For India's daughters, a dark birth day
Infanticide and sex-selective abortion yield a more skewed gender ratio.
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Salem district, a mostly rural part of Tamil Nadu, has a longstanding reputation as a deathtrap for baby girls. The Vellala Gounder community, the dominant caste there, owns most of the land and is intent on retaining property rights within the family. Sons represent lineage; daughters marry and relocate to their husbands' homes. As a result, local women, like Lakshmi, who gave birth to a girl early last year, may refuse to nurse their newborns. They leave it to midwives or mothers-in-law to administer the oleander sap, say anti-infanticide activists.Skip to next paragraph
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Nearly 60 percent of girls born in Salem District are killed within three days of birth, according to the local social welfare department. That doesn't count the growing number of abortions there to ensure a girl baby won't be carried to term.
Amid such stubborn statistics, activists are at work to counter the forces of tradition. A focus of their work: improving the standing and self-image of women themselves.
Community Services Guild (CSG), a nongovernmental organization, works with rural women in particular to discourage female feticide. One of CSG's interventions targets women who already have at least one girl. Now 20 years old, the program sends workers to visit these mothers, teaching them and their daughters skills that contribute income to their families (such as basket-weaving or selling produce) and reeducating them about the value of girls to society.
"Educating the new-generation girl - and empowering her with the skills necessary for economic independence - is the only long-term solution," says G. Prasad, CSG deputy director. Though CSG works in a patriarchal culture where female inferiority is ingrained, the group encourages women to become decisionmakers.
In pockets of India where female infanticide persists, the practice is rooted in a complex mix of economic, social, and cultural factors. Parents' preference for a boy derives from the widespread belief that a son lighting his parents' funeral pyre will ensure that their souls ascend to heaven; that he will be a provider in their later years (India has no form of social security); and that he will preserve the family inheritance.
Conversely, a daughter is considered an economic burden. Pressure to conform can be intense in rural areas, and some families borrow heavily to pay for the rituals prescribed for a girl - the ear-piercing ceremony, wedding jewelry, dowry, and presents for the groom's family on every Hindu festival.
The Tamil Nadu government has started several programs to protect girls - with mixed results. One urged families to hand over their baby girls to local officials, who saw that they were adopted by childless couples. Between May 2001 and January 2003, officials received 361 baby girls. An informal survey by CSG, however, found that many women would abort rather than have a baby and give her up for adoption.
Tamil Nadu's "Girl Protection" program may be more practical. Here, the government opens a bank account in a girl's name at her birth, depositing between 15,000 and 22,000 rupees during her childhood, depending on the number of girls in the family.
"The only way to wipe out this evil is by an attitudinal shift," says CSG's Mr. Prasad. "Educate a girl beyond eighth grade and encourage her to find her voice."