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Women's Worst Enemy

By Kumkum Chadha

Hindustan Times
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 her book
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 malnutrition.

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.