or neighborhood The practice is common among all religious groups – Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Muslims, and Christians – but appears to be most common among educated women, a fact that befuddles public health officials and women\’s rights activists alike.
Privileged, and most educated families have the least number of children,\” says Sabu George, a researcher with the Center for Women\’s Development Studies in New Delhi, who did not participate in the study. \”This is not just India. Everywhere in the world, smaller families come at the expense of girls.\” India has encouraged smaller families through a mixture of financial incentives and campaigns calling for two children at most. Faced with such pressure, many families, rich and poor alike, are turning to prenatal selection to ensure that they receive a son. It\’s a problem with many potential causes – from social traditions to the economic burden of dowries – but one that could have strong social repercussions for generations to come.
The Lancet Survey
The Lancet survey mentioned above was conducted by Prabhat Jha of St. Michael\’s Hospital at the University of Toronto and Rajesh Kumar of the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Research in Chandigarh, India. They looked at government data collected from a 1998 sample of Indian families in all the districts of the country. From this data, they concluded that 1 out of every 25 female fetuses is aborted, roughly 500,000 per year. Evidently the Supreme Court decision banning the use of ultrasound to check for girl has, as usual, been disobeyed without any compunction.
And the result of this is there for all to see and ruminate. The sex ratio is skewed. According to the official Indian Census of 2001, there were 927 girl babies for every 1,000 boy babies, nationwide. The problem is worst in the northwestern states of Haryana, Punjab, Delhi, and Gujarat, where the ratio is less than 900 girls for every 1,000 boys. Brave Punjabis and Haryanavies evidently like only males.
Feticide Not a Crime
Shame on India, where this mass murder goes unchecked. Against common expectations, female feticide is not a crime of India\’s backward masses. Instead, it is most common among India\’s elite, who can afford multiple trips to an ultrasound clinic, and the hushed-up abortion of an unwanted girl. In the prosperous farming district of Kurukshetra, for instance, there are only 770 girl babies for every 1,000 boys. In the high-rent Southwest neighborhoods of New Delhi, the number of girl babies is 845 per 1,000 boys.
Some activists say it is wrong to blame Indian society for the incidents of female feticide. The main cause for the \”girl deficit,\” they say, is the arrival of ultrasound technology, and the entrepreneurial spirit of Indian doctors. \”This is not a cultural thing,\” says Donna Fernandez, director of Vimochana, a women\’s rights group based in Bangalore. \”This is much more of an economic and political issue. It has got a lot to do with the globalization of technology. It\’s about the commodification of choices.\” What an argument!
Cultures don\’t change overnight, of course, so it\’s no wonder that activists are focusing attention on regulating the technology that makes feticide possible, the ultrasound. By law, the government can regulate – but not deny – the use of prenatal diagnostic techniques for the purposes of detecting birth defects, but not gender itself. Till now no doctor has been prosecuted for disclosing the gender of a child.
Educated Women Lead
Karuna Bishnoi, spokeswoman for UNICEF in Delhi, says it shouldn\’t come as a surprise that educated women are among the most likely to use prenatal sex determination. \”I personally believe this as a failure of society, not a failure of women,\” says Ms. Bishnoi. \”Women who choose this technique may be victims of discrimination themselves, and they may not be the decision makers. Nobody can deny that the status of women is very low in India. There is no quick fix to this.\”
The cultural practice of giving a dowry to the groom\’s family puts a tremendous financial burden on a bride\’s family. The cost of not paying a larger dowry can be even higher. It might result in bride burning even.
The Bleak Future
Sabu George believes that The Lancet study may have exaggerated the number of female abortions in the past 20 years; it also underestimates the exponential growth of female feticide into the futures. \”This is a much larger problem in the future,\” he says. \”Without strong pressure by civil society groups, we\’ll be seeing 1 million female feticides every year within five years time, definitely.\”
According to a recent report by the United Nations Children\’s Fund (UNICEF) up to 50 million girls and women are missing from India\’ s population as a result of systematic gender discrimination in India. In most countries in the world, there are approximately 105 female births for every 100 males. In India, there are less than 93 women for every 100 men in the population. The accepted reason for such a disparity is the practice of female infanticide in India.
However this anti-female bias is by no means limited to poor families. Much of the discrimination is to do with cultural beliefs and social norms. These norms themselves must be challenged if this practice is to stop. According to UNICEF, the problem is getting worse as scientific methods of detecting the sex of a baby and of performing abortions are improving. These methods are becoming increasing available in rural areas of India, fuelling fears that the trend towards the abortion of female fetuses is on the increase.
Shall we ever bid adieu to our hypocrisy and turn our faces away from mass murders? Shall we ever be normal human beings? Shall we ever treat human life with the reverence it deserves?