by Neeta Lal
- India -
Kaveri’s plight resonates across swathes of India, where girls who have been married to men outside their own caste, culture and social milieu grapple with an uncertain marital future in an unfamiliar environment. Where brides are scarce, they fetch a high dowry, so they are regularly trafficked by their parents to other states like Haryana and Punjab in the north, where a severe lack of marriageable females is driving men to seek spouses outside their own social circles. And the brides’ families are countenancing marriages that in another time they would never have considered, as in Kaveri’s case. What’s worse, practices such as polyandry - where several men of a family share the same wife - are also being reported in several of the regions where men outnumber women.
Kaveri Nambiar, 25, a Brahmin woman from Chennai in southern India, married a farmer’s son in Punjab, up north, a few months ago. But rather than glowing with the happiness of newly married bliss, the young bride is undergoing treatment for depression! The reason? Major socio-cultural disorientation on all fronts: from her inter-caste marriage to the stress of being uprooted and replanted in a culture almost as foreign to her as if she were living in another country: she has had to adjust to the different language and customs of her new home, it’s no wonder that Kaveri sought help. “Mom, please let me come back home,” is her constant request to her hapless mother over phone.
Shocking as it is, despite an impressive silicon-fuelled, economic growth trajectory - and now, a shining trillion-dollar economy - India is lurching towards a demographic crisis triggered by its rampant and disquieting practice of female feticide. According to a recent UN report, India’s staggering number of female feticide cases (2,000 every day) will likely trigger a frightening social upheaval. As the country’s skewed male-female ratio worsens and women’s numbers continue to plummet, Indian society is headed for a climax of rampant sexual violence, child abuse and even wife-sharing.
Things are already quite ominous. Recent child abuse surveys establish that sexual abuse is a horrendous everyday reality for scores of innocent Indian children. In fact the precedent-setting National Study on Child Sexual Abuse, released earlier this year reveals that one in two Indian children are victims of sexual abuse. Conducted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, UNICEF and Save The Children, the report surveyed 13 states and found that a whopping 69 per cent of all Indian children are victims of some form of abuse (physical/mental/emotional) with children in the capital city of New Delhi facing an astounding abuse rate of 83.12 per cent.According to the United Nations Population Fund in India, the 2001 census should have sounded out a serious warning about the inevitable result of continuing female feticide in India. But despite the maelstrom whipped up by the census at that time, gender ratios in India not only continued to plummet, but female feticide dramatically increased. Unfortunately, the upcoming 2011 census is expected to show that India’s gender ratio is getting ever more skewed, year by year. "In some parts of India,” explains Raj Kumari, a Mumbai-based social activist and family counselor, “one in every five girls is being eliminated at the fetal stage. It is a genocidal situation."
Despite laws that prohibit testing to determine the sex of an unborn child, the killing of female fetuses is rampant across the whole country. The preference for sons is overt. As a result, the UN estimates that 2,000 unborn girls are illegally aborted every day in India. This has led to skewed gender ratios, especially in regions like Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. Even the nation’s capital scores abysmally low: 800 girls for every 1,000 boys, according to the 2001 census.The Indian government estimates that around 10 million girls have been killed by their parents - either before or immediately after birth - over the past 20 years. There have also been recent cases in New Delhi of mothers strangling their own newborn girls. Doctors too, are partners in crime. In one case, hundreds of female fetuses were dug up from the back lawn of a New Delhi doctor’s clinic, establishing his complicity in female feticide. "There’s already a lot of sexual violence and women/child abuse across the country due to the disruptive male-female sex ratio," opines Ranjana Kumari, Director at the Centre for Social Research, a New Delhi based think-tank. “Further decline [will] only worsen the situation.”
Despite a complex set of laws prohibiting feticide, prosecutions in India are rare. Women – even teenagers – walk brazenly into abortion clinics to get rid of unwanted girls. These are jokingly referred to as “lunch-time abortions”. Doctors routinely carry out such operations, since they make for lucrative business; the police just look the other way.
Under pressure from activists, in 1994 the Indian government outlawed the use of ultrasounds to reveal fetal gender. The penalties were upped in 2002 (three years in jail and a $230 fine for the first offense and five years imprisonment and $1,160 for the second).
However, there’s no denying that female feticide is still rising; the wide availability of modern technologies like ultrasonography and amniocentesis make it possible to determine gender reliably if the prospective parents want to request the information. Almost always if it is determined that the fetus is a girl, it is aborted.
The staggering impact of ultrasounds and sex-selection abortions can be seen in the state of Punjab. According to national census figures, there were 925 girls for every 1,000 boys younger than seven when Punjab's first ultrasound clinic opened in 1979. By 1991, it was 875 and by 2001, the figures had plummeted to 793. In many areas of Haryana, an agrarian state in the north, the ratio has gone down to a dangerously low 640 women per 1,000 men. In many rural villages young men literally cannot find women to marry; this is now resulting in polygamous marriages more and more often.
Activists face a potent mix of technology and tradition and the combination is only aggravating the problem. Prenatal diagnostic techniques have introduced ultrasounds to villages that previously lacked access to the technology that now allows prospective parents to select the sex of their children, and the result is that female fetuses get aborted. Even in the wealthy states of Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat and Maharashtra, where the girl children who might become potential brides are becoming fewer and fewer, the ratio of females to males has declined because the technology to ferret out and eliminate female fetuses is now so easily available. This technology, while intended to ensure the proper care of mothers and unborn children, has been used for eliminating female fetuses far more often than for better prenatal care. Unscrupulous doctors and medical companies motivated only by profit have only fed the demand."When there are less women and more men in a society of the same age group, there’s bound to be much more demand for women for marriage, for sex and this pressure will certainly increase violence against women," says New Delhi-based sociologist Dr. Veena Sirohi. Activists reiterate that these brides shipped off to marriages in unfamiliar states where they know no one have to acclimatize themselves in a culture where everything is different - from the language to the diet and customs. Moreover, they are often scorned and sometimes abused by the new community which judges them only their ability to produce male offspring. “Indian women are already being treated as commodities - to be bought and sold - and their plight will only worsen with skewed sex ratios,” declares Dr. Sirohi.
Teenage suicide among young girls has spiraled out of control; so have incidents of violence against women. The problem of gender inequity, hitherto restricted to the rural hinterlands, is fast engulfing metropolitan areas as well, mainly because the desire for male offspring is strong even amongst educated, cosmopolitan families. The Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), a local administrative body, claims that in the last year, certain pockets in New Delhi (Narela, Punjabi Bagh and Najafgarh) have had sex ratios dropp to a disquieting 828, 842 and 841 respectively.
In order to address the alarming gender inequity in New Delhi, the Center for Social Research and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, recently launched a slew of measures including mass awareness campaigns. Many colleges and over 40 independent social organizations and NGOs have been recruited to educate the masses about this worrisome trend.
But while such synergistic steps between the government and private bodies to correct the malaise of female feticide are a welcome augury, the government also needs to tighten its mechanisms to ensure that offenders are punished. Shockingly, punitive action against offenders of female feticide has been so abysmal that in the last 11 years of the existence of the Pre-conception and Pre Natal Diagnostics Techniques (PC/PNDT) Act, only 406 cases have been registered across the entire country. Even more disturbing is that out of these, only two convictions have taken place.
According to Dr Sirohi, the government is treating the symptom rather than the disease. “What we need to attack is the people’s mindset by targeted public education campaigns to tell people emphatically that if they keep killing their unborn girls, there’ll be no brides left for their beloved sons.”
Sirohi’s viewpoint makes sense considering that most Indian families prize the male offspring as the real inheritor of the family legacy, the one who will take the family lineage forward. Girls, on the contrary, are treated as outsiders. “Everything pales in significance compared to the gender issue,” says Ashok Aggarwal, a New Delhi-based lawyer and civil rights activist. "We need to [take an aggressive stance to] address this problem."
About the Author
Freelance journalist Neeta Lal is a transnationally published writer who currently contributes to over two dozen international publications, including The Guardian, Asia Sentinel, Opinion Asia and a host of British and American magazines. Having traveled to over 30 countries, she is also in the process of writing two travel books.
Neeta enjoys cooking, gardening, traveling and photography. She lives in New Delhi with her husband and two children.