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Rita Banerji – WNN Opinion

Mother and son Karnataka, India

A mother in Karnataka, India sits next to her son, December 2008. Son preference in India is common, especially in areas where education for mothers can be compromised. Girl femicide is still a problem in India where girl children can be seen as a handicap that brings the family added hardship due to dowry costs, discrimination and lack of opportunity for many girls suffering from poverty and caste inequalities. Image: Ezra Kilty

(WNN) INDIA: In 1976, Dr. Diana Russell first testified about a crime she called ‘Femicide’ at the first International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women held in Brussels, Belgium.  She defined it as “the killing of women and girls” only because of their gender and said that it was no different from the killing of people because they belonged to a certain race, religion or nationality. When the gender of the victim is irrelevant to the whoever commits the killing, then the crime is considered non-femicidal.

More recently Dr. Russell argued that internationally, and among some women’s rights groups, there has been a reluctance to recognize the misogyny that underlies femicides in communities and societies. As a result femicides are frequently “trivialized and depoliticized.”  This is a dangerous trend, points out Dr. Russell, because femicides ultimately are ‘lethal hate crimes’ which need to be acknowledged and addressed in the same manner in which we address all other hahate-crimes based on race, religion and ethnicity.

Indeed, the sounding of Dr. Russell’s caution to the international community can be heard in a report just released by the UN-DESA (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs) covering global infant and child mortality rates.

The report shows that India has a shockingly high rate of mortality for female children between the ages of 1 to 5 years.  In fact it has the highest rate of female child mortality among the 150 countries surveyed, including countries classified as LDR (Less Developed Regions).  The data, which covers the last 40 years, shows that India also accounts for the largest gender-based difference in child mortality than all other countries.

For every 56 boys that die in this age group, there are a 100 girls who die in India.  However statistically with the biological advantage that girls have over boys for survival at this stage, the normal ratio of child mortality for the rest of the world is 116 boys to 100 girls. A girl child  in India, who is between the ages 1 to 5-years-old, is 75 percent more likely to die than a boy in the same age category.

What is causing this alarming death toll of India’s little girls?

A report published in 2011  in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, from a study conducted jointly by the Indian Council of Medical Research and the Harvard School of Public Health, established that girls under five years in India were dying at an abnormally high rate because of the prevalence of domestic violence in their homes that were targeting females.

In these homes, it was not just women who were victims of violence but the girl children as well. From the data gathered from 1985 to 2005 of live births, the study concluded that over the last two decades 1.8 million girls under the age of six years had been killed in India.   The study further establishes that girl children in India are at a much higher risk than boys of dying in households where there is domestic violence.  While girl children between 1 and 6 years have a 21 percent higher chance than boys of dying before their 5th birthday, infant girls who are one year younger are at a 50 percent higher risk of dying than boys the same age.

The head of this study Dr. Jay Silverman said, “Being born a girl into a family in India in which your mother is abused makes it significantly less likely that you will survive early childhood. Shockingly this violence does not pose a threat to your life if you are lucky enough to be born a boy.”

Besides violence, another practice, which is killing India’s little girls is deliberate and abusive neglect, particularly in context of food, nutrition and health.  A 2007 UNICEF report established that girls under 5 years of age in India had a 40 percent higher mortality rates than boys the same age. This was largely because they were not being given adequate nutrition or medical care when they required it.

Families will often deliberately starve daughters, neglecting to feed them completely or feeding them the left-overs if there are any after the men and boys are done eating.  This kind of son preference and gender bias in food distribution and consumption extends to older females in the family as well.  Since older girls and women work in the kitchen they are able to acquire some food at will.  It is the little girls who unable to do this who often starve.  If a girl child falls ill the family is often reluctant to spend money on her medical care.

Female infanticide has a long history in India and chillingly each region has had its own established, traditional way of killing infant girls, methods that include drowning the baby in a bucket of milk, or feeding her salt, or burying her alive in an earthen pot.

In a study by the Registrar General of India published in 2010 in the medical journal “The Lancet,” a curious factor came to light.  Girls in India from the age of 1 month to 5 years old were dying of pneumonia and diarrhea at a rate that is 4-5 times higher than boys the same age.  The study makes a critical observation: the gender based difference in survival rates are a reflection on India’s social prejudice against girls.

But why were the girls dying from these two maladies?

The answer, which is shocking, is revealed in an observation made by author Gita Aravamudan, in her book Disappearing Daughters (2007). While visiting areas where female infanticide is practiced in India, she observed that the conventional methods of killing female babies can usually be detected and a police investigation can be launched.  “[To avoid arrest] families adopt more torturous methods of killing [infant girls]… Inducing pneumonia was the modern method. The infant was wrapped in a wet towel or dipped in cold water as soon as it was born or when it came back home from hospital. If, after a couple of hours, it was still alive it was taken to a doctor who would diagnose pneumonia and prescribe medicine, which the parents promptly threw away. When the child finally died, the parents had a medical certificate to prove pneumonia.  Sometimes the infant was fed a drop of alcohol to create diarrhea: another ‘certifiable disease.’”

As founder of The 50 Million Missing Campaign, which is working to raise global awareness about India’s ongoing female genocide/ gendercide, I am only too aware of these factors.

One of the factors that has been long established in the death of girls because of their gender is deliberate neglect, particularly in villages and urban slums. Girl children are often deliberately subjected to hunger under neglect. It is a cruel form of torture for often this is how a family vents its anger on the daughters for being born girls. Many girls are dying of malnutrition and/or starvation.  If a girl falls sick, the family often will not take her to the hospital or buy her medicines. 


For more information on femicide in India get the latest update on a special girl who is now facing danger in rural India. Her name is ‘Karishma’ (Miracle). . .


Author, photographer and gender activist Rita Banerji is also the founder of The 50 Million Missing Campaign, a global lobby that raises international awareness about the ongoing female genocide in India. Born and raised in India, Rita has also lived in the U.S. where she graduated with a B.A. from Mount Holyoke College and later received her Ph.D. from George Washington University. Working largely in the environmental field, she has received awards and recognition for her work from The American Association for Women in Science, The Botanical Society of America, The Charles A. Dana Foundation and The Howard Hughes Foundation. Banerji has also spearheaded numerous projects that have had a gender focus, including one with India’s grassroots organization Chipko. Her 2008 book Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies (Penguin Books) is a historical study on the relationship between sex and power in India and how it has led to the ongoing female genocide. In 2009, Rita received The Apex Award for Magazine and Journal Writing (U.S.).  Her personal website can be found at www.ritabanerji.com


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