Saturday, May 19, 2012

Killing Her

A disturbing print ad to raise awareness of female foeticide from Contract Advertising Mumbai.

Madhya Pradesh, India: When kamala gave birth to her first daughter, her husband, though not overjoyed, was still happy. They distributed sweets in the village and even called a pandit to bless the child. When kamala got pregnant again, her husband forced her to undergo an ultrasound. It was a GIRL. What followed was a series of abortions and a sure and steady decline in their marital life. Finally, when she did conceive a boy, she suffered a miscarriage. Cursed and harassed, she was thrown out of her home by the very husband who had promised to be with her through thick and thin. Gone was the love, the joy…her world was filled with a black emptiness.

This is the story of just one mother grieving for her child. Many more eyes are still brimming with tears. So why is it that we become perpetrators of such evil? Why do we not hear those silent screams of the unborn girls? Why do we refuse to see the agony of these mothers?

The causes are numerous. India has predominantly been a patriarchal society. The boys are expected to carry the family name forward. The birth of a boy is celebrated. Family and friends from far and wide are invited to bless him. The mother takes pride in her achievement. Her status in the family increases. Her mother-in-law loves her more than the other ‘bahus’ who have not given her a grandson yet. She is often treated as a queen and the family’s ‘chiraag’ as a prince.

Our traditions add fuel to this desire for a son. Not only do the sons ensure that the family’s genes never die away, they are also the sole bread-winners. They have been entrusted with the noble task of taking care of their parents in their old age. As per our religious philosophies, it is the son who fulfills the last rites for his parents.

Most of you, who listened to the bedtime stories your grandma told you, are probably familiar with the stories of Shravan Kumar- the ideal son. He took every pain to fulfill the wishes of his blind parents.
This story is often narrated so that the children can learn from him, so that they can imbibe his good qualities. Fair enough. But does this also not show that aching longing of a mother’s heart to have a son like him? Knowingly or unknowingly, such stories give rise to the yearning for a son.

But why only old stories? Take the example of most of the advertisements today…most of them depict a happy family as: 1 mother, 1 father, 1 son (Maybe a son and a daughter if they are feeling generous.). Only recently have the daughters made their presence felt on this front. Why? I know it is a very small, maybe irrelevant revelation. But it just points to our mindset.

From the day a girl is born, she is treated as different. Either she is venerated like goddess Lakshmi or she is cursed like you would a filthy sewer rat. We, as a society, rarely talk of them as equals. We either ban them from participating or we give them reservations. Why?

A girl’s first breath means trouble for her family. In very crude words, girls are considered to be a waste of resources…a drain on the family’s wealth.

The primary reasons are financial and social. This was the common line of thought I observed while talking to people: “you give birth to a girl, you educate her, ensure that she gets all comforts, you give her the best facilities. Then one day, you have to marry her off.” This is where the real problem steps in.

 In India, we follow a system of dowry. This system is not unique to the country. Currently it is being practiced in parts of Africa, East Asia, South Asia and the Middle East. But that is what Wikipedia says. If you google it, the rest of the links are all related to India. Dowry is no more “gifts given by the bride’s family to express their joy.” It is the birthright of the groom’s family, a symbol of their status, an indicator of their son’s worth. How can they compromise with that?
It is this burden of dowry which deters parents from welcoming girls with open arms.

Certain other reasons might be the difficulties in ensuring the safety of a girl child.
Also, couples planning on only one child prefer boys for the reasons I stated above. The easy access to medical facilities and the latest technologies has made the prospects of birth more dismal for a girl. Ineffectiveness of law is another reason. How can you control the information given by a slight smile or a frown as the doctor conducts a regular check-up for the health of the baby?

However, I think girls too have a major role to play. There are families who celebrate the birth of a baby girl. They don’t discriminate against them. They provide them with every possible facility. They help them study, allow them to explore new avenues and progress in life. These lucky girls should realize their true potential and should work for the benefit of their gender. By this I do not mean that they should take the plunge and become social activists. Even if these girls develop a progressive mindset, achieve financial independence and put their foot down on such evil practices, it will go a long way to further our cause. Imagine girls who are self-reliant, know the difference between right and wrong and are willing to fight against injustice. I’m sure they’ll uproot this poisonous vine.

I agree that traditions cannot just be tossed in the air. Neither can people change their attitude after reading just one article. Even if I had a magic wand, it would be a tough task setting things in order. But at least we can start. One initiative gets a thousand followers. All we need is that one start. I have just one worry:

This evil of female foeticide has embraced the nation in a tight hug. It feels really good at first, but then it begins to suffocate us. I wonder if we’ll break free before we see stars swimming in front of our eyes.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Fairy Feet

“A cute smile, warm eyes
Little hands and fairy feet
I’d hoped one day I’ll have
Waiting in your womb
I didn’t see the knife coming
Mom, why was I stabbed?”

That must be the question thousands of unborn girls must be yearning to ask their parents…

Technically, female foeticide is defined as aborting the female foetus after sex determination test or pre-natal diagnostic test which includes:
1)   Ultrasonography
2)   Foetoscopy
3)   Placental tissue sampling
4)   Amniocentesis

 In simple words, it is nothing but wanton killing of girls even before they are born. What fuels this desire? Why do people not want girls? Do we not call them ‘lakshmi’ in the Indian tradition? Then why do people do it? Who does it? Who helps them along? The questions are endless…the answers slow in coming.

The problem of female foeticide is not new to India. It is infact older than the country in years. It began way back in the pre- independence era. A girl child has always been thought of as a burden. Her birth is rarely celebrated. Her life, if she gets one, is littered with thorns… why?

This trend originally started in parts of Northern India like Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. From there, it spread like a virus to the rest of the country. Today, only a few states like Andhra Pradesh are untouched by this evil.

If we look at the child sex ratios over the past few years, we’ll see a surprising trend. This ratio gives us the number of girls born for every thousand boys born in the country.

In the 2001 census, the highest child sex ratio has been reported in Mizoram (971 females against 1000 males) and Meghalaya (970).

Notably, Punjab and Haryana, which have traditionally seen low sex ratio, have recorded an increasing trend but still remained at the bottom of the list. Haryana has 830 female children and Punjab 846 against per 1000 male child.

Haryana's Jhajjar (774 females) and Mahendragarh (778 females) districts have the lowest sex ratio while Lahul and Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh has the highest sex ratio (1,013 females).

In the 2011 census, Kerala with 1084 has the highest sex ratio followed by Puducherry with 1038. Daman and Diu has the lowest sex ratio of 618.
These statistics give us a peek only into the number of girls born…what about those who couldn’t make it into this world? If official figures are to be believed, around 3 crore girls have been aborted…but trust me, this number must be way more in reality.

So who does it? Is it the uneducated, lower income group or people like us? People who have all the comforts and luxuries in the world? People who are well- educated and should, ideally, not discriminate against unborn girls on basis of gender? It is the latter. How do you think pre-natal sex determination to be possible without the use of the latest technology and money? It obviously cannot happen without an organized sector involving medical experts, business enterprises and of course, couples craving for boys. Yes, that is what it is- a multi-million industry with no limits on the profits. (I’m sometimes surprised how we can come up with such impressively objective definitions and terms.)

Over the past decades various NGOs like Jagruti, Centre of Social Research and Naari Sudhaar Andolan have taken up this cause. Then be it through street plays like Apoorn, candle light vigils, silent marches, campaigns, sloganeering, fasts and dharnas...they have tried to get the message across. Thousands of activists have given their life for this issue. But has it really had any effect? Have we really learnt a lesson? No…why else would such cases still be reported then?

In the recent uproar over the issue, everybody missed one point though… female foeticide is not always done under pressure. Women do abort their girls willingly. And it is generally not because of medical reasons or because giving birth to a girl is a way too expensive affair for them. Why do they do it then? Being females themselves, why do they deny life to another girl?

The reasons are numerous…from a simple craving for a boy to societal norms and pressures. The perpetrators of this crime have a zillion excuses for their deed. But then, if you listen to their reasoning, you’ll be forced to think are they really wrong? In the words of the woman who does our laundry:
"The government does support birth-control measures. How is this any different? Is aborting only a female foetus a crime?"

The more we think of it, the more we get entangled in this web of questions. It’ll take us sometime to answer those million un-answered voices…