INDIA: Advocates work to keep girl infants alive as they face femicide

Shubhi Tandon – WNN Features

A malnourished girl-child in Calcutta, India
A malnourished girl-child in Calcutta, India faces discrimination from the time she is born, as female infants can often be the last of the children in a family to receive any food because of their gender. The mother of this child is only 13 years old. This child and her ‘too young’ mother live in the squat area of Nanatonga, approximately 40 kms from the closest city . In this rural region there are no toilets, only two water pumps and 300 refugees. Image: Donna Todd/Calcutta Rescue

(WNN) New Delhi, INDIA: A two-year-old girl, Baby Falak, died of cardiac arrest after being severely battered. A four-day-old girl was ‘rejected’ by her own parents after birth. A three-month-old girl, Neha Afreen, was severely battered by her father – because he wanted a boy instead. All have been victims of femicide, known in India also as foeticide – or infanticide – in the case of the death of infants. Femicide is the act of killing only because the victim is female, an act that has been occurring in India, as well as other countries, for centuries.

Many of the reasons for the killings are financial. When girls become old enough to marry the family of the groom often expects a dowry to be paid, even though dowries in India are now illegal. Other reasons can also be cultural as India, like many other cultures worldwide, often gives more privilege and power to its men than to its women.

According to the 2011 United Nations report on gender and childhood mortality, the current risk of Indian girls dying between the ages of 1 – 5 years is 75 percent higher than boys the same age. The latest India Census also reveals that the general number of girl-children in the age group for girls who are 0-6 years of age now shows a decrease in infant girls even though population counts are rising. 927 females per 1000 males in 2001 is now showing lower figures as 914 females per 1000 males are showing as the most recent numbers for 2011.

But is gender based killing, known as femicide, the cause of the decrease in girl infants in India’s population?

Many advocates think it is. This means that with India’s current population (1.22 billion), close to 16 million additional girls today are now missing from the 2011 numbers counted for girls, compared to those counted in 2001.

Even with recent advances for girls and maternal mortality conditions, the region of India is a dichotomy of ‘gender-based’ discrimination. For a country that boasts having a woman President; as well as women chief ministers; women business leaders; and women sports celebrities, baby girls in India are still considered to be unchahi – “unwanted.Chances for a girl’s survival before the age of five is now greatly compromised in what Times India has called “the most dangerous place in the world to be a baby girl.”

When baby Neha Afreen’s father secretly hit his infant daughter with a blunt object, even physically biting the baby, the three-month-old succumbed to her injuries on April 12, 2012. At the time her father Umar Farooq said in a statement given to the police that he did in fact have ‘clear intention’ to kill his child because she was a girl.

In another case Poonam Kanwar and her husband refused to accept their newborn girl into their family after she was delivered. A baby boy was given to the Kanwar family by mistake by the staff at Jodhpur’s Ummaid Hospital, in what was reported by India Today news as an attempt used to try to get a customary money tip for delivering a boy instead of a girl to the parents after the birth. But the attempt to get the money from the parents missed the mark. The baby boy was born from another mother, and it is guessed from a ‘poorer’ family.

After the Kanwar parents were informed that a mistake had been made, and only after the local court officially ordered them to do so, did the couple finally accept the correct child, a baby girl, as their own.

Female foeticide, also known as feticide, femicide, gendercide or infanticide, runs deep within all levels of India’s society – be it rural, urban, rich or poor. To create awareness about this issue Mr. Shafiq R. Khan, who works as a public advocate for women in India, started the organization Empower People. The organization began soon after Khan became a public activist in March 2006, as he marched with women in Haryana, part of the Kuru region in northern India. Khan marched in a group Padayatra – a public march of leaders and regional advocates working to bring awareness on specific issues to the public.

What was the issue for this march?  – to stop the killing of infant girls in India.

In what has been described by advocates as excruciating methods that include varied but repeating themes, an infant girl-child can be killed by being held down under water or by pressing her nose making it difficult for her to breathe or by closing the child’s mouth for an extended number of minutes after making her lick salt.

“A 2005 study in the British medical journal, the Lancet, reports that because of this, at least 10 Million fewer girls exist in India today (according to population statistics over the past 20 years). The more recent ActionAid study says the figure is closer to 35 million. UNICEF calculates the total number of girls missing in India at 50 million,” says a recent 2011 report by the Society For The Protection Of The Girl Child.

“Female foeticide is quite old in India and practiced as a tradition in every rural and urban community, or religious or ethnic group(s). The most affected group [are the] elite middle class. Medical sex determination tests and doctors are easily accessible to them [India’s elite],” said Shafiq R. Khan in a recent interview with WNN – Women News Network.

Social worker Dr. Sudha Kankaria, president of India based Save the Girl Child agrees. She believes that the growing rise in gender-based deaths of girls can be blamed on a public with easier access to new medical technology. “With the technological advancement in medical diagnosis, this discrimination begins even before her [a girl child’s] birth,” outlines Dr. Kankaria. “Various medical technologies have been put into practice to identify the sex of the child before the birth,” continued Dr. Kankaria. “… if found to be female… all [these factors] work against the very existence of the girl child.”

Social Indian activist Rita Banerji, of the 50 Million Missing Campaign, blames greed for the elimination of female children in India. “Greed and a certain moral apathy… …has become rooted like a disease in India,” she outlines.

According to advocates, girl infants are also being abandoned at birth. And if the child survives, she might be discriminated against and suffer in many other ways – such as fewer months of breast feeding; less nurturing by families; and less medical attention than her brothers or the sons of her parents neighbors.

In 2007 Dr. Kankaria noticed in the western district of Satara, in the city of Maharashtra, that many girls were named after their birth with the name Nakoshi which means “unwanted.” The most probable reasons Dr. Kankaria found were that the girls were second, third or fourth children of couples in the region who wanted a boy-child instead.

“The parents and the family [are to blame],” says girl-child advocate Rita Banerji. “In a larger context I’d blame a patriarchal, misogynistic culture,” she continued.

On June 26, 2011, a newspaper report has also revealed a relatively new and ‘disturbing’ practice in India.

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