London -- Wednesday February 28, 2007
India's missing girls
Read also: China-India: Near perfect correlation between declining female sex ratios & growth of violent crime
And scroll down to read of Rajasthan's "Dumping Grounds for Female Foetuses"
Daughters aren't wanted in India. So many female foetuses are illegally aborted that baby boys now hugely outnumber baby girls, while a government minister has begged parents to abandon their children rather than kill them. What does this mean for the country's future, ask Raekha Prasad and Randeep Ramesh
A young girl looks on during a rally against female foeticide in New Delhi.
Photograph: Gurinder Osan/AP
Bhavia is sleeping swaddled in a woolly peach cardigan amid the wailing and flailing limbs of 20 other babies. Nurses in lilac saris and face masks scoop the bundles from rockers and jig them under the wintry Delhi sun. Two days ago, the baby girl became the newest arrival at Palna, an orphanage in the capital's Civil Lines district. But Bhavia is not an orphan. She is what used to be known as "a foundling", abandoned by her mother in a local hospital.
When Bhavia came to Palna she was nameless, with no date of birth. What is certain, from a cursory glance at the line of babies, is that an orphanage is one of the few places in India where males are outnumbered. For every boy lying in the sunny courtyard, there are four girls. Some have been dumped outside police stations, some in railway toilets, crowded fairgrounds, or the dark corners of bus stations. Others were left outside the orphanage in a wicker cradle, in a specially built alcove by a busy road. The weight of a child here will set off an alarm, alerting Palna's staff to a new arrival.
Almost always, it is girls who are left in the cradle. Healthy boys are only deserted in India if born to single mothers; boys left by a married couple are the disabled ones. Not all abandoned girls come from families too poor to feed them, however. Some have been found with a neatly packed bag containing a change of clothes, milk formula and disposable nappies.
Girls such as Bhavia are survivors in an India where it has never been more dangerous to be conceived female. A preference for boys, who carry on the family bloodline and inherit wealth, has always existed in Indian society. But what has made being a girl so risky now, is the lethal cocktail of new money mixed with medical technology that makes it possible to tell the sex of a baby while it is still in the womb.
Although gender-based abortion is illegal, parents are choosing to abort female foetuses in such large numbers that experts estimate India has lost 10 million girls in the past two decades. In the 12 years since selective abortion was outlawed, only one doctor has been convicted of carrying out the crime.
This hidden tragedy surfaces not only in the statistics of skewed sex ratios, but also in the back yards of clinics that hoped to bury the evidence. Earlier this month police arrested two people after the discovery of 400 pieces of bones believed to be of female foetuses in the town of Ratlam, Madhya Pradesh. Last September, the remains of dozens of babies were exhumed from a pit outside an abortion clinic in Punjab. According to investigators, that clinic was run by an untrained, unqualified retired soldier and his wife. To dispose of the evidence, acid was use to melt the flesh and then the bones were hammered to smithereens.
Last year, in a series of reports entitled Kokh Me Katl, or Murder in the Womb, two journalists working for India's Sahara Samay television channel found 100 doctors, in both private and government hospitals, who were prepared to perform illegal terminations of girl foetuses. In the grainy TV pictures, doctors from four states and 36 cities talked with chilling casualness about how to dump the remains. Many weren't bothered about the foetus's age, just that it was a girl that could be got rid off. The average cost of the procedure was a few thousand rupees (around £30).
In Agra, one doctor told the reporters to get rid of the dead foetus in the Yamuna river, which curves past the Taj Mahal. "That is not a problem. Take a rickshaw and throw it in the river," he said. In Dholpur, a town in Rajasthan, a female medic said the fields were pitted with the unmarked graves of unborn girls. She told the undercover couple that if their foetus was too big to easily be disposed of, they should pay a street sweeper to get rid of the body.
The latest estimate of India's sex ratio at birth (SRB) can be gleamed from a sample registration system that covers 1.3m households. For the two years up to 2004, India had just 882 girls per 1,000 boys. Only China is worse. Beijing's harsh, yet effective, family-planning policy limited urban couples to a single child -which was usually a boy. China's sex ratio stands at just 832:1,000. Sabu George, a Delhi-based researcher who has worked for two decades on female foeticide, describes the first few months in the womb as "the riskiest part of a woman's life cycle in India". The sex ratios in the country, he says, are getting worse "day by day". India, he says, now has 930,000 missing girls every year. "What we are talking about is a massive, hidden number of deaths."
Although ministers in India have woken up to "a national crisis", the response has been to condone the abandonment of female babies. "lf you don't want a girl, leave her to us," Renuka Chowdhury, India's minister of state for women and child development, said recently. The government "will bring up your children. Don't kill them". The announcement was a desperate response to stem India's dramatic deficit of women. In the west, women outnumber men by at least 3%. India has almost 8% more men than women. The question for India is what sort of future it faces without enough women. One dystopian answer, given by academics Valerie M Hudson and Andrea den Boer, is that a generation of men unable to find wives has already emerged. In their book, Bare Branches, they write of men who will never marry and have children. It is these men, they say, who are already largely responsible for social unrest in those areas where women are in short supply.
Indian scholars, they say, have noted a growing relationship between sex ratios and violent crime in Indian states. When potential wives are scarce, it is the least-skilled and educated men who are left on the shelf. Hudson and Den Boer put forward a scenario where large areas of India could be overrun by this under-class, with marauding groups of under-educated testosterone-high youths wreaking havoc. "It will mean a stronger masculine and macho culture," says Den Boer, co-author and lecturer in International Politics at the University of Kent. "Men do change their behaviour when they settle down. Those growing pools of men that don't are more likely to congregate to take part in stealing, gangs, bootlegging and terrorism."
In villages across the flat plains of north India, two decades of widespread female foeticide is already felt by thousands of families who cannot find brides for their sons. One local leader in the state of Haryana likened the lack of marriageable women to the shortage of grain in a famine.
It is an apt simile, given that the response to the catastrophe has seen women from poorer states being traded like a commodity by bride traffickers. As little as 10,000 rupees (£125) is paid to impoverished families in Bihar, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh for a daughter who will supposedly be found a job in a more prosperous part of India. The reality is that she will be sold into a forced marriage to a family in a richer state.
So significant has the lack of brides become in Punjab and Haryana that the issue has seeped into its politics, engulfing local elections. Candidates standing for office pledge that they will "help provide girls" if elected. Village leaders are accosted by unmarried men and asked to find them brides. Meanwhile, activists say that trafficked girls - who are often underage - are treated as bonded labour and sex slaves once married. The groups supporting trafficked brides are overwhelmed by the extent of the problem. "We're losing the battle," says Ravi Kant, executive director of Shakti Vahini, an organisation working on the ramifications of female foeticide. "It is in every village. The police are saying these families are doing nothing wrong. There's collusion between the law and the politicians, and it's destroying the whole social fabric."
India's paradox is that prosperity has not meant progress. Development has not erased traditional values: in fact, selective abortion has been accelerated in a globalising India. On the one hand there has been new money and an awareness of family planning - so family sizes get smaller. But wealthier - and better- educated - Indians still want sons. A recent survey revealed that female foeticide was highest among women with university degrees.
The demographic consequences of mass female foeticide are most pronounced in the most developed parts of India. In Delhi, one of the richest cities in India, there are just 827 girls per 1,000 boys being born. Not far away, in the wealthy farming belt of Kurukshetra, there are only 770.
At the heart of the matter lies the most sacred institution in Indian life: marriage. New money has raised the price of wedlock, a ritual still governed by the past. Not only do most Indians believe in arranged marriage, in which dowry payments are made; there is also a widespread acceptance of the inequality between bride-givers and bride-takers.
The bride's side, according to convention, is supposed to give but never take from the groom's family. In today's India that translates into an evermore expensive gift list of consumer goods. Decades ago, a wealthy bride's father would have been expected to give gold bracelets. Today it is jewellery, fridges, cars and foreign holidays - and the bride's family may end up paying the bill for the rest of their lives.
A son, by contrast, is an asset to his family. Even leaving aside the wealth his bride will bring, a boy will retain the family - and the caste - name. He will also inherit the property, and is seen as a way of securing parent-care in old age.
Indians, therefore, have come to view the girl child as a burden, an investment without return. A favourite Hindi saying translates as: "Having a girl is to plant a seed in someone else's garden." One of the results is that women themselves face immense family pressure to get rid of the girl in their womb. Feminists in India argue that criminalising women who have done so is to ignore how fiercely patriarchal the value system is. As some see it, a woman who participates in the killing of her own child is actually denying her own self-value and should not be punished but be treated with concern.
Some of India's traditional attitudes are changing, with women fighting to choose partners and different lifestyles. In some urban parts of the country, live-in relationships are tolerated. Parents accept boyfriends in a manner unthinkable even a decade ago. "There's no obvious sexual revolution, but things clearly are changing," says Mary E John, director for India's Centre for Women's Development Studies. But technology is spreading faster than such western values. Clinics spring up daily offering amniocentesis and ultrasound, scientific advances that are capable of predicting the sex of a foetus.
The trickle down of cash means that even lower middle-class families can afford a few thousands rupees on the technology. Before sex-selective abortion was outlawed in 1994, clinics would advertise terminating girls as "spend 3,000 now and save 300,000 later".
Multinational companies began to sense a huge market opportunity in the mid-90s in India. Every three years the market doubles, and sales of scanners are thought to be running at 10,000 a year.
First American, then Korean and now Chinese companies have pitched up to make and sell scanners. Some campaigners claim that the American giant General Electric's early arrival in the market indirectly led to millions of aborted girls.
Although there is a law forbidding sales of scanners to unregistered clinics and quack doctors, the campaigner Sabu George talks of a widespread "indifference of ethics". He says 16m illegal ultrasound scans have been conducted since India's law was introduced. "How many more millions of girls will have to disappear from India before companies such as GE will recognise their responsibility?" he adds.
General Electric counters that such accusations are like blaming car manufacturers for road accidents. "We support efforts to strengthen protection against sex determination and misuse of diagnostic equipment," the company says in a statement.
The diffusion of medical technology and India's traditions are not the only reason for the country's endangered daughters. India's medical profession, which works in one of the most privatised systems in the world, is certainly culpable. Some doctors, it seems, will do anything for a fee.
Many of those caught on camera in the Murder in the Womb operation were open about using high-quality ultrasound machines to determine the sex of the foetus. Under Indian law, however, doctors who use "sonography" are forbidden to tell mothers the sex of the child. The penalty is prison and a fine of up to 100,000 rupees (£1,200). They were also undeterred by performing late abortions - in some cases happily willing to terminate pregnancies months after India's 20-week limit.
Despite being caught red-handed and on tape, a year later just seven doctors have been suspended. Two dozen are under police investigation, but no charges have, so far, been brought. Many of the clinics continue to operate despite campaigners staging sit-ins in waiting rooms. The journalists have received death threats.
"Doctors are millionaires in India. They are politically and socially well-connected. Powerful people can slow and stop investigations," says Shripal Shaktawat, one of the reporters who conducted the exposé.
India's labyrinthine laws and its antiquated judicial system have also created mixed messages regarding abortion rights. The banning of selective abortion has led to many women thinking they no longer have a right to a legal abortion. Some feminists are concerned that the campaigns against female foeticide have inadvertently driven women to seek backstreet abortions.
No one has any quick-fix answers to deeply held and pervasive prejudices against women. The question for India is whether girls like Bhavia, that abandoned and unwanted bundle lying in a Delhi orphanage, will have choices that her own mother never did.
Friday March 2 2007, page 14