Who Will Protect Them From Us?

Why has all the outrage over son-preference and daughter-avoidance in India hardly made any difference to the sex-ratio?

I know I am reinventing the wheel, but I often wonder why all the outrage over son-preference and daughter-avoidance in India has hardly made any difference to the sex-ratio. Far too much has been written about the reasons behind this phenomenon, there have been campaigns, media blitzes and so much more, and yet census after census says the same thing- that the sex ratio in this country is abysmally twisted in favor of the male.

I sadly find that movements for lesser causes (I know some people will protest strongly) have been more persistent and consistent, and have achieved more by way of results. I am well aware of the fact that India has many causes worth fighting for, but to me any cause relating to the girl-child and the skewed sex-ratio is paramount. As far as I am concerned, we have not succeeded in making any difference to the son-preference, daughter avoidance syndrome is because deep down we are all guilty of complicity in this crime. 

Here I want to quote Rita Banerji’s masterpiece ‘Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies’ [Penguin India, 2008], “…it goes without saying that India accounts for one of the largest, and silently ongoing, genocides in human history…(and) a very peculiar aspect of female genocide in India is that it is never called ‘genocide’ in plain terms. It tends to be presented as a gender ratio predicament, like an arithmetic problem gone awry…Indeed, the routine elimination of women from the population is perhaps one of the most depraved secrets that India conceals in its folds of democracy and traditionalism…To hold India accountable for the genocide of its women means that it is not the crime of a small section of society, but includes the complicity of an entire nation of people.”

I also can’t help but recall Elisabeth Bumiller’s much maligned book (critics say it generalizes too much; I disagree) ‘May You Be The Mother Of A Hundred Sons- A Journey Among The Women Of India’ [Penguin India, 1991]. She quotes an information sheet for sex-selective abortions seen in the late 1970s in Bombay (advertising the Prenatal Sex Determination Clinic at the Hurkisondas Hospital) “This is the only institution in our country which is carrying out this humane and beneficial test with such a high accuracy of the results.” She also quotes a slogan for such tests, “Better 500 rupees now than 500,000 later.” According to her, of the 8000 women who visited this clinic between 1978 and 1982, 7999 wanted a son.

I agree with Bumiller when she says, “In some ways, female infanticide was the poor woman’s version of another phenomenon among India’s upper classes- the use of prenatal tests to determine the sex of the child.” She goes into graphic details of female infanticide among some poor communities in parts of Tamil Nadu, and I don’t have the heart to quote them here, except that I did not know that a flower as innocuous as the oleander (I have seen it grow almost anywhere; it adorns many a home as a decorative plant) hides a potent poison (glycoside oleandrin) which is fed with milk to female infants in certain parts of the country. The poison causes heart failure and respiratory paralysis.

Reading Bumiller’s book, I also realized that it was the Indian community which was mainly responsible for taking the scourge of sex selective abortions to the USA. The New York Times of December 25, 1988 had first carried the story. That is one export we could have done without.

I can finally suggest a reading of Chapter 5 (“No More Little Girls: Female Infanticide Among the Poor of Tamil Nadu and Sex-Selective Abortion Among the Rich of Bombay”) of Bumiller’s book. It is heart-rending reading.

To end, I know we need to protect tigers, elephants, turtles, trees, rivers and snakes, but who is going to protect our daughters from ourselves?

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About the Author


I am a former bureaucrat, and have worked a lot on gender issues, disaster management and good governance. I am also the proud father of two lovely daughters. read more...

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