The oleander plant yields a bright, pleasant flower, but also a milky sap that, if ingested, can be a deadly poison. It's one of the methods families use to kill newborn girls in the Salem District of Tamil Nadu, a part of India notorious for female infanticide.
Though the government has battled the practice for decades, India's gender imbalance has worsened in recent years. Any progress toward halting infanticide, it seems, has been offset by a rise in sex-selective abortions. Too many couples - aided by medical technology, unethical doctors, and weak enforcement of laws banning abortion on the basis of gender - are electing to end a pregnancy if the fetus is female.
The consequence of female infanticide and, more recently, abortion is India's awkwardly skewed gender ratio, among the most imbalanced in the world. The ratio among children up to the age of 6 was 962 girls per 1,000 boys in 1981, but 20 years later the inequity was actually worse: 927 girls per 1,000 boys.
Infanticide is illegal in India (though never prosecuted), and laws are also in place to stop sex- selective abortions. But in some places, national rules don't hold enough sway to overcome local religious and social customs - which remain biased in favor of sons over daughters.
"Factors like dowry, imbalance in the employment sector whereby the male is seen as breadwinner, and societal pressure to abort female fetuses conspire to increase the antigirl bias," says Ajay K. Tripathi of the Advanced Studies in Public Health Programme, of the Institute of Health Systems in Hyderabad. Government and the medical profession, he says, need to put more resources - and more political will - into strengthening and enforcing the laws.
A case in point is legislation - introduced last year but now stalled - that would prohibit all genetic-counseling facilities, clinics, and labs from divulging the sex of the fetus. The hope is that if parents don't know "it's a girl," fewer will resort to abortion. But the proposal, which would amend a 1994 law, is opposed by medical groups. They argue that technology used to monitor fetal health - such as ultrasound scans and amniocentesis - cannot be put under such intense scrutiny.
Others, though, see another reason for the opposition: Abortion is a lucrative business that many doctors do not want to see curtailed. "Abortions are a low-risk, high-profit business. As a specialist in fetal medicine, I can tell you that no pregnant woman would suffer if the ultrasound test were banned," says Puneet Bedi, a gynecologist at Apollo Hospitals in New Delhi. "Right now, it is used to save 1 out of 20,000 fetuses and kill 20 out of every 100 because [it reveals that the baby] is the wrong gender."
India stipulates that only a government hospital, registered facility, or medical practitioner with appropriate qualifications may perform an abortion. The reality, however, is that only about 15 percent of all abortions take place under such circumstances, according to the Indian Medical Association. About 11.2 million illegal abortions are performed each year off the record. Such abortions are often "female feticide," experts say.
In Salem district, for instance, signs posted in towns reinforce the societal message: "Pay 500 rupees and save 50,000 rupees later," a suggestion that aborting a female fetus now could save a fortune in wedding expenses in the future.
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.
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."