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Discrimination against the girl child is very much alive – and continues to subsist in the form of female infanticide and foeticide in India.
Last week, in Chennai, a daily wage labourer threw his three month old daughter against the wall, because she was a girl and he didn’t want another daughter. When I first came to know of female infanticide and foeticide, it seemed too improbable to my uneducated mind – surely humanity cannot be that horrible! And so, in a bid to investigate, I tried to draw women across the state into a conversation about the issue.
The women from the villages I went to, didn’t quite open up. They clearly did want to say a lot but something held them back. I tried to ask, and tell them that they could speak up, and only if they did, would there be change, but they seemed to be burdened by the fear of reprisals. With time and a lot of probing, however, the stories on female foeticide came forth quietly. Even as the women shared this horrific reality that challenges the very existence of girls within their community, what was quite apparent is that no one admitted to having gone through with it. It was always a friend or a relative that they used as a reference.
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Out of nowhere, Amudha (name changed), a young woman from Nagapattinam, a village close to Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu, shared that I have not been able to erase from my memory, “A girl is a burden. We are already poor, we cannot afford daughters. When she gets married we will be left with nothing. A son, on the other hand, will always bring in money, even when he gets married.” The irony in her matter-of-fact statement doesn’t escape me, and so I ask her how does she hope to get her son married if, like her, others also see a girl as a burden and don’t allow her to be born. A cloud passes over her eyes before she regains her composure and stoutly remarks, “Girls can be brought from anywhere. Here, that’s how they come anyway.”
In her ignorance, Amudha brought forth another terrible truth: female foeticide gives rise to another grave gender crime, trafficking of women. While women are mostly trafficked for marriage, those who remain unmarried get pushed into sex work.
These are the fundamental factors that have encouraged female foeticide and infanticide across India and what also lead to the enactment of a legislation that makes sex determination a punishable offense. Prenatal sex determination was banned in India in 1994, recognising that sex selective abortion has its roots in our long history of strong patriarchal influence in all spheres of life. The Pre-conception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, 1994, prohibits sex selection, both before or after conception and regulates the use of pre-natal diagnostic techniques like ultrasound and amniocentesis.
But, though that ban may have kept foeticide in check – nothing prevented neglecting a girl child on birth, or swaddling her in wet blankets till she got a cold, or just strangling her – all because she was a girl. And thus, infanticide continued, and continues to thrive, unabated.
Two decades on and one look at the latest Census 2011 figures reveals that efforts to reign in the threat of female feoticide need to be strengthened exponentially. India’s overall sex ratio has only shown a marginal improvement since the last Census in 2001. From 933 it has come up to 940 per 1000 males. The Child Sex Ratio (0-6 years) is even more skewed at 914 girls for every 1000 boys. This figure is not only a vast decline from 962 recorded in 1981 but also the lowest since Independence. Incidentally, in May 2011, British Medical Journal, ‘The Lancet’, had reported that over 12 million Indian girls were aborted in the womb over the last three decades in the country.
Female foeticide and infanticide results in a sex ratio that is skewed towards men. Lack of women has led to increased trafficking – particularly in the rural areas – where they are subjected to forced marriages. As the UNICEF puts it, “Decades of sex determination tests and female foeticide that has acquired genocide proportions are finally catching up with states in India.”
Being born a girl in India is nothing short of a miracle, as a heady mix of culture, tradition and empty belief culminate in an increased demand for the male child. Simply put, a boy is seen as an asset and a girl, a dreadful liability. In fact, to families living in crushing poverty and schooled in a warped cultural ideology, a girl is only a lifelong drain on their resources. Where food is meagre, she is an extra mouth to feed and she definitely cannot do physical labour like a male child can to augment the family income. If anything, paying for her marriage and dowry most definitely results in a lifetime of debt for her parents.
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