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Bride shortage fails to stop female foeticides

by Ranjit Devraj

ROHTAK, India - A profusion of shops selling firearms marks this dusty town, 100 kilometres north-west of New Delhi, as one that is no place for women. Popular in these parts, the practice of female foeticide is ensuring that there are not too many members of the female sex around.

"This is essentially a feudal, patriarchal society where women are neither seen nor heard," explains Manjeet Rathee, who teaches English literature in a local college and is also a volunteer with the Janwadi Mahila Samiti (JMS) or Democratic Women's Association.

For a decade now, the group has been campaigning in India's Haryana state against medically assisted and selective abortions of female foetuses.

Its campaigns have included the publication of booklets, awareness campaigns and noisy demonstrations in front of private clinics that have been making tidy profits out of the demand for sex-determination tests and abortions.


Just how relevant the campaigns have been are borne out by plummeting sex ratios. The results of the last decennial census in 1991 shows that Rohtak and the surrounding Haryana districts of Kurukshetra, Sonipat and Ambala had, on average 782 women for 1,000 males.

"What we are up against is a deeply ingrained patriarchal attitude to which even the medical profession and the women, who in spite of being the victims, unthinkingly subscribe to - and this will take a long time changing," said Jagmati, a field worker for JMS.

The relative prosperity of farm-rich Haryana - the name translates as Green Domain - and the advent of affordable and convenient sex determination methods, especially ultra-sound imaging, in private clinics seem to have only bolstered patriarchal values and further undermined the status of women in the state.

Until the JMS campaigns succeeded in inducing a government ban on sex determination tests years ago, private clinics openly advertised their services and enterprising radiologists.

Obstetricians invested in mobile vans, equipped with ultra-sound equipment, that could be driven into remote agricultural villages where the preference for male offspring runs high.

Even after the bank, it was not uncommon to see in Haryana signs put up by sex selections clinics cryptically urging people to "make your choice - spend a few hundred rupees now (on aborting a female foetus) and save a few hundred thousands rupees later (in dowries)."

Apart from the fact that parents find burdensome the custom of having to pay large sums as dowry to get a daughter married off, they see the girl child as a liability and needful of constant protection.


Jagmati also sees ancient inheritance laws, which favour automatic male succession to landed property and the family name, as factors that work against attempts to improve the status of women and any possibility of getting them to take charge of their bodies. "The women we work with do not, in their hearts, discriminate between male and female offspring, but are forced to submit to the patriarchal and consumerist set-ups they find themselves. They are defenceless against dowry demands before marriage and unable to protect their motherhood afterwards," said Jagmati.

Worst off are women who have borne several daughters in a row, because social or family prejudice worsens and they are branded as 'incapable of bearing a male child.' Her daughters can expect to be neglected, remain malnourished and even denied schooling.

But the pressure still continues on such mothers to somehow produce a male child who can inherit the family lands and also light the funeral pyre of the father, since Hindu custom demands that this rite be performed by a male successor.

The JMS campaigns have had precious little impact on social attitudes in Rohtak district and served only to drive the female foeticide industry underground, according to Jasmati. "The doctors are now more discreet and many are convinced that they are only helping pregnant women make a choice," she said.


Argued Dr. Subash Kant, a doctor from Haryana who now practises in Delhi: "Sex selection clinics are only catering to the demands made on them by society. Logically, if there are fewer potential brides it is logical to expect that dowries would also tend to become lower and that their status would improve."

But reality does not bear out Kant's expectations. "There is now a serious shortage of marriageable women in many parts of Haryana. But the overall status of women has only worsened and anyone will tell you that higher sums are being demanded at the time of marriage," said Rathee.

The shortage of brides is being addressed through the importation into Haryana's villages and towns of women from states like neighbouring Himachal Pradesh or more distant ones like poverty-ridden Madhya Pradesh in central India and Orissa in the east. "We have even come across women from Bangladesh and we estimate that most villages in Haryana now have a handful of women brought in from other states," said Jagmati.

Many of these "imported" women are treated as slaves, subjected to sexual and physical abuse.

"It is about time that the central and state governments step in to enforce existing laws against selective abortions and prevent a social tragedy of colossal proportions that is in the making in Haryana and the neighbouring states of Punjab and Delhi," Jagmati said.

That is easier said than done. For one thing, ultrasound imaging has many other important medical uses besides sex determination, and doctors need never reveal that they are using their machines to tip off a woman for a fee that the foetus she is carrying is female.

A quick abortion, the next step, is readily available in a country with a billion-plus population and where the government policy is to limit family size. Indeed, many link the selective abortion of female foetuses to the drive to limit family size.

Researchers Sabu George and Ranbir Dahiya, who carried out a formal study of female foeticide in Haryana in the late 90s, have drawn a parallel with East Asian phenomenon where a decline in fertility rates was accompanied by selective abortions favouring males.

Still, JMS is determined to target private clinics in Haryana known to perform sex determination tests and by compelling authorities to cancel their licences. "There is little political will on the part of the government, particularly the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party at the centre to interfere with what is seen as a socially popular practice which has religious overtones," said Jagmati.

In Rohtak, sporadic raids are now being carried out on private ultrasound facilities by the 'District Appropriate Authority', a government watchdog consisting of officials, non government organisations, doctors, lawyers, mainly through 'sting' operations.

Said Savita Singh, a member of the authority: "The really big fish usually get away because they are tipped off in time - the ultrasound doctors have very powerful networks." (IPS)

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