Gita Aravamudan: Disappearing Daughters - The Tragedy of Female Foeticide Print E-mail

• Published: March 2007
• Imprint: Penguin
• Special Price: Rs 250.00
• Cover Price: Rs 250.00
• ISBN: 0143101706
• Edition: Paperback
• Format: B
• Extent: 208pp
• Classification: Gender
• Rights: World

Scroll down for media reports, book reviews, and interview with Gita Aravamudan

‘This book touches our conscience’ ­from the Foreword by A.P.J. Abdul Kalam

‘Now they no longer feed them paddy husk or poisoned milk…they stifle them with a pillow or with a cloth.’ (Kanchamma, a midwife from Alligundam village in Tamil Nadu)

‘We knew the doctor at the scan centre and…went to the clinic that he suggested and had the foetus removed. The next two times were also okay except that I got very tired and had to give up my job. My husband said having a son was more important than having a job.’ (Renu, from Chandigarh, who has had four abortions in five years)

India has historically had a deficit of women compared to most other countries, but we now live in a time when a systematic extermination of an entire gender is taking place right before our eyes. Until the 1980s, women and girls were dying either of neglect or were killed soon after they were born. Today, the horrifying reality is that, thanks to ‘advances’ in medical technology, they are now eliminated while still in the womb. Female foeticide has become an organized crime and the ultrasound machine has mutated into an instrument of murder.

In Disappearing Daughters Gita Aravamudan uses the tools of investigative reporting to expose the imperatives that drive this horrific phenomenon. She unravels an appalling story of deeply embedded and destructive patriarchal beliefs, disempowered women who have no claim on their own bodies and the active complicity of a ruthless and callous medical and social system. This book makes it chillingly clear that the macabre practice of eliminating female foetuses spells doom for our sons as well as our daughters and is bound to have a disastrous impact on future generations.
 Volume 24 - Issue 12 :: Jun. 16-29, 2007

Wombs as graves
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.
Sunday Magazine ~~ May 27 2007

Targeting the girl
Gita Aravamudan talks about how Disappearing Daughters, her book on female foeticide, happened.

Compelling account: Gita Aravamudan.

A whole gender is getting exterminated. It is happening while we, as a nation, slumber - Gita Aravamudan

GITA ARAVAMUDAN’S book Disappearing Daughters: The Tragedy of Female Foeticide was recently published by Penguin Books. A scorching honest and compelling account of female foeticide in India, the book is an important and valu able study of the problem. Aravamudan has used investigative reporting to explore different aspects of female foeticide, its beginnings and its backlash, the ways it grows and how it can be stemmed. Disappearing Daughters combines interviews, case studies, analysis of statistics and history to present a comprehensive and very human face to this “holocaust”. The book also busts myths and suggests ways forward that that may save future generations of daughters, even if is too late for the present.

Born in 1947, Gita Aravamudan has been writing on gender issues for 27 years. Great strength of conviction lies under her unassuming surface and her voice takes on urgency as she talks about the fate of the girl child in India. She is deeply concerned and with good reason. Excerpts from an interview.

When and how did you first think of writing a book on female foeticide?
Three years ago, I was in talks with Penguin about a book on female infanticide. I started looking at census figures and that was a major revelation. I realised that infanticide happened not in pockets, among the poor and disempowered but foeticide happened among the rich, the powerful, the educated; those who were aware of family planning! I started delving and was shocked by what I found. There was a deep link between female foeticide and factors like wealth, education, success of family planning, and medical progress. All these factors actually worked against women; this shocking realisation was the genesis of the book.

It must have been a very difficult book to write. What affected you the most during your research?

What bothered me the most was that women were forced to undergo abortion after abortion. In their heart of hearts, they didn’t want to abort their babies but social and filial pressures, the fear that they would be thrown out of home otherwise, made them do it. It had affected the health of so many women. Women were inflicting such injuries on themselves; they were ruining themselves ­ and nothing was in their hands.

You talked about the link between education and female foeticide in your book. Can you elaborate?
I talked about a study, which clearly brings out an adverse link between education and the gender skew. The more educated a women is, the more likely she is to actively choose a boy if she decides to have one child. Educated housewives are also more likely to abort daughters, probably because they are very unhappy with their own situation. The only educated women likely to keep daughters are the very independent minded. Not those who are just financially independent but those strong enough to say ‘this is what I want’. Educated men, especially in the business class, also want to have sons to carry on their business.

What measures have you suggested to tackle the problem?

In states like Punjab and Haryana, there is a multi-pronged approach but, as long as sex-selective abortion is big business, things are not going to change. I have suggested that we address doctors. There should be a lecture series on the subject in medical colleges. Doctors should be made aware that aborting female babies is a crime. We need to shock them into understanding what is happening. Also, the self-esteem of the girl child needs to be increased at a very early age. Girls must be taught to value themselves and boys taught to value girls and women at the primary school level. The only hope lies with the future; present and past generations are not going to change.

What role do you think the media can and should play in ‘stemming this dike’?
The media can play a very proactive role. The more this problem is emphasised and exposed, the more people will be aware of it. It has to be a multi-pronged attack from the print media, television and cinema.

Cinema has a very strong impact on society. If only cinema and television could address this issue . What we need is a popular attack. Academics and intellectuals are aware of it and many papers have been written about it but all this has had no impact.

The thrust has to come from somewhere else. It has to come in a language that people can understand.

What are you expecting the book to achieve?

I want the book to reach out to educated, young people in the midst of having families. I want them to understand the gravity of the situation. They are most likely to abort girl children due to social pressures. If they set an example, the less educated will follow. The middle class is a trend-setter for society. I also want it to reach doctors, who don’t understand the gravity of the situation. They are playing with lives. Instead of helping to stabilise society, they are creating the skew. I don’t want the book to remain in a rarefied, academic atmosphere. I want it to be read, commented upon, and understood.

 Friday April 6 2007

New Delhi

Foeticide: when death comes before birth... .

The first copy of Gita Aravamudan's "Disappearing Daughters: The Tragedy of Female Foeticide" -- a chilling and in-depth account of the growing practice of female foeticide in the country -- was presented to President A. P. J. Abdul Kalam at a function in Rashtrapati Bhavan in the Capital on Wednesday.

Dr. Kalam in his foreword describes the book as one that "touches our conscience".

Published by Penguin Books India, the book draws attention to systematic murder of the girl child and also studies the imperatives that drive this phenomenon.

The author has collected accounts of foeticide and infanticide from across the country. A midwife from a remote village in Tamil Nadu narrates how the practice has moved on from feeding paddy husk and poisoned milk to the girl child. The norm now is to stifle the newborn with a cloth or a pillow, says the midwife.

Ms. Aravamudan, who has had long years of experience in journalism, has also penned the experiences of women, some of whom have undergone as many as four abortions in five years just to have a son. According to the writer, though India has a history of skewed female sex ratio, what the country is witnessing today is the systematic extermination of the female child, with the ultrasound machine serving as an instrument of murder.

Ms. Aravamudan using the tools of investigative reporting shows how elimination of the female foetus has burgeoned into an organised crime. The book also makes it clear that if the macabre practice continues, it would spell doom for both sons and daughters and will have a disastrous impact on the future generations.

The author has also published another book on women's issues called "Voices in My Blood". Ms. Aravamudan has been associated with the women's movement in the country for over 25 years and continues to write on a range of gender issues. -- P. Anima

-- P. Anima

 Magazine | Apr 16, 2007
Girl Child Is Still A Curse Word

Nothing bridges our urban-rural divide better than the preference for sons, even in this new century
Teesta Setalvad

by Gita AravamudamPenguin Pages: 208; Rs: 250

I ndian civilisation’s claim to abiding greatness and enduring values could stand severely tested with its systematic mass murder of unborn girl babies. An obsession with sons from the age of Atharva Veda ("Let a female child be born somewhere else. Here let a son be born") and lawgiver Manu’s treatise, legitimised through tradition and belief, has percolated down to 21st century India. Ironically, Pakistan, with its basis of an ‘Islamic’ reality, does not do much better­the sex ratio there is 938 girls for every 1,000 boys.

Delhi leads the way with a record 24,000 girls missing every year. Prosperous urban areas like Chandigarh, Sangli and Mehsana follow suit, playing role models to impoverished rural Bharat. Jeans-clad, pub-trotting, mangalsutra-wedded couples share one value with men who sport phetas (turbans) and women who demurely shield their face with the ghunghat. This shared value, an all-consuming preference for sons, spans the urban-rural divide and cuts across shameful disparities in consumption patterns and nutrition levels and translates into girl baby murder.

Until the ’70s, son preference led families, mothers included, to neglect their girl babies, and in some notorious districts of Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan, to actually facilitate their killing after birth.
Figures of pre-Independence British India reveal low sex ratios of the girl child, leading the British to enact laws that were later repealed. However, the technology revolution in medical research offered pre-birth sex selection techniques­amniocentesis, ultrasound and scan machines ­making doctors willing partners in crime. It also raised questions about the ethics and conduct of professional bodies, like the Indian Medical Association. Disappearing Daughters is a must-read for teachers, students, parents, political leaders and, especially, doctors. Lucidly written, it traces through absorbing case studies and relevant data the tragedy of Indians killing their girls en masse.


Missing Girls by Manohar Agnani/153 pages/ Rs 180 

India, poised on what we are told is a growth boom, is being torn apart from within. The brutal political, social and economic exclusions and denials driven by caste continue to make The Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, toothless. The law against the giving and taking of dowry has not lessened the practice. In fact, there has been an increase in the scale of dowry that commodifies both the woman and the relationship. Is it any surprise then that the 1994 PNDT Act (Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) has failed to punish the powerful perpetrators of the crime?

A possible reason, rarely explored in public debate (much less by our omnipresent media), is the values of our opinion-makers and celebrities. We seem to be caught in a nowhere land. We wear the latest designer labels, spend oodles of money, travel on jet planes, sport Blackberry mobiles. Yet, modernity ends there. Domestic violence is a reality among our preening classes. It takes an Angelina Jolie to remind us that we have no comparable image of a celebrity adopting a really black or even a robustly brown child.

Political campaigns and election manifestoes rarely speak about social reform; weddings at which crores of rupees are spent do not attract the gaze of tax officers; dowry for an IAS officer runs into crores in Andhra Pradesh and Bihar, we are told. Meanwhile, what do our politicians have to say about the sweeping son preference that leads us to murder?

Missing Girls by Dr Manohar Agnani, an IAS officer, offers extensive data with suggestions for more effective implementation of the law. In order to implement the PNDT Act, we need active monitoring of birth ratios, fixing responsibility, getting the appropriate authorities to function effectively, to set up central and district advisory committees and get detailed medical audits of all ultrasound examinations carried out by registered clinics, sales-purchase records of ultrasound machines and to make these records public. Many state governments have shown a reluctance to do this, despite stringent remarks of the apex court (on a PIL filed by civil rights groups).

Flexible government policy coupled with grassroot efforts has had some impact, even in those districts of Tamil Nadu where girls were killed after birth. Sustained social campaigns, a few financial incentives, scholarships, self-help groups for women and other administrative measures outlined under the new legislation made a remarkable difference in a few areas. But it’s only a silver lining. The big change will come when we stop this conspiracy of silence.