BY KALPANA SHARMA Are the government’s campaigns against sex-selective abortions targeting the wrong people?
Scroll down to also read the Indian Prime Minister's address to the National Meeting on "Save the Girl Child", April 28, 2008, New Delhi
Need to change mindsets: Activists protesting sex determination and selective abortion (Photo: V. Sudershan )
Now, even Amitabh Bachchan is speaking up for the “girl child”. Or so I am told. At a book launch in Mumbai last month, the Bollywood icon apparently spoke about the skewed sex ratio and unwanted girls. The five-star audience that had come to celebrate shining and successful India, the subject of the book, might have considered this a little odd. Success at ensuring that girls are not born is certainly not a reason to cheer. But it is also something people don’t like to be reminded of when they are fixated on “super power” India.
So whether it is a statement by Amitabh Bachchan today or the Prime Minister yesterday, the “girl child” issue, or that of sex-selective abortions, keeps popping up with uncomfortable regularity. No amount of cheering about India’s progress can detract from such an unsavoury reality about our country.
Complex issue Although the issue seems simple don’t select and delete girls in fact it is far more complex. The campaigns against sex-selective abortion tend to simplify the issue. They emphasise one aspect so that people are shocked, or feel guilty. It is hoped that such a strategy will actually lead to change. But does it?
Take, for instance, images of a foetus in a womb with a noose around the neck. This is supposed to create a sense of revulsion and guilt about the use of sex-selective abortions. Perhaps it does. But is it also indirectly giving a message against all abortions? Is targeting the act of aborting the foetus the issue, or the fundamental reason why the woman has had to do this? The difference is important, as abortion rights are part of the larger debate on reproductive rights, while the motivation for sex-selective abortion is the prevalence of son-preference, which concerns the status of women in our society.
Need to be specific Although the problem of sex-selective abortions and a declining sex ratio is spreading, it is confined at the moment to distinct parts of the country. Campaigners on women’s health and reproductive rights have argued that messages on this problem should be clearly targeted rather than universalised, particularly as they could have the adverse effect of making women feel guilty about having an abortion even for a legitimate reason.
India is one of the many countries where abortion is allowed on several grounds and can be done in safe conditions in government hospitals. Yet, although women have been given this right, only a small percentage of them go to government facilities for abortions. Most of them go to private practitioners or to quacks. Often this is due to ignorance. Poor women in particular are unaware that abortions are permitted and available in government facilities. The worst affected are poor, unmarried women who seek abortions for unwanted pregnancies. In government hospitals they often encounter uncomfortable questions. As a result, they are left with no choice but to risk infection or even death by getting an abortion in unsafe conditions.
Against this reality, where literally lakhs of women seek safe abortion because they are denied effective contraception, or are victims of sexual crimes, it becomes imperative that the campaign against sex-selection does not indirectly result in the curtailment of a woman’s basic right to decide whether and when she wants to have a child. The heart of the matter is a woman’s right over her own body. She should be allowed to decide. She should be given a choice. And she should not be made to feel guilty or like a criminal if she chooses not to bear a child.
Good intentions The government’s efforts to curb the use of sex-selective abortions are laudable in the face of the growing evidence of a drastically declining sex ratio in several parts of India. But are its messages aimed at the wrong people?
The focus on the final act of the abortion following sex-selection tends to detract from the more important targets for the campaign. Surely, a principal target should be the medical fraternity that violates the law with impunity. The law bans revealing the sex of the foetus. Yet, thousands of doctors across India continue to do this. Some have been caught and only a handful punished. This is where the feelings of guilt ought to be induced. If doctors are punished, the problem may not disappear altogether but it could be curbed.
Bigger challenge Even more challenging is dealing with son-preference. Its roots lie deep in tradition, and are entwined in inheritance laws and in women’s status. Modernity and economic progress have not made a dent in this arena. On the contrary, they seem to have further entrenched the desire for sons to ensure that wealth remains within the family. Prosperity and sex-selection seem to go hand in hand in this country.
Even if sex-selection is leading to a skewed sex ratio in one part of this country, it is shocking and must be stopped. But the price for checking this trend must not be paid by women who need access to reproductive health care in all respects before and during child birth, and regardless of whether they bear children or not. For every 1,00,000 live births, 500 women die in this country. That is an unacceptably high Maternal Mortality Rate for a country aspiring to be considered “developed”. We need to constantly remind ourselves that women who are already here, who survived their own childhood and who are now mothers, are also important. Their survival matters.
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PM’s address at the National Meeting on “Save the Girl Child”
April 28, 2008, New Delhi
“I would like to compliment the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare for taking this very important initiative to focus public attention on a very major societal and developmental issue of our times - the neglect of girl children in our country.
India has a mixed record in action designed for the advancement of our women. On the one hand we are one of the few countries of the world that gave women political power through universal adult suffrage soon after Independence. We also reposed faith in the potential of women in our public life. Today our local bodies have over a million women representatives. This is more than the number of elected women representatives in the entire rest of the world put together.
But, this momentous action for political empowerment has not been carried over into many other spheres of our nation’s life. Our record in female literacy is far from satisfactory as the last Census recording only 54% female literacy in the country. The last Census again showed a declining child sex ratio. Multiple deprivations all with roots in the oppressive structure of patriarchy have resulted in a bias against girls and against women. This is a national shame and we must face this challenge squarely here and now.
No nation, no society, no community can hold its head high and claim to be part of the civilized world if it condones the practice of discriminating against one half of humanity represented by women. We are an ancient civilization and we call ourselves a modern nation. And yet, we live with the ignominy of an adverse gender balance due to social discrimination against women built into our societal structures.
The focus in today's meeting is on the declining child sex ratio in the country. But, it is important to remember that gender related deprivation is an interlocked situation. Female illiteracy, obscurantist social practices like child marriage or early marriage, dowry, poor nutritional entitlements, taboos on women in public places all make the Indian women and especially the Indian girl child extremely vulnerable.
Child sex ratio statistics in the 0-6 age group for the past four decades have been showing a continuous decline. The decline in girls per 1000 boys from 962 in 1981 to 927 in the year 2001 is indeed alarming. This indicates that growing economic prosperity and education levels have not led to a corresponding mitigation in this acute problem. In fact, the census figures illustrate that it is some of the richer states of the country where the problem is most acute and these States include Punjab which had only 798 girls, Haryana 819, Delhi 868 and Gujarat 883 girls per 1000 boys in the 2001 Census.
As early as 1990, my esteemed friend, Prof. Amartya Sen brought to the attention of the world the fact that we have a situation in the world where more than 100 million women were missing. These missing women were geographically located in South Asia, West Asia and China. In Europe, the United States and Japan, women outnumber men substantially. The major difference is that women in these countries suffer little discrimination in basic nutrition and health care. It is nutrition and health care that become equalizers. I am happy that today we are discussing this important issue in the presence of both Ministers of Health and Women & Child Development in India. And we may consult a productive action to deal with this terrible onslaught on our civilization.
Societal discrimination against women begins in our very homes. It begins even before the girl child is born. One of the most inhuman, uncivilized and reprehensible practices is the practice of female foeticide. The patriarchal mindset and preference for male children is compounded by unethical conduct on the part of some medical practitioners assisted by unscrupulous parents who illegally offer sex determination services.
We must overcome this great problem through social awareness and strict enforcement of the Pre Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostics Techniques Act. I earnestly urge all concerned to help in putting an end to this practice adopted by misuse of otherwise life saving modern technology.
Some of the State Governments which are especially vulnerable to this problem have taken positive actions on the issue. Schemes such as the Dikri Bachao campaign of Gujarat, Girl Child Protection Scheme of Tamil Nadu, Devi Rupak Scheme of Haryana, Ladli campaign of Delhi and the scheme for cash incentive to panchayats for improving the village sex ratio of Punjab are good steps. These achievements need to be built upon depending on the results that are on the horizon.
But it is not government alone that can address this problem. Though Government must be active in mobilizing public opinion in this regard. We need active civil society involvement in the national campaign to save the girl child.
Let the Ministry of Health focus on orienting the million plus elected representatives of the panchayats and urban local bodies and use them as the medium for fighting this practice. The Ministry of Women & Child Development should enlist the support of women panchayat leaders and women's Self-Help Groups to strengthen the nutrition programme in our country. Action to protect the girl child has to be on the agenda of every elected leader in our country. This is not to say that only women should be part of this campaign. I do believe, every elected representative must consider it his duty to be an active participant in this national campaign.
There has to be much greater focus on female literacy because the adverse sex ratio that we have today has to be challenged fundamentally in the minds of our people. The Chairperson of UPA, Smt. Sonia Gandhi, has recently urged that we must reorient the National Literacy Mission to focus on female literacy. Female literacy has considerable multiplier effects in all areas of empowerment of our girls and our women.
In conclusion, I wish to say that we need concerted and multi pronged societal action to address the several contributing factors in the predicament of the Indian girl child. We need to strengthen legislative enforcement, basic health care and nutrition and reorient national literacy and school education programmes to give greater focus to women and the girl child. We need to mobilize leaders of civil society, particularly the religious leaders, for a nationwide campaign for ending all types of discrimination against our women built into our societal structures.
I would like to assure you that our government stands fully committed to support any action programme that is developed in this grey area of national concern.
I urge every citizen to step forward and help in empowering the girl child in every possible way. The action must begin at home, in our families, in our communities. I do not say this as the Prime Minister of India. I say this as the proud father of three daughters. I wish for every girl in our country what I wish for my own daughters.
With these words, I wish your deliberations all success. We are dealing with a challenging, burning societal issue. May your path be blessed.”