The daughters we killed…

Kamna Arora

They have been meeting a silent death over decades.

It is believed that millions of female foetuses have been aborted in India over the past 20 years. And the practice of brutally murdering `unborn` daughters is continuing unabated.

On April 19, authorities in Gujarat found over a dozen human foetuses in a rubbish bin in Ahmedabad. They suspect that local abortion clinics might have dumped the foetuses after conducting illegal sex determination tests. And anyways, female foeticide is not at all a new phenomenon in India.

The incident is a stark reminder of the grave problem being faced by the Indian society, where boys are usually favoured over girls.

Thousands of men in parts of rural India are facing difficulties in finding potential brides, all thanks to the practice of aborting female foetuses. According to a report by the UNICEF, Jat boys from Haryana are seeking brides from as far away as Kerala because of fewer girls in their own state.

One can calculate the country’s economic growth and evaluate technological advancements to analyse the miles a country has covered in the journey of prosperity. But the question arises whether the prosperity in terms of economy assists the society to move forward in terms of social advancement as well. India is said to be another Asian economic superpower after China. Economic growth, better technologies and mushrooming businesses have changed India’s status from ‘developing’ to ‘fast developing’ nation. However, the world’s second largest populous country’s achievements have failed to impress social scientists, anthropologists and demographers because of its record of continued recession in sex ratio, i.e. the number of males per 100 females in a population.

The current sex ratio in India, as per 2001 Census, is 1000:927 (1,000 boys and 927 girls) while in some states like Gujarat the ratio stands at 1000:878, Himachal Pradesh 1000:820 and Chhatisgarh 1000:845, according to the National Commission of Women (NCW) chairperson Girija Vyas. In 1991, the national figure was 947 girls to 1000 boys.

An article by a Nobel Laureate in Economics, Amartya Sen, in 1990 pointed out that millions of women across the world, especially in Asia, were missing from the population totals. Another shocking fact Sen mentioned in his article was that albeit there was a marginal improvement in the overall sex ratio for females in India, China and South Korea, yet the sex ratio for female children (0-5 years) in these three countries was in fact worsening.

Is female foeticide still continuing in India? A survey conducted by the United Nations in 2007 revealed that over 2,000 unborn girls are aborted every day in India.

A research conducted by Prabhat Jha, Canada Research Chair in Health and Development at the University of Toronto, and his colleagues from India indicated the deficit of over 10 million female births in India over the past two decades. The research, based on a national survey of 1.1 million households in 1998 and published in 2006 in The Lancet journal, said pre-natal selection and selective abortion were leading to the loss of 500,000 girls a year in India. However, the study was disputed by the Indian Medical Association (IMA) that claimed the number of female foeticides is closer to 250,000 per year.

The roots of sex selective abortion can be traced back to the ancient practice of female infanticide in India. Female infanticide can be described as the practice of killing girl babies deliberately. British officials had started documenting infanticide in their diaries during their travels in the late 18th century.

While talking to some landowners in Uttar Pradesh in 1835, a British official, James Thomason, referred to one of them as a son-in-law of another. His comment “raised a sarcastic laugh among them and a bystander briefly explained that he could not be a son-in-law since there were no daughters in the village. Thomason was told that the birth of a daughter was considered a most serious calamity and she was seldom allowed to live,” BD Miller noted in his book ‘The Endangered Sex: Neglect of Female Children in Rural North India’.

Miller further mentioned that as soon as British officers recognised the existence of the practice of female infanticide in India, they decided to pronounce it as illegal. In 1870, they passed the Infanticide Act. The effective implementation of such an Act at that time was doubtful because most of the births took place at home. Registration of births was not a common practice in India at that time. Hence, various child mortality cases would have remained unaccounted.

Post-independence, the Indian government banned sex-determination tests at national level in 1994 with the Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (PNDT) (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act. The new legislation authorised only government- registered clinics and laboratories to utilise prenatal diagnostic procedures that could be used to find out the sex of the foetus.

The Act further rejected the use of prenatal diagnostic procedures unless there is a heightened possibility that the foetus suffers from a harmful condition or genetic disease. However, the law has by far proved ineffectual. According to campaigners, various fertility clinics in India continue to offer a seemingly legitimate facade for a multi-billion-dollar racket and that gender determination is still big business in India. The law’s ineffectiveness is also proved by the reports that claim Indian women in the UK come to India to abort their female foetus to have more boys. According to a study by the Oxford University, 1,500 girls are missing from the birth statistics in England and Wales from 1990 to 2005.
The continuation of such a practice despite the ban underlines the inefficiency of the government’s policies to stop women from turning their wombs into graves.

It is high time that India confronts this problem. The government needs to fasten its belt if it truly wants to stand atop the league of countries pledging gender equality.

Moreover, the society needs to change its way of thinking. Son preference, practice of dowry, patrilineal system are said to be the key reasons for female foeticide. The unabated practice of the selective abortion of girls in the womb needs to be stopped in a bid to evade insecurity and shortage of girls in the long run. Giving birth to a daughter is not a sin, but killing her is.


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