India's missing girls -- nipping them in the bud?

BlogHer Original Post

Gender-based abortions in India is no longer the man-bites-dog breaking news story. It's such a pervasive  practice that it probably doesn't outrage us enough to tackle it on a war footing. It is recognized as a problem by law, it makes some men shift in their seats and many women unhappy. In other words, it runs the risk of becoming just another addition to the endless list of gender issues that we know the country needs to deal with, and hope that time and a robust economy will drive it to its natural death.

I seriously doubt that this menace will go away with time and money unless we constantly work to keep it at the top of our act-now lists. And here's why.
The argument goes, that as women (and men) get educated, employed and exposed to opportunities, prejudices fade away. Well that logic doesn't seem to apply in India and for good reason. The BBC recently reported that some British mothers of Indian origin were most likely aborting female fetuses. In an interview, a woman admitted having traveled to India to determine the sex of her fetus and terminate the pregnancy if they found out it was a girl. In a sting operation, the BBC outed a renowned gynecologist  --- recommended by the British High Commission and known for her public stance against female feticide  --- who offered to conduct an ultrasound to determine the sex of a fetus  -- which is illegal in India -- and also recommend someone if the [dummy] couple wanted to abort the fetus. [Following the expose, the doctor's license was suspended pending investigation.]

So what makes it possible for us to flout the law so easily in India? What about the doctor, a woman herself? It will take an entire conference to get to the bottom of this. But I'll take a shot at summarizing here some issues that help keep the problem alive and also point to a study that has done a pretty decent and detailed job of getting a handle on the issue.

India's skewed sex ratio is deeply troubling. The 2001 census reports 933 girls per 1,000 men, the ratio being worse in urban areas, the first sign that education and urbanization don't necessarily mean equity. Also, different regions (and religious/social groups) have thrown up different patterns of sex ratios at birth: meaning, one sweeping tactic will not solve the entire nation's problem.

Let me point you to the 2007 United Nations Population Fund report on India's gender bias and the practice of sex selective abortions. This is probably the most exhaustive and culturally-sensitive report that I have read so far about the problem, its causes, how it plays out socially across the country, and how this problem -- if allowed to grow unfettered -- can shake up the social fabric in the next two-four decades.
An interesting projection the study makes is that by 2025 or so, thanks to late marriages and fewer women , Indian men will find themselves in abundance and unmarried, with no women to pick from. It also fears that fewer women could lead to more violent crimes against women, and will also hit economically poorer men the hardest, as women will seek out financially sound or more affluent partners.
The report is a tad long -- 30-odd pages long -- but totally worth the read if you want to understand the problem.
(Note: The report measures sex ratio as number of males per 100 females, the Indian census records it as number of females per 1000 males.)

Most of the issues I raise here are mentioned in the report one way or the other. I am harping on them because it's easy not to see them playing a crucial role in keeping the practice alive. They are sticky issues that need people to stand up and act at the cost of possible confrontations and skirmishes that we, tradition and family-loving Indians, would love to skirt around.

As the report points out, in the 1980s, new abortion laws and access to pre-natal sex determination technologies led to a sharp deterioration in the child (0-4 years) sex-ratio. The figures also show that child sex ratio worsens in urban areas where couples and families are more likely to have access to sex determination technologies. Northern and Western India are the worst affected. Punjab, a state with one of India's worst sex ratio's, came the gruesome story of a doctor dumping aborted female fetuses in a well outside a nursing home, which was not even authorized to conduct legal abortions.

To state the obvious, we prefer boys to girls. Now, before condemning the entire nation, I'd like to agree with the report that the situation varies from community to community, and fetuses are not aborted simply because they are female. But the chances of such prejudice are higher in families with no sons, meaning the second or the third female fetus runs the risk of never seeing the light of day.

The question is, why do we feel such a strong need for a son?  The common excuses of women being uneducated, economically dependent, or poor, don't seem to fully explain the problem.

Much like the caste system, the preference for boys is an ancient social structure that has become ingrained as a mindset that we struggle to grow out of. Our realities are changing dramatically, both economically and socially, but our attitudes aren't. Here are few ideas to chew on:

  • The cost-benefit mindset 1: It all starts and ends with that all-encompassing finality called marriage. Girls are poor investments because they won't earn and hence won't refill the family coffers. This argument is hard to sustain because women are working and many are more than willing to help out their aging parents financially (which is traditionally considered the duty of a son). But the point is not the money, it's expectations. Many parents don't see it as their right to expect returns from their daughter, especially after she is married, as they would from their son, married or not.

  • The dynasty mindset: Boys are seen as the legitimate heirs to the family name. When a girl gets married, she becomes part of the boy's family (which is okay, but she has to do so at the cost of ceasing to be part of her biological family). Hence, the husband's family has the first right on the daughter-in-law, and not her parents. That's the tricky bit. A new family is always welcome, but the shift of allegiance makes a daughter an unattractive prospect. Why would you want to raise a girl for the benefit of another family?

  • The cost-benefit mindset 2: Okay, so girls have started earning and contributing to the family. Problem solved? No wait, then there's the practice of dowry --- again illegal -- which for some reason continues to plague even "economically viable" women and their families. As Indians climb the economic ladder, dowries have become bigger in many cases. One obvious reason is that girls (and prospective grooms) are not standing up against it. Raising your voice leads to confrontations in the family. So if you can afford it, avoid it. Second, such practices have traditionally been part of affluent, upper class families. So when people move up the social  ladder, they tend to imitate the lifestyle of the social strata that they have worked so hard to be a part of. The typical trickle-down effect.

  • The social pride mindset:  The birth of a boy instills a sense of pride and achievement (yes, achievement) in the parents. It elevates the status of the mother, too. (Yes, it seems that didn't end with the end of royalty). No problems with that, except that in many families the birth of a girl does not elicit similar enthusiasm.

  • Religion and social norms: It's been reported that the sex ratio at birth is far better among Christians and Muslims compared with Hindus, Sikhs and Jains. Makes sense, given that the non-Abrahamic religions are ambiguous about abortions. That's not to say that abortions (and sex selective ones at that) are acceptable to other religions, but they don't carry the kind of religious stigma that Christianity and Islam do. Also, while the problem of sex selective abortions is more prevalant among Hindus/Sikhs/Jains, the preference for boys is not. Christians and Muslims, deterred by their religions, are less likely to abort a female fetus, but that doesn't automatically translate into equity. Besides the obvious prejudices, I know of couples from at least one of these communities that prayed hard for sons.

  • The law, lawmakers and the elite: India bans sex determination, but not abortion. The line is thin. We are equipping doctors with the gadgets to commit the crime, but asking them to refrain from using them criminally. That's a tall order. Let's not forget, that many of the educated doctors and medical practitioners on who we lay the burden of ridding society of such practices by refusing to comply, also come from the same urban, privileged classes (both economically and socially) that perpetuate these traditions. Ditto for lawmakers. Anita Ratnam writes at Ultra Violet about how a high court judge ruled in favor of a woman who did not declare information about her employer in her passport application, saying that a woman is a housewife first, so she may or may chose not to declare her "other" occupations. She also talks about a study conducted a decade ago that revealed the prejudices that judges had about the role of women in society. Naturally their own prejudices color the way they adjudicate. 

These are issues that cannot be dealt with by legislations alone. They need us, especially women, to take them on, one by one, and beat them. If we don't stand up for ourselves and value ourselves, who will?

I am reminded of a Pakistani movie I saw rushes of recently. It was about a free-thinking, educated, independent British girl of Pakistani origin, whose father marries her off by force and deceit to a cousin who had recently converted to a radically Islamic life in remote Pakistan. I recall a scene where the girl, forcefully confined to a remote region of the country, finds out she is pregnant following forced sex, and looks heavenward and says, "I hope it is a boy." 
The movie ended with the girl fighting for justice, but that scene reminded me how so many women give up in the face of constant discrimination and start praying for sons, too.

But like her, change comes one woman at a time. As Shefaly says at La VievQuotidienne

In addition, social change cannot be brought by diktat, can it? Otherwise dowry would have ceased to exist long ago! And women would have equal representation and equal pay at the workplace. Right? Social change is effected, I believe, one person at a time. And that is where individual indignation plays a part. My hope is that it influences our own choices first, and then if we can, we pass on some of that thought process to others and so on.

Other ladies talking the talk:

Nita at A Wide Angle View of India

Gargi at POV

Indian Mommies

Usha at Agelessbonding

Dotmom at Karma Calling

Proud to be Indian


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