June 24, 2001,
Where has the girl child gone?
Killing them softly
Where has the girl child gone?
WHERE has the girl child gone? This is a question being asked in the Indian national and regional newspapers. The concern for the girl child, which is usually a subject for the occasional ritual of the gender column, is now occupying prime space in the newspapers—from the front page to the editorial columns. The reason for this change of heart as far as the girl child goes is the startling decrease in the population of the girl child in some of the prosperous states of the country. The 2001 Census figures of the sex ratio are alarming in the under-six age group all over the country.
The lowest female-male ratio in the country is in Haryana—864 women for 1000 men. This when Haryana has one of the fastest growing economies. The declining ratio of the girl child stares the eye in the neighboring state of Punjab. According to the 1991 census, there were 875 girls to 1000 boys but the number has now come to an all-time low of 793. The decline in other states in the under-six age group is as follows: Haryana 879 to 820, Himachal Pradesh 951 to 897, Chandigarh 899 to 845 and Gujarat 915 to 856.
Nationwide the number has come down from 945 to 927. The reason for this decline is not hard to find. There are clinics in every neighbourhood in these areas doing a thriving business in determining the sex of the foetus by using the ultrasound technique. It is the female fetus that is being aborted and according to an estimate some 30 to 50 lakh female fetuses are aborted every day in India. Female foeticide is rampant in these states.
It is significant that Akal Takht, the highest seat of the Sikh religious authority in the Golden Temple at Amritsar, has raised an effective voice against female feticide. The Jathedar of the Akal Takht, Joginder Pal Singh Vedanti, has announced that directives will be issued to Sikhs living everywhere to socially boycott those who adopt such heinous practices. "No Sikh will have anything to do with the one who kills a girl child. The principle should be enforced in the true spirit of the religion to restrain the decreasing population of girls, which has disturbed the sex ratio," says Vedanti.
This directive is welcome for the government and the judiciary has been apathetic to the problem and has not bothered to implement the prevailing laws. Even though the Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques(Regulation and Prevention of Misuse)—a national-level Law—came into force in 1994, not a single conviction has been made under it. It has merely driven the business underground. The results of the ultrasound tests are not put down on paper, but are told verbally to the clients. A public interest litigation filed before the Human Rights Commission, Punjab, by lawyer-activist Veena Kumari in 1998 is still pending. She says, "We were told orally that yes such practices are happening but the commission is helpless in dealing with them. In fact, the Census figures have only reaffirmed all that we have been seeing happen around us."
Following the release of the census figures, the Voluntary Health Association of Punjab has filed a petition in the Punjab and Haryana High Court seeking directions under article 226 and 227 of the Constitution of India for the effective implementation of the Pre-natal Diagonistic Techniques(Regulation and Prevention of Misuse)Act, 1994. However, notwithstanding the urgency of the situation the court has given a date of hearing after three months. Manmohan Sharma, executive secretary of the Association, says: "Every effort has to be made from all sides if the increasing practice of female foeticide is to be checked. It is not a problem that can be dealt with in isolation. The Akal Takht announcement is welcome and we appeal to all other social and religious organizations to come forward to influence people against it.’’
The problem has also to be perceived and dealt with from the Indian context as well as the prevailing cultural and social practices in the worse-affected states. In sharp contrast to developed countries where tests like amniocentesis and sonography scientific techniques are used mainly to detect genetic deformities at the pre-natal stage, in India this technology is used for sex determination and elimination of the female foetus through abortion.
One relevant fact which the Census 2001 data threw up is that literacy alone cannot improve the female survival rate. Curiously the 11 states and union territories where the gender ratio worsened show a higher literacy rate than did the 1991 census figures.
The selective abortion of female foetuses is not unique to India. When the one-child policy was introduced in China in 1979, ten years later there was a dramatic decline in the number of girls born there. In India, the preference for a male child has existed for centuries and in these agrarian states in North India, there is an overdose of the patriarchal culture and the status of women is low.
This is the reason for the decline in the female ratio in the state even when there has been a nationwide improvement in the ratio." This is yet another important fact to note. The number of women in the national all-age sex ratio has increased but in six states there has been a worsening: Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Chandigarh and Delhi. Delhi state, containing the Capital, has the low sex ration of 821 women to 1,000 men. Yet another myth broken is of literacy. Whereas Himachal Pradesh and Punjab show improvement in literacy rates, the female ratio has fallen. In the North many educated women have gone in for amniocentesis to produce male children. The male patriarchal values of the society are deeply internalised by the women, who feel inferior if they have not produced a male heir. More often than not a woman’s status in her family is determined by the number male children she gives birth too. In days of two-child families, the female child is being decimated.
Dowry is yet another factor that makes a girl child’s birth an unhappy event. With the increase of consumer goods, dowry is not just clothes and gifts for the bride but a car, refrigerator, television and such other things have been added to the long list. A sizable amount of cash is also given, as the girl by the customs prevalent does not inherit the father’s property.
While the women’s groups all over the country have been protesting against the practice for two decades and media has been carrying reports and articles from time to time, female feticide was seen only as a women’s issue. Pamela Philipose, a senior journalist who has written extensively on the issue, says: " It is surprising that while it was happening all round us, the Indian Medical Association and the Medical Association of India took up the issue as late as 1999. What the census figures have done is that now it is no longer just a women’s issue but a an issue with demographic implications for the society in general." While the Medical Association and the Medical Council of India did launch a drive and threatened to withdraw licenses of those practicing these tests, nothing has been done.
However, the outrage in the media should be taken as a point for a multi-pronged drive to check the practice of female feticide. Otherwise the issue may once die out until the census reports come out with more distressing figures after the lapse of the next 10 years. Calling for a change of outlook, Philipose says "To ensure that female fetuses are not aborted, the nation must also ensure that a woman’s life chances are not aborted." This would mean the extension and safeguarding of the rights of women including nutrition, health care, right to schooling, right not to be married below the legal age and a an equal share of inheritance in the parents’ property.
The directive from the Supreme Court that the Act be implemented strictly, however, spells some hope but only if it is followed up with conviction. It is for grassroot level organisations to play effective watchdogs and file cases of contempt of court wherever there are instances of ignoring or bypassing the law.
The list is long and only an Utopian
could think that it could be translated into reality in times to come,
given the situation when she is even being denied the right to be born.
Proper regulation of the ultrasound facilities is required urgently. So
also a well-panned and sustained awareness campaign coupled with social
and religious pressure can also help in restricting the trend.
A few years ago, as a result of an unbelievable mix-up, I found myself at a party of middle-class youngsters in Delhi, mostly between 13 and 17 years old. Instead of making a quiet exit, I decided to stay, and make the most of it. The first thing I noticed at this teenage party is that the boys and girls were in separate corners. The boys were bragging and talking about adventurous things. The girls were giggling, speaking about clothes, gossiping about boys, and nervously sucking on Pepsi straws.
By and large, it did not seem too different from the background noise when I was growing up. In our days, my mother used to be concerned about the right career for her son. When it came to her daughter, she only thought about her clothes and the type of man she would marry one day. Like every Indian middle-class mother, she hoped that her daughter would make the right sort of friends, the "right sort" being defined not by their character, but by their social position. She unconsciously used the Indian yardstick, ‘log kya kahenge’ (..."What will people say?") It was important to measure up to that yardstick.
As I looked at the girls at the party, I suspect that they too had been brought up believing "what others think of you" is what matters. One of the girls, seeing me out of my depth, came up to talk to me. Her name was Rekha. We chatted about this and that until I thoughtlessly asked her, "What do you plan to do?" I realised my mistake because she became nervous and defensive. She mumbled something, and I felt that I may have lost a chance to make a friend. However, I quickly made amends by turning the conversation to pleasanter things. As we talked, I became convinced that one must never ask this question of a young person. What I really wanted to ask her was "Who are you? What do you want to make of your life?" But this question was never asked. Yet, I think it is so important for a youngster, especially a girl, to face this question. Boys, in any case, grow up having to think about these things, but girls do not. They never quite face reality in our sheltered Indian middle-class homes.
I read somewhere of an American study of junior high school students (13 to 15 years’ old) that suggested that boys and girls change more than their hormonal levels. It showed that adolescents become submissive and less confident, less likely to speak in the classroom. This seemed to be consistent with what I observed about Rekha and her friends.
There were no unforced errors the following day. I found myself at the right party, lunching with the parents of these same boys and girls. Between helpings of masur dal and boondi raita, I met Rekha’s mother. She said that Rekha had spoken about me. "What did she say?" I asked. "Oh, that you are a nice man," she said. "Is that all?" I asked. "Yes", she said. Before I could get anything more out of her or get to know her (something that I would have liked), our hostess swept me to another room, in order to "catch up on old times".
"How do you know her?" asked my hostess, pointing to Rekha’s mother.
"I don’t. I met her daughter, Rekha, last night," I said.
"It’s really awful that her husband gets drunk every night and beats her up," she said.
"What about Rekha?" I asked. "He beats her too," she said.
"I mean, why doesn’t she do something about It?"
"What can she do?"
I looked across the room at Rekha’s mother and I felt a great sadness. Listening to my hostess talk about the other women at the party, the sadness deepened. Many of the women in the room, I could guess, had callous, boring marriages to men who had a pot-belly and a wandering eye. One of them was divorced and she lived close to a daily fear of slipping into poverty. Hope had begun to elude them. Why did I feel that yesterday’s giggling, starry-eyed daughters were doomed to become today’s cynical and bitter mothers?
I wanted to tell Rekha that we live in a new millennium and ask her how she was going to lead her life in the 21st century? You don’t want tot grow up into a helpless victim like your mother. I hope you will marry a fine young man, but you mustn’t have the illusion that the nice young man in Rajendra Nagar with a white Maruti will take care of you and determine your happiness. You have to be ultimately answerable for you own life. No one else can do that. In order to be answerable you have to take charge of your life or "paddle your own canoe", as the Americans say. You must believe that you can act upon your life, and not have life act upon you. Thus, you will become an autonomous woman who is spontaneous, self-reliant and responsible. Thus, you will be "inner-directed", rather than "outer-directed", in David Riesman’s words.
If there is one thing that
holds a woman back in middle-class Indian society, it is her reluctance
to face the reality of money. Very simply, money must be made. You have
to earn a salary or run a business. That requires hard work, making
decisions, and single-mindedly pursuing those decisions. It is the only
way you will be free in the long run. Then, if you are caught in a bad
marriage or are divorced (which I hope you won’t be), at least you won’t
be trapped or be a prey to pressures, or be enslaved by society like
your mother. You will think less of log kya kahenge and more
about what you must do.
Killing them softly
FIVE years after the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act was notified, it still remains unimplemented. Despite the plummeting female-male ratio, as revealed in the 2001 Census, most states have not set up appropriate authorities to register clinics, entertain complaints and take action against clinics that do not comply with the law.
While official response is taking its own time coming, technology is moving in leaps and bounds, providing more sophisticated ways of eliminating females. Newer techniques — like the Ericsson Technique that separates sperm to enable women to conceive the babies of their choice (mostly males) — have escaped the law, which does not cover sex pre-selection.
Judicial concern may go some way in tackling the adverse sex ratio. On May 4, Mr Justices M.B. Shah and S.N. Variava of the Supreme Court issued directions in response to a petition filed last year by Mumbai-based Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes (CEHAT)Pune-based Mahila Sarvangeen Utkarsh Mandal (MASUM) and activist Sabu George. Besides implementation of the Act, the petitioners have also asked that pre-natal sex selection techniques be brought under its purview).
The court directed all authorities in the states and union territories to file quarterly reports to the Central Supervisory Board (CSB), set up under the Act, about the number of registered clinics using ultrasound techniques for sex determination of foetuses. They were also asked to file surveys of such bodies, action taken against non-registered bodies and other details like action taken on complaints.
Until May last year, when the apex court intervened to kick-start the somnolent state machinery, not a single clinic or laboratory employing technology to identify female foetuses had been registered.
A shocked Mr Justice Shah noted that none of the states had taken any action to implement the law despite being sent notices by the court in May 2000. The court directed the states to appoint fully empowered appropriate authorities at district and sub-district levels to deal with the offence.
The lack of official steps to halt the elimination of females cannot be justified by lack of knowledge of the long-term implications. Warning bells had begun ringing 10 years ago, when the 1991 Census had revealed that the ratio of females to males had gone down to 927 per 1000.
In the 0-6 year age group in 1991, the ratio stood at 945 girls per 1,000 male children. In 10 years, the country has made enough progress to satisfy the undying obsession with the male child. Killer technologies are taking a heavy toll of female foetuses, in the 0-6 age group stands at 927 girls for every 1,000 boys. This year’s national head count has shown a decline of 18 points in the 0-6 age group.
But data from some states, is numbing. The most prosperous states are also ‘leaders’ when it comes to killing female foetuses. On March 1, 2001, Punjab had 793 girls per 1,000 boys in the 0 to 6 age group. In Haryana, the corresponding figure was 821. According to the 2001 Census of India, the other states with the sharpest decline in sex ratio of the child population are Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Uttaranchal, Maharashtra and the Union Territory of Chandigarh.
Although the national female to male ratio is up to 933 as compared to 927 in 1991, it is largely accounted for by longevity of women. "The maternal mortality rate is coming down and this is one of the reasons for this slight improvement," says Sabu George. The increasing life expectation of women may also have contributed to the apparently ‘upward’ trend. The scene will, however, change drastically in another 20 years if these trends continue.
The Act, passed after a nationwide uproar by women’s groups, is a typical example of the state making a token gesture to keep noise levels down. Despite the fact that the declining number of girls reflects the low status of women, the hapless woman who is forced to undergo abortion if the foetus is female is treated as a criminal. And this despite the fact that after sustained pressure from women’s groups across the country, the Act provides that "the pregnant woman has been compelled by her husband or the relative to undergo pre-natal diagnostic technique".
Selective abortion of female foetuses has for long been a common practice in the country and the advent of new techniques has only made it easier — and going by the fewer numbers of girls being born — more widespread. In more ‘barbaric’ times, infanticide was the only way to get rid of a girl. People crushed the heads of newborn girls under a cot, thrust husk down their throats to rip their tender gullets, gave them an overdose of opium or drowned them.
Technology has provided ‘kinder’ ways. People, whose hands would have stopped at actually murdering a wailing baby girl, now happily visit clinics for an ultrasound test and once the sex of the foetus is identified get rid of it with impunity.
Ironically, nature favours girls, and female infants are known to be sturdier. Using science to reverse this evolutionary trend can have devastating consequences. Notwithstanding the lacunae in the Act, coupled with the difficulties in implementing it, it could serve to exert some pressure to curb this alarming trend. But the official apathy, even to carry out the motions of implementing the law, is obvious.
Under the Act, the CSBis mandated to meet twice a year. The low priority accorded to women is evident from the fact that the CSB was constituted in February, 1997 — over one year after the Act was notified. In all these years, "the Board met five times and the sex ratio kept going down", Indira Jaisingh, lawyer for the petitioner, told the court. To address this lacuna, the court directed that the CSB should meet every six months.
Only some states have recently registered a few ultrasound machines. Tamil Nadu, where pressure from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is more intense than elsewhere, has registered 561 machines; Kerala has registered 180; and Maharashtra, the state to have first legally banned sex determination of the foetus way back in 1986, has managed to register only 36 such clinics. Punjab and Haryana, the states with the worst sex ratio, are still looking the other way.
"Despite the intent
of the Act being wide and all-encompassing it is being interpreted to
exclude pre-natal sex selection," says the petition. Unless the law
and its implementation takes a broader view of the problem, the
sex-ratio is unlikely to reverse its downward trend, given that male
preference is still deeply entrenched in the Indian psyche and society. WFS
|| Punjab | Haryana | Jammu & Kashmir | Himachal Pradesh | Regional Briefs | Nation | Editorial |
| Business | Sport | World | Mailbag | In Spotlight | Chandigarh Tribune | Ludhiana Tribune
50 years of Independence | Tercentenary Celebrations |
| 121 Years of Trust | Calendar | Weather | Archive | Subscribe | Suggestion | E-mail |