Stilled in the womb

Print edition : April 09, 2010
in Chennai

The fall in female infanticide in Tamil Nadu has not resulted in a change in the sex ratio, which continues to remain skewed in favour of boys. This situation has been attributed to a rise in female foeticide. Eight districts in the State, including Krishnagiri (in the picture, a girl at Jaganathapuram village in the district), have been identified as "high-risk areas" by the Welfare Centre for Women and Children.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

When Tamil Nadus ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and main opposition All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which seldom see eye to eye on national and regional issues, joined other major political parties in extending support to the Womens Reservation Bill, both appeared to have little doubt about the efficacy of the legislation in ensuring the empowerment of women in the public sphere. But activists of womens forums and functionaries of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the State say womens empowerment should ultimately put an end to the different forms of gender bias in the day-to-day lives of women, especially in a patriarchal society that sees the girl child as a liability.

The State government claims that the strategies adopted by it to eliminate female infanticide have yielded dramatic results. According to it, cases of female infanticide declined from an annual average of around 3,000 between 1995 and 1999 to just 225 in 2003 because of committed intervention by government promoting social mobilisation. If infanticide has come down so drastically as the authorities claim, the alarming decline of child sex ratio in many districts point only to another heinous practice: female foeticide.

Information provided by official sources and details obtained by NGOs through the Right to Information (RTI) Act show that the gender bias is so strong that modern equipment such as ultrasound scanners are used to determine the sex of the foetus and snuff it in the womb if it is a female one. The obnoxious practice knows no socio-economic barriers. It is prevalent even among affluent and educated sections of society. However, NGO activists say foeticide cases are fewer among Dalits, even in Salem district, which was once known as the epicentre of female infanticide.

Dharmapuri, Salem, Theni, Madurai and Dindigul districts had gained notoriety for large-scale infanticide 10 to 15 years ago. R. Sampath, executive director of the Welfare Centre for Women and Children (WCWC), said foeticide was now prevalent in more districts. He blames the lack of sustained and concerted efforts for this situation.

The WCWC has identified eight districts Salem, Dharmapuri, Krishnagiri, Namakkal, Madurai, Dindigul, Theni and Erode as high risk areas. As many as 20 blocks and 14 taluks are in the category, Sampath said.

Tamil Nadu has been regarded as lying outside the ambit of States with unusually dismal sex ratios in the 0-6 age group, but official records indicate that the child sex ratio and sex ratio at birth are very low. Data available at the primary health centres (PHC) show that the sex ratio at birth (SRB) is far below the internationally accepted level of 952 females per 1,000 male babies.

In 2001, SRB was less than 900 in 376 PHCs and below 952 in 677 PHCs out of a total 1,173 PHCs. In 2008, the number of PHCs below the 900-SRB mark rose to 434 out of 1,238 centres; in 689 PHCs it was less than 952.

In 2002, there were 657 PHCs with SRBs lower than the international average. In 2003, the number rose to 699. Though it slumped to 637 centres the next year, in 2005 it touched an all-time high of 713 centres. When 652 centres were in the below-952 category in 2006, as many as 616 such centres were identified in 2007.

In some PHCs, like the one at Sirugudi in Dindigul district, the SRB had slipped to 486 in 2004, though the situation improved subsequently. There were several PHCs where the ratio was less than 700 between 2001 and 2008, according to informed sources.

Experts and activists of womens forums and NGOs see a link between the steep fall in the sex ratio and the mushrooming of scan centres in the urban and rural areas of Tamil Nadu. According to M. Jeeva, a core committee member of the Campaign Against Sex Selective Abortion (CASSA), several inadequacies in the implementation of the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, 1994, were brought to light during its monitoring visits to scan centres, MTP (medical termination of pregnancy) centres and fertility clinics in Madurai, Theni, Chennai, Dharmapuri, Erode, Karur, Namakkal, Salem, Sivaganga, Tiruvallur and Nagapattinam districts. The umbrella organisation of social action groups, womens associations, human rights groups, advocates, doctors, educationists and researchers has been campaigning against sex-selective medical practices so as to prevent the decline in the child sex ratio.

In a memorandum submitted to the State government on February 16, CASSA said that though the PCPNDT Act had provisions for regulating and registering genetic counselling centres (GCC), genetic laboratories (GL), genetic clinics (GC) and prenatal diagnostic techniques, apart from constituting a central supervisory board, an appropriate authority and an advisory committee, loopholes in the implementation of the Act resulted in the skewed child sex ratio and sex ratio at birth. Information CASSA gathered using the RTI Act revealed that there were 3,522 such centres registered in the State 543 scan centres run by the government, 2,953 ultrasound clinics, five genetic labs, 14 fertility clinics and seven amnio centres. The Act insists that centres using prenatal diagnostic techniques and procedures be registered as GC, GCC and GL, but the above centres were not brought under such classification on the basis of techniques and procedures adopted by them, it alleged.

The NGO also said that a large number of fertility clinics operating in the cities and towns, including Chennai, Coimbatore, Salem, Madurai, Tiruchi, Thanjavur, Namakkal, Karur, Dharmapuri, Erode and Mayiladuthurai, had not been brought under the purview of the PCPNDT Act for registration. It was also noticed that several centres using prenatal diagnostic techniques (PNDT) and procedures did not maintain relevant records in the exclusively prescribed forms.

Under Section 5 of the Act, no person, including the one conducting prenatal diagnostic procedures, shall communicate to the pregnant woman concerned or her relatives or any other person the sex of the foetus by words or signs or in any other manner. Section 6 says that no GCC/GL/GC shall conduct, or cause to be conducted in its centre, laboratory or clinic, prenatal diagnostic techniques, including ultrasonography, for the purpose of determining the sex of a foetus.

So, if records are not maintained properly, the person concerned may be punished for a term that may extend to three years and with fine that may extend to Rs.10,000 under Section 22 of the Act, said a CASSA functionary.

Information obtained through RTI also exposed another serious violation: non-submission of reports periodically to the appropriate authorities. Only one-third of the 1,741 PNDT centres in 22 districts were submitting reports every month. In some districts, including Chennai, monthly reports were not submitted.

Though it is mandatory for the advisory committees in the districts to meet periodically within 60 days, the panels met on fewer than six occasions from April 2007 to March 2008 in 19 districts, according to CASSA sources. Even when they met, the deliberations were confined to registration and renewal of PNDT centres. In none of these meetings, were discussions held for taking action on complaints or to enforce the PCPNDT Act, the NGO alleged.

Functionaries of CASSA also accused the authorities of not taking action against those who claimed through advertisements that the sex of the foetus could be determined using horoscope. Such advertisements violated Section 22 (2) of the PCPNDT Act, they argued.

Dr G.R. Ravindranath, secretary of Indian Doctors for Peace and Development, said violations of the PCPNDT Act and the MTP Act prevailed at various places in India, including Tamil Nadu. Professional competition makes some doctors, more particularly obstetricians, indulge in sex-selective abortions. Doctors should be sensitised to their social responsibility to prevent female foeticide, infanticide and sex-selective abortions, he said.

He also called for the implementation of more innovative schemes for the protection and welfare of the girl child. Demanding firm action against unregistered PNDT centres, he urged the government to curb any violation of the Act, including the practice of sex-selective conception techniques in hi-tech fertility centres.

However, official sources paint a rosy picture. The policy note on Health and Family Welfare tabled in the Assembly during the last Budget session said the PCPNDT Act had been effectively implemented with a view to curtailing the adverse sex ratio and to preventing female foeticide. It spoke about setting up advisory committees at the State, district and sub-district levels.

A total of 3,868 scan centres had so far been registered under the Act and a constant vigil was being maintained to prevent detection of sex, the policy note said, adding that so far 72 cases for violation of the Act had been identified and cases filed against 72 scan centres.

Though the Central government has evinced a keen interest in emulating Tamil Nadu in the implementation of the cradle baby scheme introduced in the State in 1992, Sampath shared the scepticism of several other NGO functionaries about its efficacy in curbing female infanticide and foeticide. There are many factors that contribute to the lack of response to the cradle baby scheme. The women would rather offer seven children to Lord Yama (God of Death) than give one for adoption, Sampath said. Human rights activists also opposed the scheme on the grounds that rather than helping to improve the five-decade-old low sex ratio, it only legitimised the age-old discrimination against female children.

According to CASSA, the data provided by the Social Welfare Board indicated that 1,188 of the 2,407 female babies left in the cradles at the designated centres in Madurai, Namakkal, Theni, Dindigul, Erode, Salem and Dharmapuri districts from 2001 to 2007 had been given for adoption and 64 of them had been handed over to their parents.

Official sources said 3,418 babies, including 2,932 female babies, were left in the cradles in the State from 1992 to March 31, 2009. A sum of Rs.8.79 lakh was earmarked for 2009-2010 for five reception centres.

Officials said the government regularly conducted programmes and workshops to create public awareness and remove the fears and the stigma about adoption, and it provided necessary guidance to prospective adoptive parents. The government has also been implementing the Sivagami Ammaiyar Ninaivu Girl Child Protection Scheme since 2001 to prevent female infanticide, besides promoting family planning, official sources said.

Referring to the call given by Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar, United Progressive Alliance chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Brinda Karat for concerted efforts to end the problem of female foeticide, functionaries of the womens associations and NGO activists feel that an inclusive and multi-pronged strategy is the need of the hour.

On the social front, the son only policy will have dangerous consequences. Already a lack of brides is being experienced among certain dominant communities in the western districts of the State. This, sociologists say, can give rise to problems such as the sexual abuse of girl children, polyandry and psychological disorders among both men and women.

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