|HER WORLD||Monday, January 21, 2002, Chandigarh, India|
are sowing the seeds of our own destruction
TO science it is that we apportion blame for this latest assault on morality—female foeticide. The abominable practice has emerged in the last 20 years or so following the development of two major medical techniques, amniocentesis and ultrasonography.
Make life worth
living for the girl child
Visible work, invisible
tough terrain for women
are sowing the seeds of our own destruction
"For when to mischief mortals bend their will;
How soon they find fit instruments of ill."
TO science it is that we apportion blame for this latest assault on morality—female foeticide. The abominable practice has emerged in the last 20 years or so following the development of two major medical techniques, amniocentesis and ultrasonography. Both of these had been designed in a western milieu, that is, in developed countries of Europe and the United States of America, with the express objective of identifying any congenital defects in the human foetus at an early stage in pregnancy. If the tests suggested that the baby to be was likely to be deformed, or suffer from an incurable ailment, or that the life of the mother might be endangered at some stage during pregnancy, the foetus could be aborted.
Amniocentesis involves the taking of amniotic fluid around the embryo by piercing a needle and can be done after 15 weeks of the pregnancy. Ultrasonography, on the other hand, is the imaging of the foetus by use of an ultrasound machine. Both systems were hailed in the West as effective safety devices for health and, indeed, for protection of life. It is incidental that the very tests also lead to detection of sex of the unborn child. The originators of the new techniques might not have anticipated that the resultant information would be put to unethical use elsewhere in the world. In many parts of India, the technology has been hijacked to commit a heinous crime — the selective destruction of human beings even before birth.
A recent research paper, Rainuka Dagar (2001), Life Enhancing Mechanisms—Life Depriving Outcomes argues that the social structure and traditions of states like Punjab and Haryana had an inbuilt pre-disposition for "misappropriation of the technology", viz. misuse of sex detection to fulfil a latent desire in society for baby boys:
The reasons for preference in all sections of our society for a male child are well known. He is expected, in due course, to be a breadwinner for the family; to carry forward in the coming generations the family name; to provide physical support to aged parents. A girl on the other hand is perceived to be a life-long burden on her parents, and later, on her husband, for whom dowry is to be provided, and who requires continuous protection and shelter in a male-dominated, patriarchical society.
Some of our ancient texts such as the Manusmriti did place the man on a higher pedestal than the woman, but the religious teachings, in the Vedas, the Puranas and the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata did not at any time discriminate against the female, who was celebrated as the font of creation, the Janani, or Ardhangini, an equal half of her husband (not too different from the English concept of the "better half"). The picture of ancient and medieval society that emerges from such documents as Vatsyayana’s Kama Sutra (300 A.D.) or temple sculpture and architecture in South and North India alike, is of a celebration of good living and sex equally by men and women.
It was perhaps the consequence of repeated invasions and subjugation of the indigenous population, especially the atrocities committed on the local women by victorious invaders, that women began to be perceived as a liability in society. This explains why frontier states in north western India which faced the brunt of most invasions, display also the most adverse sex ratio. During the 20th Century, according to the census figures, the sex-ratio in the country was seen to decline from 972 in 1901 to 927 in 1991. According to certain official reports of the time female infanticide was identified as a likely cause of the adverse ratio.
The state of Punjab always had a ratio lower than the national average, but even in Punjab, the sex-ratio improved from census to census, rising from just 780 in the year 1911 to 882 in 1991. What is a cause for alarm is the decrease in the sex ratio in Punjab to 874 in the latest Census (2001) even as the nationwide figures in the same decade 1991-2001, show a rise from 927 to 933. Even more worrisome figures during this decade are those indicating that the sex ratio in the age group 0-6 years has fallen from 875 to 793. This suggests that not only are less females born, in relation to males, but that even fewer survive to the age of six years, suggesting clearly that the unwanted girl child is neglected in infancy.
The findings of the Census 2001 are in a sense explosive, showing clearly that female foeticide is widely prevalent in the state of Punjab. Independent studies, as by the United Nations Population Fund (Sept. 2001), Sex Selective Abortions and Fertility Decline: The case of Haryana and Punjab reach the same ghastly conclusions: that "the availability of technology for sex detection of the unborn child appears to have affected substantially the incidence of sex-selective abortions in Haryana and Punjab". The report goes on, "the extensive practice of sex-selective abortion, as documented here, is a chilling indicator of gender discrimination and the unequal status of women in society".
It does not require a trained statistician or a medical researcher to predict the horrendous implications of this trend. One can foresee: gender-related crimes growing in multiple progression; a breakdown of the traditional family structure; the proliferation of prostitution and homosexuality and related perversions as well as an acceleration in the growth of AIDS. In short, the spectacle of a society that decays from an inhuman attack mounted by humans on human nature. An inevitable consequence of such a cynical attitude would be the decline, even extinction of our finest traditions of romance in art and literature. The seeds of our destruction have already been sown.
That the government is fully aware of the imminent crisis is clear from the strongly-armed legislation enacted by Parliament in the year 1994, "The Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act. The enactment PNDTRPMA does not lend itself to any neat acronym, nor, as it has transpired, to effective implementation. On paper, the formulation is noble, and the penalties for infringement stiff. The Act makes it illegal to determine sex of an unborn child. The punishment is three years imprisonment for the defaulting doctor as well as for the woman and motivators, with a fine of Rs 10,000/-. Even advertising in the media of facilities for sex detection tests is illegal. Read with the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1970, abortion following a pre-natal test is also illegal except under certain special circumstances. PNT can legally be performed only in a registered clinic, by a qualified doctor, for a medical purpose. A good piece of legislation.
Alas! as the Lebanese poet, Khalil Gibran writes,
You delight in laying down laws;
Yet you delight more in breaking them.
Despite the stringent legal provisions, detection tests followed by abortions of female foetuses continue unabated. The Supreme Court of India is itself monitoring from month to month the enforcement of law throughout the country. All state governments are to submit comprehensive information on 19 different counts relating to the enactment. The senior most health functionaries of the states have been directed to appear personally before the highest court in the land. Why have they failed to prosecute the innumerable "villains" in this gory tale?
Unfortunately, the narrative of war against female foeticide is not as orderly and optimistic as the storyline of a Hindi film from Bombay. In real life there is collusion between the pregnant mother and her husband and in-laws; between the local dais, the medical practitioners and nurses; and the official agencies are lackadaisical. The script has an abundance of villains, and also of victims. Conspicuously missing is a conquering hero who stands up for justice.
Female foeticide is too complex a crisis to be tackled by the law alone. An integrated approach must be adopted. One, the establishment of a strong data base of doctors, patients and facilities. Information technology can be effectively used to install an effective monitoring system of all activities relating to the evil, and to its curbing. Two, the development of a system of communication that shakes the social conscience against an act to be regarded as criminal, and not a minor individual infringement. All forms of mass media, the print, the electronic, the stage and the like need to be harnessed. The system must highlight the role of women as a productive segment of society, and not merely a reproductive agency.
Three, the total involvement of influential sections of our society must be secured. Our enlightened religious organisations and community leaders would ensure the widest public participation in an organised movement. Last, but not least, good governance that combines accountability of officials with tough enforcement of the law.
Make life worth living for the girl child
Looking back on her 30-year-long practice as a gynaecologist, Chandigarh-based Kanwarjeet Kochchar describes how some things remain the same.
I have been practicing obstetrics for the last three decades. In this span many things have changed. There are new diagnostic aids, ultrasound, MRI, CT Scans, Lap surgeries, hi-fi lab tests and many more things to help the patient in a better way. We have moved into the 21st century. Our women have come a long way and are excelling in every field but the only thing which has not changed is the attitude of our society towards the suffering of women and the ever-growing lust for a male issue. After all he is the waris of the family and is going to continue the name of the family. Whether he proves to be a boon or a curse no one is bothered about at that stage. The girls are praya dhan and they will go to their in-laws’ house and carry their name. The craze for a male child is amazing and even sickening at times. They are ready to go to any extent to have a male child. So much so that there is such a big hue and cry over the birth of a second or third daughter that any outsider feels as if some one has died. It really becomes difficult for doctor or nurses to go and declare the birth of an unwanted girl. I must have delivered thousands of boy and girls. There are very few people who really show happiness and excitement over the birth of a daughter. Usually, the response is very lukewarm as compared to the one evoked by the birth of a boy even if it is a first child. People often say:Daktar saab koi changi cheez deni see. But there are no such comments even if it happens to be the third or fourth boy.
I clearly remember a patient in 1970 while I was posted at Fazilka. She was expecting her fifth child. When she came to me for the first time, I thought she must be having daughters but I was quite surprised when I came to know that she had four sons. They were not even from a very well-off family but some pundit ji had told them if they did perform a kanyadaan they will suffer. That is why they were trying for a girl, but as luck would have it she again delivered a male child. She was my only patient whom I saw crying over the birth of a male child. I jokingly told her that if she was so unhappy she could give her child to somebody and you know what her answer was :Pet whichon niklya pathar nahin sutiya janda eh tan putar hai.
We have successfully persuaded many parents to give their daughters for adoption in case they did not want them. It is a known fact that girls are more close to their parents and also more concerned about them. There is a lot of truth in the saying: Daughters are daughters all their life but sons are sons only till they are married.
These days there is a big hue and cry about the declining female/male sex ratio. There is a lot of awareness being generated about scarcity of the fairer sex. It is very heartening to see so much concern at the government level and also at the social level .
The only thing which shocks and amazes me is where is this concern when a two-year-old girl is raped and murdered, a young married girl is either burnt to death or dies under mysterious circumstances? Don’t you think we should ask ourselves why girls are not welcome? It is not that we don’t love them or they are more difficult to bring up. On the contrary, I feel it is much easier to bring up girls and they love and respect their parents much more than their brothers. It is the fear of the daughters being molested or raped or burnt to death that makes people wary of having daughters. To get justice in such cases is a difficult task. The law takes its own sweet time and by the time any decision is taken, the aggrieved party has lost a lot of money and time and faced a lot of humiliation.
From the time a girl is born, she has to be protected from her biggest enemy— man. At no age is she safe, be it as a minor girl of one to two years or as an old lady of 60 to 70. When she reaches the marriageable age, there are different problems. Finding a suitable match is a herculean task. The boys are literally sold in the market with a different price tag on their necks. If he is a doctor or an IT wizard, the price quoted varies. Before marriage there is no demand and often "the girl is the only consideration" but after the marriage the scenario completely changes. The boy’s parents boast that they have spent a lot of money on his education, even if he is married to a working or a professional girl who will bring a fat pay-packet for them after marriage. When you attend a wedding you can easily make out who is the girl’s father and who is the groom’s, especially as far as the lower middle and poor class is concerned. The person who keeps on folding his hands has to be the bride’s father. Why should he do it? After all he is sending his loved daughter to a stranger’s house after giving her everything which is within his reach and still worried about her fate. His only crime is that he is the father of a daughter.
Can we ever imagine a society without
women? She is the mother, a wife, a sister, a daughter and, most
important, a daughter-in-law. If she is happy and satisfied, the
atmosphere of the home makes it worth living. Let us not forget that
it is she who makes a house a home. If we all feel we should make our
society worth living, we have to give due respect to our women and see
that no daughter is raped or burnt. We should make sure people who
commit such heinous crimes should be severely punished so that it
serves as an example for others. People, then, will not mind having
daughters and there will be no female foeticide. Five million female
foetuses are being aborted every year in India alone. Let us make a
joint effort by involving government, social, legal and religious
forces to make this place a safe haven for our womenfolk without whom
this world will certainly not be worth living in.
work, invisible lives
WOMEN'S work, that too the rural women’s struggle and toil, that normally goes unrecognised has been documented in a warm and compelling photographic exhibition by P. Sainath, the well known journalist. Its aptly titled Visible Work, Invisible Women—Women and Work in Rural India. Yet Sainath never set out to do a photo documentation. In the course of his travels through rural India, he was taking pictures to illustrate his stories. But the black and white studies of women working endlessly in the fields, carrying bricks, making tiles or collecting fuelwood and fodder and the wonderful text that weaves the pictures to tell about their exploitation, poor wages or health problems is sensitive and graphic.
Yet this is not an exhibition of sorrow. It is an exhibition of life, of energy of struggle and hope. The picture of the young women of Pudukottai in Tamil Nadu learning to cycle so that they can get to work in the quarries that they operate is vibrant and joyous. There is a magnificent picture of an Adivasi woman carrying 30 kg. of firewood on her head that would put a model, walking the ramp, to shame. She has still three kilometres to go but strides tall and straight. Shot in 10 states across the country, the photos record labour as it unfolds daily from the fields of Kalahandi and Rayagada in Orissa to the brick kilns of Bizianagaram in Andhra Pradesh. From the forests of Chattisgarh to the quarries of South Tamil Nadu. From the night soil workers of Rajasthan, to the women keeping the local economy going in Jharkhand.
There are 63 million female workers in India. Of these 28 million or 45 per cent are agricultural labourers. Everywhere, women get two-thirds the wages that men get. In some places they get just half the man’s wages. Even women from landed families have no rights to the land—neither in the homes of their parents, nor in those of their husbands and in-laws. Deserted, widowed or divorced, women could end up as labourers on fields owned by relatives.
Ill-paid agricultural labour is the single largest avenue open to women. The number of workdays that landless labourers find is falling. Many women do not find agriculture labour for over six months or more in a year. Even when do, they do not get the correct wages. In Rayagada, Orissa, the contractor claimed he was paying the women Rs 40 a day, but the women were in fact getting just Rs 25 a day.
There is a picture of two young girls in the fields of Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh, hunting for pests. The girls are looking for red, hairy caterpillars, which is all the paid work that there is in their village. They get Rs 10 for every kilogram of caterpillars from the landowners. It means they have to catch over a thousand caterpillars to make Rs10
Lack of direct control over resources like land greatly weakens the position of the very poor in general and all women. Ownership and social status are closely linked. Very few women own or control land. Around 67 per cent of the female agricultural labourers are dalits. They get the worst of three worlds—class, caste and gender. With land rights, women can bargain for better wages and enhance their access to credit. It would reduce their own poverty and that of their families. Men tend to spend more on themselves. Women spend almost all they earn on the household.
At Vizianagaram, Sainath had fixed the meeting with landless labourers for 7 a.m. so that he could track their work through the day. But he was a little late and by that time the women had put in about three hours of work already. The women coming to the fields through the palm trees and their friends, removing from the mud from a silted tank, had finished cooking, washing utensils and clothes and other chores. They had got the children ready for school and all members of the family had been fed.
Contractors and landowners argued that women perform easier tasks and were therefore paid less. Yet transplantation is hazardous and complex. Transplantation is in fact a skilled job. Seedlings not planted deep enough or planted at the wrong distance could fail. Transplantation also requires bending over most of the time in shin to knee-deep water. Yet, because it is women who do this work, it is seen as an unskilled job and they are paid lower wages.
So even when they perform the same task as the men, women are paid less. Sainath rationalises "Would landlords hire so many women if they were less efficient?"
Women working in the
fields spend a lifetime bending.
76 per cent of those transporting the crop from fields to home; 100 per cent of workers processing food, and 69 per cent of those in dairying. Most of these activities mean a lot of bending and squatting and constantly moving in that position. Severe pain in the back and legs is very common. Often standing skin-deep in water during transplantation, they are prone to skin diseases. Most tools and implements used in agriculture are not women-friendly so injuries from sickle and machete are common. With proper medical care a rarity, there is constant danger of tetanus. Compounded by poor nutrition, women agricultural workers are caught in a cycle of repeated pregnancies and high infant mortality, which further devastates their health. A large number of these women die during pregnancy and childbirth.
Adivasi women are the chief collectors of non-timber forest produce, worth over Rs 15,000 crore annually. But they get a tiny fraction of the product’s value. Millions of women contribute towards making India the world’s largest milk producer. Women are mainly responsible for milking and taking care of India’s 100 million cows and buffaloes. He documents Dalit women cleaning dry latrines in Rajasthan. "They are not even paid in cash for this work. All that they get is one roti from each household and the label of untouchable."
a tough terrain for women
WHILE the debate for and against reservation for women in politics goes on without any substantial results, let us try to find out how the very few women who represent people from Punjab feel.
Rajinder Kaur Bhattal
The women prisoners huddled together to help and protect Harnam Kaur as she gave birth to a baby girl. The year was 1945. The girl, Rajinder Kaur Bhattal. As a young bride of 17, Harnam Kaur had agreed to forgo all in her life and taken oath to be besides her husband Sardar Hira Singh Bhattal in the fight for India’s freedom. On one occasion while, Sardar Hira Singh distracted police attention at India Gate, Harnam Kaur and her eldest daughter carried the Indian Flag through Chandni-Chowk. People and more people followed the brave and slogan-shouting duo and Harnam became the first woman to fly the Indian flag on the Red Fort in Delhi.
"My father was deeply affected by the British atrocities including the killing of innocent people in 1919. His anti-British feelings grew stronger after the world war, when he saw the discriminatory treatment of soldiers who had fought together but were rewarded as White and Black". Hira Singh gave up the army and his right to landed aristocracy to fight against the British.
"My parents courted arrest and went on a fast unto death to fight for the Sikh rights. My elder brother, barely seven years old had high fever was left crying alone. The police announced deterrents against anyone helping the child. All property was seized. In the process, while my brother survived on food left for the dogs my elder sister starved to death." Tears flow freely as this tough lady in politics Ms Bhattal recounts family sacrifices. This couplet aptly sums up what she feels: Khud ko samete baithe hain, kuch kehne se darte hain, darr hai bikhar na jaien.. Life in politics for Rajinder started at a very shy 18 years of age. The leaders of yore requested Sardar Hira Singh for a woman representative from his family. The state shot put champion, a successful speaker and a postgraduate in Punjabi, Rajinder was a unanimous choice of the family. "It took me two defeats to understand politicians and their politics and the third time over became the first woman and the first Congress candidate to win from Lehragaga".
In college, she fell in love with Lally, officially Sardar Lal Singh Sidhu. Lally finished his law from Dehra Dun before marrying Rajinder in a simple ceremony. His bride came in a plain light green suit. Tears flow with pain as she remembers the end of her beautiful marriage. "Lally left me a little daughter. My son Rahul was born two months after his death. Blood cancer ruined my happiness".
"To be in politics is keeping alive my father’s inheritance and to try and be successful in politics is for me a vindication of all the sacrifices made by my ancestors, my brothers and my sisters". Reacting to some allegations against her she states, "Politics might be a tougher ground for survival of women but survive we must and for that I shall find the resilience, the patience and fight on."
Lakshmi Kanta Chawla
As she walked towards me through the wet grass dressed in a white saree with a border from the colours of the Indian Flag, oiled plait and bare feet in black slippers — she was a vision from ‘Quit India Movement’. Ms Lakshmi Kanta Chawla, BJP MLA from Amritsar makes one wish that her methodology of politics was the rule rather than an exception. Born to an ordinary oil seller in 1942, Lakshmi was given her name by her mother. At a very tender age in her middle school, she felt an inborn conviction for truth and honesty. A very patriotic bent of mind was evolving. After her schooling and college in Amritsar itself, she joined the ranks of RSS and believes in all its pure unadulterated aims, objectives and discipline with hundred per cent allegiance and an unshakable faith. Not for her the politicising of RSS. She learnt values in the cadre. Value of simplicity, of limited needs, of speaking in favour of truth, irrespective of personal or professional requirements. The necessities to stand by the so called ‘mute’ in society. To endlessly work for the uplift of the poor, the down trodden, the exploited and the hurt. She went along to do her Masters in Punjabi, Hindi and then English. She topped the three MAs with a degree in Law. Twice she began her Ph.D, but is unable to find the time for research. She has taught Hindi in DAV College, Amritsar and retired recently as the Head of the Department. She gave up all her roles as a daughter, sister, mother and wife to fully submerge her existence in the service of people around her. From 1980 to 1985 she was the president of ABVP (Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad) and during the heydays of militancy in Punjab became one of the three members constituting the Rashtriya Suraksha Samiti. Undeterred and unfaltering, she denounced terrorism in all forms and was everywhere and anywhere to help victims of Acts of terror. She is fully involved in helping the widows, their children and orphans from the black days in Punjab. In her inimitable fairness to all, she salutes the courage of C.M. — Beant Singh and calls his death Martyrdom.
Put under ‘Z’ category of
security, Madam Lakshmi Kanta Chawla denounced all offers of
ministership simply because she can’t be asked to compromise.
"Don’t ask me not to call a spade a spade". She denounces
old customs of any form of dowry, kanyadaan or the role of
women as only cooks, cleaners and nannies . As she says: "I never
ever attend a wedding where even a morsel or a penny has been accepted
from the girls’ parents. I even boycotted my own nephew’s wedding
because shagun was accepted from the girl’s side."
Bureaucrats and politicians might find her unbending principals a pain
but admire her, nonetheless. "I have never attended any parties
by MPs or MLAs. I work for my people. We have a unbreakable bond. No
one can take away the love of my people in my constituency. Nothing