An elderly woman who lives in the flat below us said one day that she was off on a condolence visit to a relative. The “occasion”: the birth of a daughter.
No, we didn’t need a paper published in Lancet to tell us that India is missing 10 million girls in the past 20 years. We just had to look out of the nearest window.
For, where are the girls? Why is it that everyone wants sons and are having them?
Sex determination tests and sex-selective abortions have on paper been banned since 1994, but the practice is rampant. The Lancet paper, based on data from ongoing national survey, with a sample of 6 million people, living in 1.1 million households, quotes a deficit of 0.59 to 0.74 million female births every year as a “conservative” estimate.
The census puts the sex ratio at 933 girls per 1000 boys, and here’s the funny thing: in the so-called “advanced” north Indian state of Punjab, there are just 874 girls for every 1000 boys! In a recent study conducted in Delhi, in fact, it was found that the more educated and financially better-off families have worse sex ratios than the so-called lower classes. Thus, it is neither education nor financial reasons that makes people want sons—it is just that as human beings, girls and women are lesser people in India’s society and its culture.
Consider these figures (for the year 1997): When the first-born child is a daughter, the sex ratio for second children is just 759 girls for every 1000 boys. For a third child, if both previous children are female, the figure falls to 719. But if the oldest child is a boy, the sex ratio for the second or third child is about 50:50!
Thus, the evidence is stark, even though the Indian Medical Association (IMA) has tried to discredit the study, saying that the figures are exaggerated, and that since the Supreme Court came down on clinics offering sex-selection tests, female foeticide rates have plummeted. No doubt, the IMA has other things on its mind that seeing and admitting to the obvious.
However, it doesn’t need surveys to remind us that in India being a daughter is a humilation. Ostensibly, women are revered in our society—with the “mother goddess” being an image of strength and power—but the truth is that a very marginal proportion of women have even a basic human right to a life of dignity, leave along any rights over their own body.
Girls are brought up with the understanding that they are lesser human beings, and that their aim in life is to be a good—read dutiful and obedient—wife, and a mother of at least one son. Such a mindset is not a preserve of the poor or uneducated or otherwise backward sections of society. However, it has been observed that educated women are more likely to abort a female foetus!
While female foeticide has not been shown to have any trends based on religion, Hinduism (followed by a majority of the population) does place men higher in society compared to women. Witness the number of festivals meant for women to celebrate the men in their lives—including one where young women pray for “good” husbands! Also, Muslim men can divorce their wives by uttering a single word three times. Of course, that is not to say these give sanction to murdering daughters—it’s just letting them know where they stand in the course of things.
It’s little wonder that people, including educated women, flock to places like these son temples to pray for a son to fulfil their lives.
Being born female in India is likely to remain an indignity unless something drastic happens to change the mindset of Indians about girls and women in general, to stop them from thinking of women as the properties of fathers and husbands, and then sons. It is easy to blame the women who abort their female foetuses—or kill their baby daughters—but the fact is, it is not usually their choice. Some of them simply want to save their daughters, in the words of the CNN-IBN reporter who did the story on the son temples of Punjab, the “humiliation of their own birth”.