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Seema Chowdhury – Women News Network – WNN MDG Stories

Women of India

Women of India. Image: UN / Bhaskar Mallick

MUMBAI, INDIA – Jasjit Kaur, 40, who requested her name be changed, is a well-educated urban housewife. Fifteen years ago, she says her family pressured her to have two abortions, a decision she has long regretted.

Kaur says she was a happy mother of two daughters and didn’t want to have more children. But her husband and in-laws kept pressuring her to bear a male child, a preference she didn’t share.

She says that her husband told her that their two daughters would go away to live with their husbands when they got married, but a son would stay and take care of them in their old age. Her husband and her in-laws also worried about the expensive dowries they would have to pay their daughters’ huson their wedding days.

Her in-laws also felt they were respected less in their village because they didn’t have a grandson. She says that having a son or grandson was a status symbol for them.

Any attempts to argue about gender equality were in vain. She says daily arguments disrupted the peace of their home, and she didn’t want her daughters to watch their parents fight every day.

After nearly two years of fighting, Kaur says she agreed to have one more child to avoid further pressure and arguments at home. She says she was well-aware that, even though it would be illegal, her husband and in-laws would force her to abort the baby if an ultrasound revealed she was carrying a girl.

Kaur says she became pregnant twice, but that her husband and in-laws forced her to abort both because they were girls. After back-to-back abortions, Kaur says she was physically and emotionally weak. She says the abortions were strenuous on her body, and the guilt was overwhelming.

She says she became pregnant one more time and was relieved to learn that it was a boy because her body couldn’t withstand another abortion.

Kaur’s story has become incresasingly common in India.

The preference for sons cuts across all sectors of Indian society. Many Indians view daughters as burdens for various economic and social reasons, leading to high rates of female feticide and infanticide. The government has outlawed sex-selective abortion, but admits legislation has been ineffective. As the government and nongovernmental organizations, NGOs, work on various initiatives to reduce these rates, doctors say the only solution is elevating the status of girls in Indian society.

India, well-known for its rich culture and traditions that emphasize ahimsa, or non-violence, has been ranked the fourth most dangerous country in the world for women, according to a June 2011 Thomson Reuters Foundation poll of experts around the world. Experts attributed India’s ranking primarily to female feticide, infanticide and human trafficking.

Sex-selective abortion has increased substantially in India, according to a 2011 study by the Center for Global Health Research in Toronto, Canada. Between 4.2 million and 12.1 million girls were aborted during the last three decades in India, according to the study.

After declining since 1901, India’s national sex ratio, or number of females per 1,000 males, has increased slightly from 927 females in 1991, to 933 females in 2001, to 940 females in 2011, according to the national census. But the sex ratio in the population of children ages 0-6 has declined from 927 in 2001 to 914 in 2011.

Sex-selective abortion is illegal here, and the majority of Indians practice Hinduism, which opposes harming living things. Still, many Indians consider having a female child a curse for various social and economic reasons.

Female feticide is not restricted to any single social or economic group, according to the Ministry of Women and Child Development. But although the preference for boys exists across society, abortions are more likely to be carried about by wealthier and more educated parents, who are more aware of ultrasound technology that can check the sex of their babies and can afford abortions if they are girls, according to the Center for Global Health Research study.

Priya Pawar, 45, who requested her name be changed for privacy reasons, is the mother of a son and a daughter. She says her father didn’t want to see her when she was born because she was a girl.

“My father was upset because I was born and hadn’t come to see my mother and me in the hospital for many days,” she says.

Another woman, Sara Paul, 27, is expecting a baby. A housewife from a well-educated, upper-middle-class family, Paul says she hopes her baby is a boy.

“I want a boy – not a girl,” she says.

Paul says this is because boys have more access to opportunities than girls do in India.

“Because then he will get access to all the things that I was refrained from,” she says.

According to the Ministry of Women and Child Development’s Child Right Handbook, there is a common myth in India that daughters don’t benefit their families.

“Bringing up a girl child is like watering a neighbour’s garden,” the handbook states. “You raise them up, protect them all through and also plan for their marriage and dowry till they are finally gone.”

Women India

Women and girls in India are still seen as inferior to society. Image: GPI

Indian families believe that sons, on the other hand, can take care of their families and, therefore, are more valuable and deserve more opportunities.

“Sons are at least there to carry forward the legacy of the family, take care of parents in their old age and perform the last rites,” the handbook states, referring to a Hindu custom that only sons can perform the last rites for their parents before they die, which are essential for the parents’ admission to heaven. “There is no point educating daughters, giving them freedom to do what they like and holding on to them till they grow up to be married off. All this only adds to the family burden.”

Parents also say there is constant concern about the safety of daughters because of the risk of sexual abuse and rape.

Even though the dowry practice is now illegal, it is still prevalent in most economic classes, which makes daughters a financial burden. The daughter’s parents must fulfill any demand of dowry – money, jewelry, furniture, vehicles, etc. – made by the son-in-law and his family before and after the wedding. If the demands are not fulfilled, then the girl is often tortured. Eventually the girl is forced to end the marriage and return to her parents or end her life.

On the other hand, the adverse sex ratio as a result of female feticide and infanticide has created marriage issues as well. The fall in the number of girls available for marriage has led to the sale of brides, which can result in the trafficking of the girl for sex or labor, according to the Ministry of Women and Child Development.

Under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, abortion is legal in India only if the birth would create a risk to the mother’s or baby’s health. Otherwise, abortion is a criminal offense, punishable by imprisonment and/or a fine.

The government passed the Pre-conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act in 1994 and amended it in 2003 to prevent sex-selective abortion. This act allows diagnostic tests to be performed only to determine abnormalities of an unborn baby, but prohibits it for sex determination.

Any person who seeks a prenatal diagnostic test on a pregnant woman or a pregnant woman who seeks it herself for the purpose of sex selection is liable to up to three years in prison and a fine of up to 50,000 rupees, $1,1,30 USD, according to the act. For subsequent convictions, the punishment increases to up to five years in prison and a fine of up to 100,000 rupees, $2,260 USD.

For medical practitioners who perform such tests for the purpose of sex selection, the punishment is a fine of up to 10,000 rupees, $225 USD, and up to three years in prison. The punishment increases to up to five years in prison and a fine of up to 50,000 rupees, $1,130 USD, for subsequent convictions. In addition, the State Medical Council will remove the medical practitioner’s name from its register for five years after the first offense and permanently after a subsequent conviction.

A well-known doctor in Mumbai, who requested his name not be used to protect his job, says that there are various regulations that must be followed.

“It is mandatory for every sonography center to have a government rulebook, which states sex determination of [an] unborn child as a crime and to put up a board stating it,” he says. “The doctors need to submit a photocopy [of every] sonography done by them to the government.”

But he says some doctors find ways around these rules.

“However, this does not ensure that the doctors have not done the test because the doctors could do the sex determination of the unborn child without filing any situation,” he says.

He says that the government should take strict actions against doctors who conduct these tests and that NGOs and other institutions should join government efforts to help enforce the law.

Pawar and another housewife, Moni Pal, 26, who also requested her name be changed because of the sensitivity of the topic, say that strict laws won’t be of much help until the rudimentary mindsets of the people are changed. A large-scale program is necessary to change their mindsets, they say.

Even the government recognizes that current laws have been ineffective.

“Unfortunately, the existing provisions and current implementation mechanisms have failed to make any significant impact on the rising trend of female feticide,” according to Girl Child in the Eleventh Five-Year Plan 2007-2012, a report by the Ministry of Women and Child Development.

The ministry report made various suggestions to strengthen the act within the existing provisions and under future amendments, expand the network of authorities involved, increase monitoring and surveillance and make penalties more stringent. It also cited the need for nationwide awareness and sensitization efforts in order to reverse traditional perspectives, such as setting aside funds for a media campaign.

State governments have also gotten involved in implementing various programs to eradicate the notion of girls as burdens. For example, the Haryana state government offers free education for girls and grants to families living below the poverty line on the occasion of their daughters’ weddings, according to a 2011 state government report.

NGOs, such as Snehalaya and Population First, are also campaigning to reduce female feticide and infanticide in India.

Sarika Makude works for Snehalaya’s Save the Girl Child project. She says that the Snehalaya volunteers organize programs every month in various villages to educate people about saving girls.

But she says that very few villagers take interest in these programs, resulting in low attendance. Makude encourages people interested in this project to get involved, adding that there are various ways to contribute.

The government aims to raise the sex ratio to 950 by 2017.

“Unless immediate action is taken on a national scale to change this [mindset], the girl child is on her way to utter deprivation, destitution and even extinction,” according to the ministry report. “In other words the girl child is heading towards becoming an endangered species.”

The Mumbai doctor says that increasing women’s status is the only way to stop sex-selective abortion in India.

“No amount of education, rules and punishment can stop female feticide,” he says. “It will stop only when the status of girls and women will be raised high in our society. In fact, her status should be more than that of the men. Only this will bring about a vigorous change.”

Advocates say they hope that the country that worships many goddesses will one day begin to desire daughters, too.

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Early results of India’s 2011 census have revealed that fewer girls have been born over the last decade compared with boys, showing that the illegal practice of female foeticide — the killing of unborn girls in this largely patriarchal country — continues unabated. TrustLaw’s South Asia correspondent Nita Bhalla travelled to the Holy city of Kurekshetra, 160km northwest of New Delhi, which has one of the lowest populations of girls in the country, as illegal abortions flourish due to a strong preference for boys in the region. This 3:39 min May 2011 video is a Thomson Reuters Foundation Trustlaw Media production.
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Journalist Seema Chowdhury is based in Mumbai, India. Her focus is on reporting the under-reported voices of women. Chowdhury has received her training in journalism from The Global Press Institute (GPI).

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©2011 Women News Network – WNN
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