Wombs as graves

Print edition : June 29, 2007

The Original document (in Urdu, above), available at the National Archives of India, New Delhi. Reference - Collection No. 57, Serial no. 539-41 (Mutiny Papers). Photocopy of the document is available at the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), New Delhi. English Translation (right) from `Freedom Struggle in Uttar Pradesh', edited by S.A.A. Rizvi & M.L. Bhargava, (Publications Bureau, U.P., 1957) Vol. 1, pages 419-21). Civil Administration Delhi

Exploring the socio-economic factors behind the practice of female foeticide.

WHEN the office of the Registrar General of India released the provisional data on the child sex ratio (CSR) in 2001, women's organisations and health activists were alarmed at the sharp decline they projected. While the national average in the 0-6 age group was 945 girls per 1,000 boys in the 1991 Census, in 2001 it plunged to 927. Also, the indicators from some of the more prosperous States and cities were not encouraging.

As it turned out, it was not the poor who discriminated against the girl child; the well-to-do sections and the middle classes were the culprits. In Delhi, the lowest CSR was in South Delhi, the upmarket part of the capital. The declining CSR was a matter of particular concern as the adult sex ratio had shown an improvement. It appeared that the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act, or the PNCNDT Act, had not worked as a deterrent. In fact, more and more data on the sex ratio at birth collected at the hospital level indicated that elimination of the female foetus had been taking place in large numbers.

Demographers, sociologists, women activists and women's organisations, while considering the probable causes of female foeticide, were loath to view the problem as a purely cultural one. The question was: Why are daughters disappearing in 21st century India, when the nation is globalising fast?

Gita Aravamudan's book Disappearing Daughters answers some of these questions. Written sensitively, the book explores some of the socio-economic factors underlying the practice of female foeticide. The book is like a travelogue documenting discrimination. The author's road journey first begins with the "violent" Kallars in Usilampatti in Madurai district of Tamil Nadu. The year is 1994. A young woman, Karupayee, is arrested for strangling to death her new-born baby girl. Junior Vikatan, a Tamil language magazine, published an article in 1986 on the killing of girl babies in Usilampatti. Gita Aravamudan's book begins here, 10 years later.

The author found that poverty was not the reason for female foeticide as a section of the Kallars were in fact prosperous. But they had started taking dowry, giving up a more pro-woman practice of bride price. This transition, the author explains, was a result of a changing economic life from nomadic living to settled cultivation. In fact, Frederick Engels best exemplifies this devaluation in the status of women owing to a change in property and ownership relations in his 19th century text The Origin of the Family, Private Property and The State. Prior to the emergence of monogamy, in primitive communal society there was no distinction between a public world of men's work and a private world of women's household service. Goods were, Engels wrote, as yet directly produced and consumed; they had not become transformed into commodities for exchange, the transformation upon which the exploitation of man by man and the special oppression of women were built.

Gita Aravamudan's book does not draw any parallels with the 19th century Marxist understanding of the causes behind the subjugation of women. In the case of the Kallars, she found that with prosperity and settled life, a change occurred in the role of women. From being economic producers, they began to be recognised more as mothers and homemakers. The situation of women worsened with the income disparities that emerged from the varying patterns of cultivation. Five years later, the author's journey took her to Salem, again in Tamil Nadu, where she found that sophisticated methods were used to kill girl babies, such as "induced" pneumonia or diarrhoea.

AT A RALLY in Bhopal on the eve of the World Girl Child Day on September 23, 2004, with placards highlighting the low child sex ratio and emphasising that girls are inferior to none.-

Was there an economic logic here as well? The book does not explore this area. Neither does it explain whether the trend noticed in some areas had entirely to do with the economic patterns of livelihood, the transition from food to cash crops as in Usilampatti and the subsequent devaluation and commodification of the girl child in a highly "commodified" economy. The female infanticide belt now stretched through the districts of Salem, Dharmapuri, North Arcot (now Vellore), Periyar (now Erode), Dindigul and Madurai. The worst-rated areas lay in north Salem, south Dharmapuri, south Dindigul and west Madurai. However, owing to sustained campaign by the administration, the media and, to an extent, non-governmental organisations such as the Society for Integrated Development, some change has taken place. But the law certainly has not acted as a deterrent, especially in that section of the medical community which practises sex determination. The "prosecute the victim" approach also has not worked, as the root cause for the pressure to produce a boy child has not been addressed.

Gita Aravamudan's understanding, taking off from the research findings of the State Institute of Rural Development (SIRD) that sexual violence is also a factor behind the killing of girl children, is not entirely tenable as sexual violence is more a manifestation of the low status of women. It is now understood that increasing sexual violence is an outcome of a skewed sex ratio and not the other way round. In fact, the relative shortage of girls has resulted in early marriages, denial of school education to the girl child and an excessive paranoia about sexual abuse of adolescent girls. The author has not explored these factors.

From Tamil Nadu, the book takes a giant leap northwards towards Punjab. In 2001, the Census office along with the United Nations Population Fund brought out a booklet mapping the decadal change in the CSR between 1991 and 2001. The areas that had a CSR of below 800 were highlighted in red; those between 800 and 849 in orange and those between 850 and 899 in yellow. In 1991, no area in India was marked in either red or orange. Ten years later, Punjab was dotted with red and orange markings. The same story was more or less repeated in other States, the notable exceptions being Kerala and some of the northeastern States. Haryana, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan showed patterns similar to Punjab. Here too, the malaise was spreading with the active abetment of the law, the medical community and society at large. The author does not add content to the copious amount of information already available. What she provides is an interesting narrative that pieces some of the things together; her understanding of the why's in a globalised world are rather limited. Her book is meant to shock and its strength lies in its lucidity rather than depth.

One of the more interesting part of the book is the description of the technologies involved in sex selection. It is not surprising that most of these technologies, which originated in developed countries and hinged on the notion of "choice", have been increasingly used to discriminate against the girl child. The author could have gone a little further to examine from the available material if gender bias existed against the girl child in advanced countries as well. Were daughters becoming undesirable the world over considering that there was no legal regulation of sex selection technologies?

What the book does not offer is an understanding of how the PCPNDT Act functions and its inherent limitations. While the complicity of the police in letting the guilty get away has emerged rather well, it is also a fact that the bodies and structures required to implement the Act have not been set up in many districts. But most importantly, with the growth of a large unregulated private sector, it has become increasingly difficult to pin down medical professionals who practise, abet and encourage sex-selection technologies. The book lacks a framework, but it scores high on unstinted empathy with the issue itself. The sincerity of intent underlying Gita Aravamudan's journalistic opus cannot be doubted.

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