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Archives for Parenting

India’s Missing Daughters


“May you bathe in milk and bear many sons.” So goes an ancient Indian blessing, given by the elderly to young women. It’s a telling statement that reflects Indian societies’ deep-rooted fixation on sons.

It’s an obsession that has, depressingly, taken a very ugly turn, as modern medicine has met tradition to create an atmosphere that’s almost accepting of female feticides. Though it’s been going on in India for decades, it’s only now being seriously – and openly – talked about, especially since last year when a British medical journal, the Lancet, published a study which claimed that up to 10 million female fetuses could have been aborted in India in the last twenty years, after prenatal gender checks were conducted.

Abortion is legal in India, but not if it’s based on the gender of the fetus. Fetal sex determination is illegal but there are plenty of ultrasound clinics openly disobeying the law and doing flourishing business by revealing the sex of the child and then, in the case of girls, conducting abortions. Women sometimes go through four or five abortions before giving birth to a son, forced, by their son-crazy husbands and in-laws, into aborting their unborn children. If they resist, they are often physically abused.

The Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques Act that bans prenatal sex determination and sex selective abortion came into effect in 1994, but the first time any doctor was sentenced to jail for the offence was in March last year, twelve years after the law was passed. Though it may be a start, it’s come too late for millions of unborn girls.

We recently saw a gruesome example of this when the remains of dozens of female fetuses and babies were found stuffed in some thirty bags in an unused well in the eastern state of Orissa. The discovery led to hundreds of women taking to the streets in the state, carrying signs like: “Hang the murderers” and “Spare the girls.” They were trying to pressure the government into cracking down on clinics that conduct illegal sex determinations and sex-selective abortions.

It’s high time too. The government has ignored the problem for too long. As a result, India has one of the lowest gender ratios in the world – 927 women for every 1,000 men, according to a 2001 census, a decline from a decade ago when there were 945 women per 1,000 men.

Cracking down on the ultrasound clinics is not the only answer. It’s not the root of the problem. In India, girls are largely considered to be financial burdens on their families. They have to spend large amounts on their weddings, mostly on the dowry – payments, household goods, jewelry – that the girl’s family is supposed to give to the boy and his family. Once the woman is married, she is considered to “belong” to the man’s family, at their beck and call. So, parents think it something of a waste to spend money on raising a girl only to have no support from her in their old age – something only a son could give.

But, like all things Indian, it’s not that simple. Even many well-to-do families who could easily afford lavish weddings, prefer sons. The mindset is based, in a way, on the same concept – a son carries a father’s name forward, a daughter loses it to someone else. So, for the richer class, it’s more a question of preservation of status and social position than money. In fact this class can afford to throw money at the problem and has even found a way to get around the law. They simply take a trip to the US or the UK to find out the sex of the child there.

The Indian government, in an effort to curb the problem, has decided to take some steps toward preventing abortions based on gender, the first of which is to create a registry of all pregnancies. It’s an ambitious plan and, as some women groups have argued, it’s a bit far-fetched in a country of 1.1 billion people.

Meanwhile the problem continues and, as the government and the common man consider plans of action, abortions and infanticide go on at an alarming rate, and innocent lives are brutally ended – either in the womb or out of it.

Posted by Gopika Kaul at 4:35 PM | Permalink

Pointing the Way


A colleague of mine one day, quite out of the blue, died his lovely salt and pepper hair black. He walked into the office amid gasps of shock and incredulity, looked at us and shrugged – “school admissions” he declared candidly. No sooner had he said these two dreaded words that the group instantly went “right!” nodding in complete empathy. It was a small change but was reflective of the enormous stress that precedes school admissions every year.

If you are the parent of a three year old and you live in Delhi, chances are you probably won’t sleep too well at night, and it’s got nothing to do with your child’s erratic sleeping pattern. The reason is simple – school admissions are a nightmare in this city.

Every September there is much gnashing of teeth when parents agonize over the best private schools and declare that failure to get admission in the right one would prove to be a setback from which their child may never recover; after all the right pre-school will lead to the right school which will ensure the best university and so forth. These private schools are attended by children of the growing middle and upper-middle classes. There are, of course, government schools, but that is not an option if you want a “good” education for your child. It’s just like the schools race anywhere else. Only, as with much of India, there is to much of one thing – usually people – and not enough of the other – the things they want or need.

My siblings and I grew up much like a lot of my friends, with a mother cracking the whip to make us study hard. We were constantly reminded that to succeed in this over-populated country you must be “different from others in the rat race”, something that could only be achieved by studying hard and getting into the few good institutions for which everyone was vying. Twenty years later things have gotten worse, as the population has grown but the number of good schools hasn’t.

When I was a student there were not so many “elitist” schools as there are today. The middle class couldn’t afford expensive education for their children, so the few such schools that did exist didn’t get overwhelmed with admission requests. Today, two things have happened. One, the moneyed upper class has grown. Two, and more importantly, the lower-middle and middle-middle classes too are reaping the benefits of a booming Indian economy and can now afford better education for their children. They are under pressure to break away from the caste system and see better education for their children as one way of doing that. These two factors have led to an enormous pressure on the good schools who’ve devised their own nebulous methods of elimination, as they sometimes receive ten applications for each opening.

And everyone knows it, adding to the pressure on parents and children. At my daughter’s first birthday recently most of my friends gave her learning books of all sorts – from those that teach shapes and colors to the ones that apparently hone motor skills. It was time, I was told by well meaning friends to start teaching her all of this, since in about two years (not a lot of time apparently) she would be required to know much more for her nursery school admissions! She should, for instance, know the difference between pink and peach, know what a baby kangaroo is called, know answers to questions like “why does it rain?” and she should, of course, demonstrate bright signs of analytical thinking – all this if she is to get into a good school at three plus. (she was even given a baby Leap Pad at six months which is supposed to have developed her comprehension skills.) The race, for her, has already begun.


Posted by Gopika Kaul at 12:54 PM | Permalink

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