This is the fifth post in a series of articles examining sex-selective abortion in India, by our Global Perspectives correspondent Deepali Gaur Singh. For the complete series, please click here.
Yet another person in a remote village of Bihar in eastern India gets elevated to the position of a goddess. For years the rhetoric used to justify and even make excuses for the condition of women is that Indian society (read Hindu) is amongst the very few where women enjoy the status of goddesses. And one just needs to turn to Indian scriptures for the evidence. Women who die on the pyres of their husbands are made goddesses. In life they would have had an existence worse than the cattle at home (for those who own cattle)! The latest incident is of a conjoined twin (conjoined with her headless twin) whose parents – poor laborers themselves – found hope in Bangalore doctors who came forward to operate upon Laxmi (their daughter) who requires at least two people to assist her with the most basic daily tasks. The villagers back home are angry with the parents as they see her as a reincarnated goddess and wish to deify her by building a temple in reverence to this eight-limbed little girl. What this entails is that she live the rest of her life just so out of respect for this spectacular tribute to her. Laxmi and her mother are still lucky considering in some parts they might have been treated as witches and lynched.
Ironically, the incident sums up the situation of so many women in India and similar societies in Asia. Traditional, socially-sanctioned jobs, duties and expectations are thrust upon them without their say even if it involves their own lives or that of the daughters they bear. How many women are really able to decide if they want to selectively abort their female fetus; how many women can decide on family planning or contraception; how many women willingly send their under-age daughters as young brides for much older men in far-flung places having more often than not endured the same ordeal?
The recently concluded Fourth Asia-Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health (4th APCRSH) at Hyderabad, India, was the forum to discuss the dangerous trend of preference for male children over female all across Asian societies, apart from other extremely contentious issues. While the imbalance in sex ratios in India has become an issue for repeated debate over the past year or so, it is the methods being employed to contain it that have really caused deeper concern especially since the time for experimentation has practically run out. If matters have to be rectified, policies have to be sustainable and have to work.
With newer technologies made available for people to aid them in the process of fertility and conception, the issue no longer is going to be about sex selective abortion. It is now a larger moral issue of wanting only male children as opposed to a female child — particularly since the technology to do it is going to be an arm's length away. There was a time when female infanticide was condemned, but it took quite a while to realize that increasing numbers of people no longer had to go through the motions of ‘accidentally' killing the female infant since the option of selectively aborting the female fetus became available with newer, cheaper technology. And with even better technology available for pre-selection, even the method of repetitive pregnancies and sex selective abortions for acquiring a male child would become redundant. So are we looking to penalize people for using the technology or penalize people for making an unfair distinction between the male and female child? What about people who have not/will not have access to these technologies due to their economic conditions, but will discriminate between male and female children by way of education and daily nutrition? Or sell their daughters in marriage to the highest bidder to get rid of the responsibility of caring for her?
Despite many of her questionable schemes (like the cradle scheme and the more recent registration of pregnancy to maintain a ‘state watch' over sex selective abortions) and the controversial "don't trust men" remark more recently the Indian Union Minister for Women and Child Welfare, Renuka Chaudhary at the 4th APCRSH raised the crucial need to increase men's assimilation and participation in addressing the sex ratio imbalance, the factors responsible for it and related issues of women's sexual and reproductive health. Considering women rarely have a say in decisions at their marital homes and even if they do they are more often than not shaped by their own position in both their paternal and marital homes they are an important component in any sustainable change in social attitudes and structures. And thus, while laws need to be in place to punish the guilty, a more enduring change would come not out of fear of the state and its laws but the damage to the social and familial fabric that such retrograde practices and structures do.
The case study of a young girl who went through seven pregnancies one after the other, all for a male child, is a story oft heard. Some of her babies didn't survive even five days — not to mention the health implications on this young woman. Though the story of a girl from Pakistan this could very well be that of any woman trapped in a patriarchal set-up where a male child is welcomed with celebrations and a female with despondency. And with an increasing number of families, across cultures in the continent, actively avoiding daughters due to excuses ranging from the ritualistic need of boys in the Indian culture or as a retirement plan for those in China, the social implications in the region are not hard to imagine. Studies by the UNFPA suggest a similar scenario in Nepal and Vietnam which only makes the situation even more precarious for women in these countries vis-à-vis human trafficking.
Asia has already lost out on 163 million women by virtue of this imbalance. Missing women or surplus men — however you look at the situation the imbalance comes with immense socio-economic implications. The difficulty in finding brides has already been witnessed in parts of India with instances of polyandrous marriages. Besides, being a virtual gold mine for those earning their millions from human trafficking, with heightened insurgency and terrorism making countries like India flashpoints, the chances of this surplus male population being recruited by armies might become another dangerous reality. Removing gaps between men and women – gaps in education, health, nutrition, human rights and laws etc. – is the only real solution to remove this Sex Ratio at Birth (SRB) gap.