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Prenatal attack on women. Primal and ultimate discrimination against daughters: Amniocentesis is a uterine test that can be used to determine the sex of an unborn child; misused in India, it has led to the aborting of female fetuses in a society that values males more than females. SEX-SELECTIVE ABORTIONS.

By Abha PandyaSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 10, 1988


Usha Parekh had four daughters - and she was desperate for a son. Desperate, but afraid.

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Afraid that her husband might abandon her, afraid of the constant insults of her mother-in-law, afraid of the taunts of other relatives.

``When I became pregnant again, I came near the breaking point. I had to have a son this time,'' says Mrs. Parekh, 27. She is married to a businessman in Bombay.

``I dreamed of the little boy playing in the mud, of rocking him to sleep. I dreamed that my husband was laughing and tossing the baby in the air.

``He had stopped doing that when our third daughter was born. His indifference to my daughters was palpable - to me even more so.''

One morning, while Parekh was riding the Bombay suburban train to visit her mother, a poster caught her eye. It advertised ``amniocentesis,'' a genetic technique used to determine the condition and sex of an unborn child.

She rushed with her mother to the clinic to get the test. To her delight, her baby was a boy. She felt all her troubles had come to an end.

But what if the fetus had been a girl? Would Parekh have gotten an abortion?

If she had, for some it would have just been considered another statistic in the estimated 78,000 female fetuses aborted in India between 1978 and 1983. Thousands of these abortions were done for sex-discriminatory reasons.

This misuse of genetic testing, ostensibly under the garb of testing for birth defects in the unborn, is now a flourishing business - mainly in northern India, where a daughter's birth may be considered a near-calamity.

Recent protests in the media and by women's and civil rights groups against widespread use of amniocentesis for this purpose has called attention to what some see as a technological aid to female feticide.

It is still essentially an urban phenomenon confined primarily to the middle classes. But amniocentesis clinics are spreading in rural areas, indicating that this discrimination has widespread sociological roots.

``How else can we understand this phenomenon except in the context of sociocultural values that treat the birth of a daughter in the family as a great disaster?'' asks Vibhuti Patel of the Women's Center in Bombay, which has been in the forefront of a campaign to ban sex-determination clinics.

Boys have long been favored in most parts of India. The tradition of viewing the male as the provider for parents in their old age reinforces the preference for sons. Economic reasons for sons are especially strong in predominantly rural areas, but also exist elsewhere.

Sons are perceived as being economic assets to the family. They contribute productive labor and capture some wealth in the form of a dowry when they get married. Sons are also perceived as needed to carry the family lineage and to perform religious rituals on the death of parents.

Girls have long been neglected. Apart from the social and cultural dominance of men, women are discriminated against in subtler ways. For instance, women and girls are poorly nourished in many Indian families.