The Girl Child
By Sumita Thapar
19 March, 2007
the late 1970s when the technology for sex determination first came
into being, sex selective abortion has unleashed a saga of horror. Experts
are calling it "sanitised barbarism". Demographic trends indicate
India is fast heading towards a million female foetuses aborted each
Although foetal sex determination
and sex selection is a criminal offence in India, the practice is rampant.
Private clinics with ultrasound machines are doing brisk business. Everywhere,
people are paying to know the sex of an unborn child. And paying more
to abort the female child. The technology has even reached remote areas
through mobile clinics. Dr. Puneet Bedi, obstetrician and specialist
in foetal medicine, says these days he hardly sees a family with two
daughters. People are getting sex determination done even for the first
child, he says.
Spreading like a virus
A recent media workshop on the issue of sex selection and female foeticide
brought home the extent of the problem. Held in Agra in February, the
workshop was organised by UNICEF, Business Community Foundation, and
the Centre for Advocacy and Research. Doctors, social scientists, researchers,
activists, bureaucrats, journalists told their stories of what they
were doing to fight the problem.
If the 1991 Census showed
that two districts had a child sex ratio (number of girls per thousand
boys) less than 850; by 2001 it was 51 districts. Child rights activist
Dr. Sabu George says foeticide is the most extreme form of violence
against women. "Today a girl is several times more likely to be
eliminated before birth than die of various causes in the first year.
Nature intended the womb to be a safe space. Today, doctors have made
it the most unsafe space for the female child," he says. He believes
that doctors must be held responsible — "They have aggressively
promoted the misuse of technology and legitimised foeticide."
Researchers and scholars
use hard-hitting analogy to emphasise the extent of the problem. Dr.
Satish Agnihotri, senior IAS officer and scholar who has done extensive
research on the issue, calls the technology "a weapon of mass destruction".
Dr. Bedi refers to it as genocide: "More than 6 million killed
in 20 years. That's the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust."
Foeticide is also one of the most common causes of maternal mortality.
The sex of the foetus can be determined only around 14-16 weeks. This
means most sex selective abortions are late. Abortion after 20 weeks
is illegal in India. Donna Fernandes, Vimochana, a Bangalore-based NGO,
says foeticide is related to a host of other social problems as varied
as privatisation of medical education and dowry. Karnataka has the highest
number of private medical colleges. Healthcare turning commodity has
led to terrifying consequences. Adds Fernandes, "Wherever green
revolution has happened foeticide has increased. With more landholdings
and wealth inheritance dowry has increased. Daughters are considered
an economic liability. Today, people don't want their daughters to study
higher — a more well-educated groom will demand more dowry."
Ironically, as income levels
increase, sex determination and sex selection is increasing. The most
influential pockets have the worst sex ratios. Take Punjab for instance
— 793 girls for every 1,000 boys against the national figure of
927. Or South Delhi — one of the most affluent localities of the
Capital — 760. According to Satara-based advocate Varsha Deshpande,
small families have come at the cost of the girl child.
In patriarchal States like
Rajasthan where infanticide has existed for centuries, this new technology
has many takers. Meena Sharma, 27, television journalist from Rajasthan,
who did a series of sting operations across four States last year, says,
"Today, people want to pretend they are modern and that they do
not discriminate between a girl and a boy. Yet, they will not hesitate
to quietly go to the next village and get an ultrasound done."
Sharma was determined to
expose the widespread malpractice. She travelled with pregnant women
as "decoys" across four States and more than 13,000 km to
do a series of sting operations. She says more than 100 doctors of the
140 they met were ready to do a sex selective abortion, some as late
as the seventh month. "We were shocked at the greed we saw —
doctors did not even ask why we wanted to abort, far from dissuading
us from doing so," she says.
What's the solution? Varsha
Deshpande says the PCPNDT Act (Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic
Techniques — Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) is very well
conceived and easy to use. "We have done 17 sting operations across
Maharashtra and got action taken against more than 25 doctors,"
says Varsha. She adds that other laws for violence against women such
as dowry, domestic violence, rape, put the control in the hands of the
police which is biased. Therefore, even though the law exists, offenders
get away. This law preventing sex determination and sex selection is
much easier to use, she says.
Akhila Sivadas, Centre for Advocacy and Research, Delhi, agrees that
the law is very well conceived and the need of the hour is legal literacy
to ensure the law is implemented. "The demand and supply debate
has been going on for some time. Doctors say there is a social demand
and they are only fulfilling it. They argue that social attitudes must
change. However, in this case supply fuels demand. Technology will have
to be regulated. Technology in the hands of greedy, vested interests,
cannot be neutral. There is a law to prevent misuse and we must be able
to use it," she says. CFAR is currently partnering with local NGOs
in six districts of Rajasthan to help ensure implementation of the law.
On the "demand"
side, experts such as Dr. Agnihotri argue that women's participation
in workforce, having disposable incomes and making a contribution to
larger society will make a difference to how women are seen. Youth icons
and role models such as Sania Mirza are making an impact, he says.
Others feel there needs to
be widespread visible contempt and anger in society against this "genocide"
— "the kind we saw against the Nithari killings," says
Dr. Bedi. "Today nobody can say female foeticide is not their problem."
Time we all did our bit to help save the girl child. Time's running
Copyright © 2007, The Hindu
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