The vanishing girls of India

I grew up in northern India in a rather comfortable, middle-class home during the 1960s and '70s. In our extended family, we girls had considerable freedom on the big issues - education, career choice, the right to choose our life partners.

But in the background, discrimination against girls always lurked, especially in our grandparents' home in New Delhi, where we went for summer holidays. Brothers, male cousins, and uncles were always given pride of place at the dinner table, in decisionmaking, and in the running of the house.

Girls ate after the boys, they got the second best pick of the fruit, and they got the worst beds when the summer house burst with relatives. But at least our family had girls. My grandmother, in fact, gave birth nine times, and got it "right" - producing a son - only once.

I shudder to think what my dear grandmother might have gone through, had she been a young woman today, pregnant with all those girls. For technology - ultrasound, amniocentesis, and other techniques that can reveal a fetus's sex while serving other medical purposes - has been turned against the girl babies of India and other South Asian nations.

Bluntly put, our girls are vanishing, many banished by abortion once it's determined they are female. A centuries-old tradition of devaluing girls has long kept the ratio of females to males low in this part of the world; female infanticide has long been practiced. But the latest census figures for children under age 6 are especially alarming: In 1991, there were 945 girls in India for every 1,000 boys. In 2001, it's down to 927 girls. And the worst figures are reported by the most prosperous states, showing that poverty is not the only reason for rejecting daughters.

Since the 1980s, the technology that entered the shabby roadside clinics of small-town India has offered parents an easy release from the "curse" of girl babies. For the first time, they could determine early in pregnancy the sex of the fetus. Pregnancy with a son was almost always allowed to continue.

Over time the "sex-determination tests" became cheaper and more widely available, and female fetuses began disappearing in ever larger numbers. The alliance between tradition and technology has been cemented.

When a daughter is born, a father sees a future financial burden, not a bonny face. A son, on the other hand, is virtually risk-proof, an asset and a preferred provider. He can look after his parents in their old age, and bring in a dowry instead of costing one.

Those who say that Indian women who abort female fetuses are exercising their "freedom of choice" are plain wrong. "Choice" is not the issue, because a typical South Asian woman has little or no freedom in any aspect of her life - in education, employment, or reproduction. Half her life is determined by economic compulsions, the other by patriarchal beliefs. To be truly embraced by her in-laws, she must produce a son.

The concept of a woman having autonomy over her body is foreign here. And unlike their American sisters, Indian feminists aren't fighting to maintain the legality of abortion - because there is no movement threatening to take it away. The battle here is to infuse into society a respect for girls and women, and to make the birth of a daughter as joyous an event as the arrival of a son.

The government's 1994 ban on "misuse" of sex-determination tests has done little to curb the practice. The laws simply aren't enforced. Unless there is a hard, committed reappraisal of our laws, education system, and societal attitudes, not much will change.

We need both short-term measures, such as ensuring that the laws actually work, and long-term ones, such as guaranteed education for girls. The state and the family have to work together to bring about this transformation.

The Indian Medical Association recently hosted a meeting in New Delhi of top Hindu, Christian, and Jain priests to speak out against sex-determination tests and to urge people to "shun the atrocious act of female feticide." A laudable idea, but has the IMA ever censured a doctor for indulging in the practice? No. And these religious heads are often the biggest roadblocks to any real change. Many have glorified the practice of sati, the ancient Hindu practice of widows immolating themselves on their husband's funeral pyres. Like many religious hierarchies around the world, Indian clergy have not allowed women priests.

Meanwhile, such is the onslaught against the girl child that there are villages in the western state of Rajasthan - an exotic tourist attraction of forts and erstwhile maharajahs - where no groom has brought a wedding party for years because there are no brides.

Declines in female populations are also evident in Pakistan and Bangladesh, because of similar traditions and beliefs. China, where strict family-planning policies combined with sex-selection abortions have led to "bachelor villages," fares no better. Kidnapping potential brides is becoming common.

I remember my maternal grandmother joking about women she knew in her younger days who fed their newborn girls poisonous herbs. After all, she would laugh ominously, who wanted girls? She treated her only son like another deity in the large pantheon of gods she worshiped. She bequeathed everything, including the big house my grandfather had left her, to her son - who turned her out a few days after her husband's death.

And in her final years, it was her daughters who looked after her, not her son.

Seema Sirohi is an assistant editor at The Telegraph, Calcutta's leading English-language daily.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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