By Kumkum Chadha
16 May, 2003
As a member of the National
Expert Committee on Women Prisoners, I met Ahilyabai in a jail in UP.
She was serving a life sentence for murder. Ahilyabai had, in a fit
of rage, axed her husband's mistress. Rotting in prison for over ten
years, she had been abandoned by her family and community.
Our brief was to make women
convicts aware of their rights in prison - this included the provision
for a few postcards and two saris a year and medical and legal aid.
The superintendent had said that saris were out of stock. The doctor
was too busy to visit them and legal aid was out of question. None of
this, however, bothered Ahilyabai or her fellow prisoners. They had
only one demand: tikli (vermilion), a symbol of marriage, which they
wish to adorn even after being ostracised.
Years have passed since the
committee submitted its report. Ahilyabai has probably served her sentence
by now. Maybe saris are no longer in short supply. But the need for
vermilion has not waned. Neither has the desire to take on the sins
of men - husbands or sons - upon themselves.
According to a survey, six
of the 30 women convicted for dowry deaths in Ludhiana jail shouldered
the blame on the grounds that a male out of jail is more useful to the
family than his female counterpart. The survey recorded the case of
a 90-year old woman who had been persuaded by the sarpanch to take on
the blame of her son's misdeeds on the grounds that she had "lived
a full life". "[The son] would not only provide for the family
but also protect it," she was told.
This mindset is only part
of the problem. The more glaring fact is
that women are partners with men in perpetuating gender disparities.
The preference for a son is not necessarily male driven. Surveys substantiate
that the desire for a male child is not confined to men. Women are known
to consume ayurvedic medicines and perform rituals to make sure that
the first-born is a son. In Punjab, 81 per cent of the respondents preferred
a male child. Of this, the percentage of women was higher than that
of the men - 84 per cent.
Women have also become indirect
partners to female foeticide. In Punjab, 48.27 per cent of women feel
that there is no harm in female foeticide. The Malwa region not only
represents the most 'masculine sex ratios' but also the maximum number
of wife-beating, bigamy and rape cases.
Studies carried out in some
districts of Tamil Nadu indicate that
women were willing to risk illness and death to avoid the birth of a
girl child. Chief Minister Jayalalitha's 'Cradle baby scheme', which
encourages parents to give away a girl child rather than to kill it,
has not helped in curbing what is described as "pre-natal butchering
of the female child". Schemes, seminars and protests may have drawn
the attention of the government to this issue or given NGOs a valid
reason to cry hoarse. But the truth is that in 2001, the girl-boy ratio
touched an all time low at 939:1000.
Most worryingly, women are
assuming a dual role in this campaign: while some carry banners decrying
female foeticide, others go in for sex selective abortions. Easy access
to technology is a major factor contributing to female foeticide. Except
that, in most cases, it is used by women against women. Gynaecologists
have sometimes forced sonography on expectant mothers keen on limiting
their family size irrespective of the sex of the unborn. Yet, if the
foetus is found to be male, then the initial decision to abort is replaced
by a desire to go ahead with the pregnancy. In fact, it is the educated
women who practise female foeticide most widely. Monica Das Gupta, in
Women's Health in India: Risk and Vulnerability, states that educated
women are aware of the importance of health facilities but extend these
only to the "more valued male child".
Modern technology has often
proved to be counter-productive and is seen as an important factor contributing
to imbalances in sex ratios. There are enough studies to substantiate
that when the female gender enjoys increasing equality on the parameters
of development, female foeticide also increases. In Himachal Pradesh,
for instance, a 'masculinisation' of its child sex ratio was seen after
it registered a substantial increase in its female literacy and female
work participation rate. As against this, Chhattisgarh has an average
female literacy level and yet it shows the best child sex ratio - 975:1000.
Jharkhand, too, is quite close with a 966:1000 ratio.
In these two states, the
reasons are traced to the dominance of the tribal population where gender
discrimination is less and foeticide uncommon. Women are an asset among
tribals as they constitute the work force and are the earning members.
Termed by Janice Raymond as 'subtle killing', discrimination occurs
in areas of food and medical care. Both are important factors explaining
higher survival rates among boys than girls. From strangling a girl
child to killing her by feeding excess salt, mothers now do not feed
the baby at all. Consequently, in the long run, the baby dies due to
The much-trumpeted two-child
norm is in reality an exercise in
displacing the girl child. The pressure to maintain the ideal family
size has seen no change in the preference for sons. Yet the issue at
stake is a much larger one. It is one which needs to take stock of the
Indian psyche and the mindset towards women - where even rebels like
Ahilyabai yearn for vermilion or a 90-year old spends thankless years
in prison for crimes committed by men.