Female infanticide has been prevalent in parts of India for centuries, but a new industry worth $244 million is emerging: sex-selective abortions.
“May you be the mother of a hundred sons.” Brides in India are often blessed with this invocation on their wedding day, but it is also an example of the deep-rooted gender bias in the country. It also goes someway to explaining the shocking culture of sex-selective abortion and gendercide.
In 2011, India released the results of its census. It was a damning report of the huge gender imbalance in the country. The results of the census in comparison to the 2001 census showed that child sex ratio for children aged between 0-6 is in alarming decline.
The ratio, which stood at 927 females for every thousand males has now fallen to 914 to every thousand boys; the lowest ratio since India was decolonised. What was more alarming was the fact the decline was greater in better-educated and richer household than in illiterate and poorer households.
In February 2012, the UN Department of Economic and Social affairs declared that an Indian girl between the ages of 1-5 was 75% more likely to die than a boy of the same age. A similar study from the Indian Child’s Rights Organisation (CRY) found that over 8% of girls born in the country died before their first birthday.
The PCPNDT Act 1994 (Preconception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques Act) outlawed pre-natal sex determination and 11 years later, in 2005, the act was modified to make medical professionals culpable if found to be guilty. However, authorities have poorly enforced the act. From more than 400 cases filed under the act, there have only been two convictions. The punishment in the first case was a fine of 300 Rupees ($5.56) and in the second case the fine was 4000 Rupees ($74.10).
In a sting operation conducted seven years ago by two Journalists, Meena Sharmaal and Shripal Shaktawat, almost 140 doctors were caught providing the abortions after conducting an ultrasound, charging some 2000 Rupees ($37.05) and then telling the Mother to dump the foetus either in the cemetery or the Yamuna River. Seven years on and not one of these doctors have had their license revoked, let alone convicted.
Many factors have led to the poor enforcement of the act. The judiciary, political bodies, and enforcement agencies have been described as lethargic in dealing with the problem, however, one of the biggest concerns remains the fact that medical equipment such as ultrasound machines are so easily attainable. The PCPNDT Act 1994 states that anybody who has 6 months training or one year experience in ultrasonography or image scanning can use an ultrasound machine, thereby making the problem difficult to police.
“This has led to the emergence of several bogus institutions that train people how to use ultrasound machines for sex-selection. Bogus certificates are also being issued, helping the racket to thrive,” stated the Ministry of Health and Welfare to the Times of India.
Women’s rights in India has been at the forefront of Indian media ever since the Delhi gang-rape.
But why is the thought of bringing a baby girl into the world so horrifying in parts of India?
In vast parts of India, a baby girl is seen as an unnecessary burden upon her family. She will eventually leave her maiden home to go to her husband’s home. That is the purpose and essence of her existence. Of course sending her to her husband’s home does not come free. The father of the bride – prior to the wedding – is obliged to pay a substantial fee to his daughter’s husband. The fee can be paid through cash, jewellery, household goods or through the sale of land. However, in a large number of cases the dowry is rarely affordable. A daughter in India can be an economic hazard.
The issue of sex-selective abortions was put on the spotlight again after Indian TV network Star Plus aired its first episode of Satyamev Jayate. It is a show that has drawn praise from Indian academics and the media for its efforts to cover India’s many crippling issues such as sex-slavery and honour killings.
The show’s pilot episode, which was about feticide, brought forward some harrowing stories from women who either fled from their homes or were kicked out of their house after disobeying their husband’s order to abort their baby girl. One woman, Dr Ritu Sharma, faced oppression from a well-educated family. She witnessed her mother, a former vice-principal, kick a cot—carrying her twin daughters—down the stairs. Her husband, an orthopaedic surgeon, had pushed her down the stairs while she was 20 weeks pregnant with her twins. Fortunately, she and her two daughters survived.
Women’s rights in India has been at the forefront of Indian media ever since the Delhi gang-rape. However, women’s rights start from birth and if we wish to arrest the plight of women in India then we must start with issues such as infanticide and sex-selective abortions.
If modern day India is to prove that it can progress and put gendercide firmly into the history books, then it must look at itself in the mirror and stare at its ugly truths. By providing a platform for these Issues on national television, with shows such as Satyamev Jayate and Des me Na ana lado (Don’t come to this country, little girl) shows that Indian society is willing to deal with these truths head on.
India’s true test is to see how far they are willing to go to bring about these changes. Will the recent uproar created because of the Delhi rape case and Aamir Khan’s TV show fade away, or could it be the catalyst for a positive future for Indian women? Drastic improvements in legislation, law enforcement, and better access to education in rural regions of India might be the best way to continue the current momentum since the Delhi demonstrations. However, in terms of challenging attitudes that are deeply entrenched in Indian culture, India faces a mountainous task.
As an Indian myself, I certainly believe that there is hope for women in India. Perhaps in the future, on a woman’s wedding day, instead of being blessed to become the mother of a hundred sons, her well-wishers will say, “May you be the mother of 50 sons and 50 daughters”.