Saving the daughters of India

IN much of India, a woman's life has traditionally been valued below a man's. But this is slowly changing as women organize to promote social reform and legislators respond to their demands. One recent sign of change was the passage, in the state of Maharashtra, of a law prohibiting use of the medical procedure called amniocentesis, by which the sex of an unborn child can be determined. The procedure had been prologue to thousands of abortions of female fetuses.

Behind the abortions lay long-held concepts of male superiority and, more specifically, a dowry system that rewards the parents of sons and burdens the parents of daughters. That system itself is banned by legislation, but dowries are ingrained in some strata of Indian society. The tradition seems particularly strong among upwardly mobile lower middle-class Indians intent on acquiring more consumer goods.

The Maharashtra law banning prenatal testing for gender came about largely through the determined efforts of feminists who saw the procedure as evidence of the devaluing of women in India. They are pushing for a stronger version of the law at the national level, and some form of nationwide legislation could come up in New Delhi before the end of the year.

Many of India's ancient social traditions are wrestling with modern perspectives, and the result is tremendous social complexity. Some progressive-minded couples make a point of rejecting dowries.

But the papers are still full of advertisements describing the physical and personal attributes of available young men and women, as well as their castes. Parents still arrange marriages, and dowry frequently plays a role.

Any legal steps toward protecting the rights and lives of India's women, at both the state and national levels, are heartening. The country needs the unfettered energies and abilities of its female citizens. While the passage of a law doesn't necessarily stop a culturally based practice, it can give a needed impulse to changes of attitude.

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