India’s Greatest Shame : The “Unwanted” Girl Child

“Courage, sacrifice, determination, commitment, toughness, heart, talent, guts. That’s what little girls are made of; the heck with sugar and spice.”

– Bethany Hamilton

By Dhara Tandon

In the global scenario, India is becoming a force to reckon with and we are very proud of this fact. But there are home truths that we are unaware of or are turning a deaf ear to them, Female Infanticide and Foeticide is one of them. The unwanted girl child is India’s greatest shame. The fixation for a male child transcends socio-economic status, religion, gender and education. A girl is considered dispensable in the world’s largest democracy. She is a product of misconception that has filtered through homes, place of worship, schools, the media, government buildings and her workplace.

Female Infanticide is a deliberate and intentional act of killing a female child within one year of its birth either directly by using poisonous organic and inorganic chemicals or indirectly by deliberate neglect to feed the infant by either of the parents or other family members. On the other hand, Female Foeticide is the termination of life of the foetus within the womb on the grounds that its sex is female and is also known as sex selective abortion.

Infanticide is the homicide of an infant. It has been reported that female infanticide existed in India since 1789 in several districts of Rajasthan; along the western shores in Gujarat- Surat and Kutch; and among a clan of Rajputs in eastern part of Uttar Pradesh. It was so rampant in Kutch that only five of such families were found who had not killed their “new-born” daughters. Today their are alarming reports of the baby girls being murdered even in areas where this practice did not exist earlier. Poverty, ignorance of family planning, cost of dowry, etc. have been reported as the possible causes for this crime.

Female Foeticide, another heinous evil propelling in our society is the conjunction of two ethical evils : abortion, gender bias. In this the girl children become target of attack even before they are born. The practice of female foeticide is based on sex determination by testing the amniotic fluid while the woman is pregnant. Such tests are banned in India but they are secretly and unethically carried out by some medical professionals. In fact, in a well-known Abortion Center in Mumbai, after undertaking the sex-determination tests, out of the 15,914 abortions performed during 1984-85 almost 100 percent were those of girl fetuses. Similarly, a survey report of women’s center in Mumbai found that out of 8000 fetuses aborted in six city hospitals 7,999 were of girls. It has also been reported that about 4000 female babies are aborted in Tamil Nadu every year. Also, female foeticide has replaced female infanticide as a means to reduce or eliminate female offspring as in societies where women’s status is very low, many fetuses are rejected.

Throughout the country and up and down the class-caste ladder the joy of parenthood is conditioned by the gender of the child. If a boy is born, delight amongst the family; if it’s a girl, anxiety and disappointment. The sole reason for this is economic; when girls marry (around 70% of marriages are still arranged in India), the family of the bride is expected to pay a sum of money to the groom’s family- whether they can afford it or not. This is the infamous dowry system, a corrupted illegal method of financial exploitation and violence that, like much else in this extraordinary country, is sanctified by the waters of tradition and culture (a manipulated term often employed to maintain prejudicial social conditioning and resist change), which was banned by the Indian Government in 1961. And yet, like so many liberal legislative statements of intent, the system continues unabated. “The Dowry Prohibition Act” which makes clear that anyone giving or receiving a dowry faces five years in prison and a hefty fine, remains unenforced. In 1986, an amendment was added stating that any death of or violence to a wife within 7 years of marriage would be treated as dowry violence. Indifference, apathy and corruption dog all areas of the many and varied government departments and offices; people have no faith in the police or the judicial system, resulting in the vast majority of dowry crimes, as with all crimes against women, going unreported.

Causes of Female Infanticide and Foeticide

Primary Causes

Patriarchy

Patriarchy refers to a social system in which men hold primary power in all spheres of life, such as political leadership, moral authority, control of property, family affairs etc. Most of the societies in India are patriarchal and most of the patriarchal societies are patrilineal, meaning that the male lineage inherits the property and title. Centuries of patriarchy in India has led to oppression of females and eventually to female foeticide and infanticide since the early 1990’s.

  • Gender Discrimination – Centuries of patriarchy has resulted in gender discrimination in all spheres of life. A girl has not been considered as strong, as smart, as intelligent as a boy since times immemorial. Girls had not been allowed to do work such as join the army and police, do heavy duty jobs, driving buses and trucks, professional pilots, business management, etc. Girls have never been given the real opportunity to make their families proud of themselves.
  • The Girl cannot continue the family lineage – According to the patriarchal structure of the society, girls tend to leave their parental home after their marriage and move to their matrimonial home. Therefore, it is believed that girls cannot continue the lineage of their family to which they are born. Not only shall the family lineage come to an end, but also, the parents shall be left on their own during old age.
  • The desire of a boy/son – The boy/son is considered to be a prized possession and a status symbol in the Indian society. It is prevalent ideology that he will increase the size of the family, be the bread-earner of the entire family and will take care of his parents till their last breath. The desire to procure son is one of the main causes of female foeticide. Unnecessary and constant tampering of the religious ideologies has led to the misconception that birth of a boy is a path to heaven. Facing the brunt of such faulty ideas, girls are considered inauspicious and worthless and are therefore killed in the womb.
  • Dowry system – The ill-practice of dowry has very deep roots in the Indian society. A daughter has been looked at as a liability because of the dowry system. The day a girl is born in a family, parents start to worry about the dowry they will have to pay during her marriage. Excessive demand for dowry by the in-laws and the subsequent failure on the part of girl’s parents to fulfill such demands lead to the girl being subjected to continuous harassment and torture. To free themselves of such burden and distress, families resort to killing the girls inside the womb.

Safety Issues

Increase in the number of crimes against women with the invasion of India by various intruders, became a cause of concern for families having a girl child. Females have borne the brunt of the declining standards of humanity, respect and demeanor. Eve teasing has become a frequent activity throughout India. Many boys tease girls when they find them alone or even in public places. They pass bad comments regarding their dresses, characters, physical appearances, etc. Heinous crimes such as sexual harassment and rape of women have become common in India. Protection of females is a major concern of the society. The fear of such crimes being committed to one’s own daughter prove detrimental for some families and therefore, they find, killing the female foetus in the womb, a better option.

Lack of education

Even till date, more than 25% of the Indian population continues to be illiterate. Lack of education among Indians has proven to be detrimental for the development on the social and psychological front.

There is a wide disparity between the male and female literacy ratios and this disparity continues to exist even today. Ill-practices like female foeticide and infanticide still prevail in India due to lack of education, people continue to believe in faulty ideas. Also, lack of education directly affects the woman’s parenting skills and leads to poor child-care. Malnutrition and high infant mortality is a consequence as illiterate mothers fail to understand and exercise good health promoting behavior, such as immunization and good personal hygiene.

Devastating effects

A complex interrelated series of consequences flows from the social injustices perpetrated against young women in the 18th century : abortion of female babies; infanticide; trafficking and a range of sexual abuse including rape – within the home and the wider community as well as parental neglect and domestic servitude.

Due to the fact that girls are seen as economic burden and boys a source of income, girl babies have been aborted and murdered – female infanticide or gendercide – in their millions in India. The Lancet estimates that 500,000 female fetuses are aborted in India every year. As a result according to the BBC, “an estimated 25-50 million women in India are ‘missing’, if you compare the proportion of women in the population with other countries.” Staggeringly, Unicef believes 10 million girls, were killed by their parents in the last thirty years.

Infanticide- the willful killing of a child within the first year of it’s life- is illegal throughout the world – the British outlawed it in India in 1870, but the practice is widespread (occurring, the UN estimates in 80% of Indian states) and with the introduction of ultrasound in the 1980’s this barbaric crime has only grown. It is illegal for clinics and doctors to tell the parents the sex of the child, but many do so; if it’s a girl her fate is uncertain, if it’s a boy- joy and relief amongst the parents. When Infanticide was banned by the colonial government, they claimed the two chief causes of this inhumane act were ‘pride and purse’. “Purse” referred to the dowry and “Pride”, to pride of the upper castes and tribes that would rather murder female infants than give them to a rival group (caste or tribe) even in marriage.

As the Newton’s Third Law of Motion states, ‘for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction’, the after effects of this genocide are fatal and have long term effects. It is a disaster that many have unwittingly invited in everybody’s life. Repercussions of female foeticide and infanticide are long-term and disastrous in nature.

Skewed Sex Ratio – In India, the number of girls per thousand boys is reducing with each passing decade. From 962 and 945 girls for every 1000 boys in the years 1981 and 1991 respectively, the sex ratio had plunged to an all-time low of 927 girls for 1000 boys in 2001, to 933 and 948 for every 1000 boys in 2011 and 2021 respectively creating a slight difference against the declining sex ratio.

Murdered or Trafficked – UNICEF states that the killing of baby girls has reached genocidal proportions. It is a practice that has been going on in the Central India for a long time now, where mothers were made to feed the child with salt to kill the girl. Various other gruesome methods of murder are employed, many dating back to the 18th century : stuffing the baby girl’s mouth with a few grains of course paddy causing the child to choke to death is one, poisoning, using organic or inorganic chemicals, drowning, suffocation, starvation as well as burying the child alive. The criminal act of infanticide must (one feels) be traumatic for the parents, who faced with a distorted dowry system based on exploitation and greed, see no choice but to murder their daughters – and in their millions, leading to a serious gender imbalance in the country, with dreadful consequences.

The sharp decline in the number of girls has also led to illegal trafficking being prevalent in many regions. This regional imbalance leading to abduction and trafficking of tens of thousands of girls and young women every year, from one state, where there are relatively more girls (West Bengal for example, where in 2011 over 11,000 girls went missing), to another part of the country where, due to rampant female infanticide, there is a deficit. And the numbers are rising. Young women, often teenagers, are kidnapped and taken miles from home and forced to marry, or trafficked into prostitution, as was Rukhsana (a victim of illegal trafficking) , who told the BBC how she was abducted by three men on the way home from school. ‘They showed me a knife and said they would cut me in to pieces, if I resisted”, she said. After a terrifying three-day journey they reached a house in the northern Indian state of Haryana where Rukhsana was sold to a family of four – a mother and three sons. For one year, she was not allowed to go outside. She says she was humiliated, beaten and routinely raped by the eldest of the three sons – who called himself her “husband”.

Millions of girls like Rukhsana are the innocent victims of corrupted social practices dating back to the 18th century, practices that have been manipulated by a vehemently patriarchal society to control and suppress girls and women, especially those from the lower castes. All social systems and conventions in India flow around a central divisive core, which is caste- Dalit and Adivasi (indigenous) women have particularly hard time of it.  Child marriages have become a rage and child pregnancies, a disastrous consequence.

Increase in Rape and Assault – Once women become an imperiled species, it is only a matter of time before the cases of rape, assault and violence become common. Due to the decline in availability of females, the surviving ones are faced with the reality of handling a society driven by a testosterone high. The legal system might offer protection, but many cases might not even surface because of the fear of desolation and humiliation on the girl’s part.

Population decline – With no mothers or wombs to bear a child (male or female), there would be fewer births, leading to a rapid reduction in the country’s population. Though a control in population is the goal of many nations like China and India, a total wipe-out of one sex is certainly not the way to achieve this goal.

Laws that make Female Infanticide and Foeticide Illegal

Due to all these causes and implications of female foeticide, many laws have been passed from time-to-time to control this menace.

India passed it’s first abortion-related law in 1971, the so-called Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, which made abortion legit in almost all states of the country, but it was particularly made for the cases of medical risk to the mother and child conceived by rape. The law had also established physicians who could legally perform the abortion in the said scenarios. But the government had not considered the possibility of female foeticide based on technological advances. Due to this reason, this law proved to be highly ineffective.

During the 1980’s, sex screening technologies in India was easily accessible to the common people. Due to this reason, a large number of reports started pouring in about the abuse of the sex screening technologies. Considering this problem, Government passed the Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques Act (PNDT) in 1994. This law was again amended due to various reasons, and it finally became Pre-conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) (PCPNDT) Act in 2004. It’s main goal was prevention and punishment of prenatal sex screening and female foeticide.

Implementation of the Law

Many important changes were made in the PCPNDT Act, 2004. It brought ultrasound and amniocentesis under it’s ambit. It also led to the empowerment of the Central Supervisory Board and the formation of State Level Supervisory Board. The rules, regulations, and punishments are made more stringent.

Despite all these changes, it has been said that the implementation of this act has turned into a farce. It has been nearly two decades since the law came in to force and despite this, not many changes have taken place in the society. Despite rulings given by the Supreme Court and various High Courts to make existing law an impediment, the courts have shown their hesitancy in sending the offenders off to jail. The convicts in many cases have been let off only by a mere warning by the judge which has led to a mass negative reaction from the legal fraternity as well as social and academic activists. Lawyers and activists have unanimously demanded stringent punishment for the guilty while also fixing the accountability of the competent authorities handling the cases of sex detection.

Judicial Pronouncement

The Judiciary has played and continues to play a vital role in the prevention of atrocities against women, in general, and female foeticide, in particular.

In the landmark case of Centre For Enquiry Into Health And Allied Themes (CEHAT) v. Union Of India & Others , petitioners concerned about the implementation of the Act, moved the Union of India to court for effective implementation and execution of the provisions of the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, 1994 , which had failed at achieving it’s goals of preventing Female Foeticide. The court warned the Central, States and Union Territories to effectively comply with the mandates of the act and also clarified to the appropriate authorities that it was empowered to take criminal action against violators. The court directed for amendment of the Act in view of emerging technology and the Act was amended in 2003 to Pre-conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of sex selection) Act, 1994. The court also directed the formation of the National Committee (National Monitoring and Implementation Committee- NMIC) to monitor the implementation of the Act.

The constitutionality of the PCPNDT Act, 1994 was challenged in Vinod Soni & Anr. v. Union of India on the ground that it violates Article 21 of the constitution to the extent it includes the liberty of choosing the sex of the child. The petition was dismissed by the Bombay High Court and the Act was held constitutional.

In the case of  Voluntary Health Association of Punjab v. Union of India , petitioner filed a writ petition before the Supreme court of India to examine the ways in which the Indian state Governments have addressed the problem of sex-selective abortion in India. The court determined that states failed to effectively implement or enforce the Pre-conception and Pre-natal diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition on Sex-Selection) Act, 1994. Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan issued several orders and directions to map out unregistered clinics to ensure they did not purchase ultra-sonography machines, seize illegally sold ultra-sonography machines, and hold workshops to inform communities about the Act’s obligations. Justice Dipak Misra observed that, in order to enforce these laws effectively, the awareness campaigns must encompass social and moral impetus for the Act in order to serve the purpose of implementing legislation effectively and to maintain “humanism” and also that , for the Act to be successful the society must be made aware of the equal role of women in society.

Government Schemes

Both the Centre and State Governments have initiated a range of girl child welfare schemes with an object of changing the social attitude towards the girls and for their upliftment.

  • Beti Bachao Beti Padhao – It is central government scheme to save the girl child from sex-selective abortions and advance the education of girl children all over the country. Initially, the districts having low-sex ratio were targeted.
  • Balika Samriddhi Yojana – It is a scholarship scheme designed to provide financial aid to young girls and their mothers below the poverty line. The key objective of the scheme is to improve their status in society and improve the enrollment as well as retention of girls in school.
  • CBSE Udaan Scheme – It is administered by the Central Board of Secondary Education through the Ministry of Human Resources Development, Government of India. This scheme focuses mainly on increasing the enrollment of girls in engineering and other technical colleges throughout the country.
  • Ladli Scheme of Haryana – It is a cash incentive scheme initiated by the Haryana Government that provides a payout of Rs. 5000 annually for a period of 5 years to families with a second child born on or after 20th August 2015. The money is deposited in a Kisan Vikas Patra. These deposits along with interest are to be released once the concerned girl child becomes a major.
  • Karnataka Bhagyashree Scheme – It is a Karnataka Government scheme designed to promote the birth of girl child among families below the poverty line. Health insurance cover up to a maximum of Rs. 25,000, is provided to a girl child, annually.

Effectiveness

Despite rulings given by the Supreme Court and various High Courts to make the existing law a practical reality, the implementation of this act has turned in to a farce. The legality of Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971 allows for abortion where pregnancy carries the risk of grave injury to women’s health, therefore, making Ultra-sound machines continued to be widely available throughout the country. In such an environment, it is very difficult to enforce a law which seeks to control data that whizzes through informal channels and can exercise discreetly.

The various Government initiated the schemes for the welfare of the girl child focus on the people below poverty line and therefore, fail to incentivize the prevention of sex-selective abortion in comparatively well-off families. Most of the schemes focus on cash-incentives, but the money given out in this regard is actually fuelling the dowry demand. The greed being limitless, the demands are insatiable.

Suggestions

Following are some suggestions to check the evil of female foeticide :

  1. There is a need to properly implement, not only the laws prohibiting sex-selective abortion, but also, the laws combating various causes of female foeticide, such as – The Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 and Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012.
  2. However the Statutes are not an absolute solution to prevent this practice of female foeticide. To prevent this practice, public awareness is essential and no awareness campaign can ever be complete unless there is real focus on the genius of women and the need for women empowerment.
  3. Medical professionals can play an important role by informing and counselling their patients regarding the gender equality and the impact that a skewed sex ratio has on the society. Women should be made aware of their rights and the ill-effects of abortion.
  4. More and more states should follow and come up with new ideas such as UP Government’s ‘Mukhbir Yojana‘ , launched in 2017. Under this scheme, the Government provides an incentive up to Rs. 2 Lakhs to any person who would alert the state authorities regarding the involvement of any doctor or a medical staff in sex determination of the foetus and/or female foeticide.
  5. Women empowerment projects, such as Project Shakti and Project Asha Daan by HUL, Sakhi project by Hindustan Zinc, Underprivileged Girl Child Education by DB Corp. Limited, etc should be encouraged under the Corporate Social Responsibility of the business firms.
  6. Governments should initiate schemes focusing on the well-off strata of the society and providing incentives other than cash.

Conclusion

Through many mediums, awareness about female foeticide is being spread throughout the nation. Let it be plays, soap operas, mass awareness programs, ads, endorsement by various celebrities, Beti Bachao campaign, rallies, posters, etc. Everyone is trying to spread the message everywhere. Despite all these efforts, the sex ratio of our country is not improving.

Sex ratio is India currently stands at 948 females for every 1000 males. This shows that we have wrecked the sex ratio of our country. We can blame the government, the NGO’s, or the society as a whole for all we like but till the time the common man doesn’t understand the value of a girl child, the problem will not be solved. The people of this country needs to understand that every action has a reaction.

The need of the hour is to change the archaic mindset of the patriarchal Indian society which views girls as liabilities. It needs to be established that girls are in no way less than boys. When given the right chances to nurture their talent and skills, they have it in them to excel in different areas of life. Government alone cannot bring about the change that we seek in our society. We all have to join hands in doing so. It is therefore imperative that both government and non-government organization and also society as a whole should work in cohesion to spread the message of saving and educating the girl child.

The role of education is extremely important here and goes a long way in empowering women. And the process of education has to begin early in life. More and more girl children need to be sent to school, provided quality and holistic education. Numerous benefits come with educating girls the right way. Educated girls are able to take the right decisions in life. For example, when an educated girl falls sick, she will have better understanding and awareness to avail proper healthcare services. At the same time, a society in which girls are educated will see less child marriages, decreased levels of poverty and heightened participation of women in socio-economic processes. Educating a girl has far-reaching impacts. It is rightly said that when a woman is educated, an entire generation benefits from it.

The Beti bachao, Beti padhao (save daughters, educate daughters) mission will fructify only when the Indian betas (sons) and betis (daughters) are enlightened and receptive to embracing strong, empowered Indian women.

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