Female foeticide: A curse of modern times
First published as cover story in The Rationale June 2012: http://therationale.org/June_1_ver/Female.html
The first time I personally heard of female foeticide( abortion of female foetus) being practiced in India, was during my clinical posting in the Radiology department as a Medical student in Delhi, in the late 80s. The patient with third pregnancy, and two previous girls, two girls, wanted to know the gender of the baby in the Ultrasound at 6 weeks.
The annoyed registrar had shooed her away, but then shared with us in the doctors room, that : “She will in any case go to a private clinic, get the gender detected and will definitely abort it of found a girl”.
We as students expressed our dismay, a male registrar retorted in humor: “Evil should be nipped in bud.”
Female foeticide, killing the female fetus in the womb, is a modern phenomenon, as compared to the age old existence of Female Infanticide, the killing of the female new born or infant. It began in Asian societies like India and China sometime in the late seventies, coinciding with the campaigns of family planning, easing of medical termination of pregnancy (also called legal abortions) and with availability of the ultrasound machine to monitor pregnancy. Although, there were other tools available for checking the sex of the fetus through amniocentesis, but was an invasive procedure, and could lead to complications like abortion. Moreover, unlike the Ultrasound, Amniocentesis was not a tool available to the layman, or semi-trained medical professionals to abuse it to their advantage.
As a medical professional and as a female member this very society, one kept hearing of the news of women asking for gender detection, simply to select the baby of their choice
However, it was the 2001 census which shocked the world. It brought forth the hard figures that the practice of female foeticide was not just existent, but flourishing. The overall Indian ratio of 927 girls to 1000 boys in the 0-6 year’s age group, when in the world the ratio was 1045 vs 1000. The statistics were more skewed in the Northern Indian states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh etc than in the Southern states.
And it went on, quietly, unabated, under the cover of legal abortions, and with Ultrasound getting cheaper and more easily available to all levels of health workers. The trend caught up, rose in numbers and spread to other states.
The census reports for the 2011 nailed the speculation that the trend was catching pace, with the stats now being 914 vs 100 for girls vs boys. In some of the states it has gone to as low as in 800s e.g. Uttar Pradesh (899 girls for 1,000 boys), Haryana (830), Punjab (846) and national capital Delhi (866).
The conditional sex ratio for second-order births when the firstborn was a girl, fell from 906 per 1000 boys (99% CI 798—1013) in 1990 to 836 (733—939) in 2005; an annual decline of 0•52% (p for trend=0•002), reported medical journal Lancet in May 2011.
What also came forth in the 2001 census was that it was more of an urban phenomenon and more so practiced by the upper middle class of educated families.
The Urban and Rural ratios being 946 and 900 respectively, to 1000 boys.
“Declines were much greater in mothers with 10 or more years of education than in mothers with no education, and in wealthier households compared with poorer households.” reported a Study published in Lancet, in May 2011.
Better economic conditions and higher education, instead of improving their thinking, enabled their misogynistic mindset to dispense away the extra income, and abuse the modern technology to their advantage. Thus defeating our age old myths of education, and economic circumstances will increase the plight of women. Perhaps our technological knowhow and economic affluence has developed faster than our brains.
The irony is that it is the same communities affluent, well educated, and even God fearing religious strata of society, who celebrates ‘Kanjak’, the day when young girls are worshipped as Goddesses, has now started to kill their own Goddesses in the womb.
Innovations in bypassing the laws:
In the mid 80s some Indian states began passing legislation like the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act, which banned sex determination tests. In the 90s the same act was legislated in the centre too. The Act carries a three-year imprisonment and Rs10, 000 fines for offenders, prohibiting the gender disclosure of the foetus during Ultra sound. However, tens of thousands of Private clinics with cheaper version of Ultrasound machines had mushroomed till then, all over the North Indian cities, performing the gender detection and the abortion of the female foetus as a ‘package’.
There have been reports that certain clinics in small cities display openly billboards with incentives: “Do you want to spend 500 or 50 lakhs” referring to the cost of abortion against the cost of raising a girl child and marrying her off with a dowry.
The gender disclosure law which was an offence, is creatively bypassed, by using code words like: For girl vs boy as:
Jai Mata Di vs Jai Sri Krishna
Pink city Jaipur vs Blue City Jodhpur
Jalebi vs Laddoo.
It is not just the men of the family, but the senior women like the mothers in law who coerce the women to resort to sex selection. Many expectant mothers have to undergo multiple abortions, jeopardising their health before the desired boy is conceived.
Needless to repeat it the mindset of boys being ‘assets ’, kul deepaks (the lamps of heritage) , are looked up as bread winners, carers for the old age, continuation of family name, as a necessity to perform the last rites of the parents.
On the other hand the impression of girls as liabilities, ‘paraya dhan’ (someone else’s wealth), ‘bojh’ (burden) because of the expense involved in marrying them off with a fat dowry, need to protect them physically and morally, and likely to bring disrepute to the family if their morality is lost.
UNPFA report “India Towards Population and Development Goals”(1997), estimates that 48 million women were ‘missing’ from India’s population since the turn of the century. The report further states “If the sex ratio of 1036 females per 1000 males observed in some states of Kerala in 1991 had prevailed in the whole country, the number of would be 455 million instead of the 407 million (in the 1991 census). Thus, there is a case of between 32 to 48 million missing females in the Indian society as of 1991 that needs to be explained.”
According to UNICEF, India tops the list as far as illegal abortions and female foeticides are concerned. Of the 15 million illegal abortions carried out in the world in 1997, India accounted for 4 million, 90% of which were intended to eliminate the girl child.
Another study reported in the Lancet journal indicates that 8-10 million females were aborted during the past 10 years,( from 2001 to 2011) mainly to couples whose firstborn was a girl and among the more well-off families. This number is much bigger than all the men and women killed in genocides put together.
Much to the dismay, a recent report published by Toronto Star, talked of preliminary reports of such skewed ratios, in favour of a boy, in the second and third order births among the Indians settled in Canada.
However, this phenomenon is not just restricted to India; another major country facing the menace of female foeticide is China.
The preference for boys, in China too is tied to their religious belief that male heirs are necessary to carry on the family name and take care of the family spirits. A Chinese family worries that if there is no son no one will look after them and keep them company in the afterlife. Confucius said, “There are three ways of being disloyal to your ancestors. Not carrying on the family name is the worse.”
Chinese parents openly celebrate when they have boys, and some even show disappointment when they have girls. Newborn girls are given names like Pandi (“expecting a boy”), Yanan (“second to a boy”) in hopes the next child will be a boy. Six million women bear the names Lai-di (“call for a brother”) and Ziao-di (“bring a brother”).
“Daughters are like water that splashes out of the family and cannot be gotten back after marriage.”, a Chinese saying resonates with the belief we as South Asians have of girls being a ‘guest’ in their parents homes.
The statistics suggest that China did not have a skewed male: female ratio till the one child norm was enforced. After the enforcement, the rate of abortion of female fetuses increased in China, thereby accelerating a demographic decline after 1979. As most Chinese families are given incentives to have only one child, they would want it to be a son. However later the Law was eased especially for those who had a first girl child, hence giving a legal government sanction to the preference of a boy.
In 2005 figures, 118 boys were born for every 100 girls, up from 110 boys per 100 girls in 2000 and 112 in 1990.
Recently in the past few years, Vietnam has experienced an unusual rapid change in the sex ratio at birth.. The ratio was about 106 male births per 100 female births, in 2000 and has it increased to 112 in 2008.
“Currently, China reports higher sex ratio at birth than Vietnam. However, what is striking in Vietnam is the unusually rapid rise of the SRB [sex ratio at birth] recorded over the last few years.” says a UNFPA representative.
There are no studies existent from Pakistan, but as mentioned in by an investigating journalist in the TV program Lekin by Sana Bucha, there are 3,000 single room clinics existent just in Karachi, with one or two employees, performing illegal abortions, 90% of them being for the female child. This is despite of abortions being illegal in Pakistan, unlike in India or China. This could be just the tip of the iceberg.
A 2005 study estimated that over 90 million females were “missing” from the expected population in Asian countries including China, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Burma, South Korea and Taiwan alone, and suggested that sex-selective abortion plays a huge role in this deficit.
Research suggests that instead of economic conditions, like poverty or education, it is the cultural beliefs that play a much larger role in gender preference and sex-selective abortion. To prove this, in places like sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean such deviations in sex ratios do not exist in.
As scientific progress furthers and the technology becomes more affordable and available to the common man, the curse of Female feticide, is likely to follow the course it is following currently. There are already available on internet, home monitoring kits, to detect the sex of the new foetus from blood or even urine samples. With abortion techniques getting more medical than surgical, the situation may simply go out of hands of the health personnel even..
The affluent and the educated who perform this would realise its curse only as it will be going to bite them back when their sons will find it extremely daunting task to find brides, and will be forced to stay bachelors.
It is estimated that by 2020 there could be more than 35 million young ‘surplus’ males in China and 25 million in India.
This has actually begun to be seen in smaller scale in various states in India and China. It is already happening that single men are more involved in violence and crimes, resorting to drug addiction and alcoholism, after being frustrated to find a suitable spouse. Women once again are being punished with a rise in rapes, in prostitution demands and through other crimes against them. In some places there have been reports of women being forced to share husbands (polyandry).
In India, the legislation prohibiting gender-selective abortions has so far been evaded easily, and there have hardly been any prosecutions. One wonder what is it that will change the mindsets if education and affluence could not. Would any activism, any mass media campaigns, any icons be able to change this?
My heart shudders to imagine, where and when shall this stop, if at all.
Are we just going to learn it the real hard way?
Dr. Ilmana Fasih
19 May 2012
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