“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.