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‘I Count Myself As Lucky To Be Born’: But What About The Other 35 Million Missing Girls?

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By Sabita Parida:

“Congratulations, you delivered a healthy baby girl! But considering your health condition and as your first child is a girl, I think you should try for the second child as soon as possible”. This is what my doctor from a reputed hospital in New Delhi said to me just after my daughter was born in 2011. Despite her concern, the words which struck me the most were, “…as your first child is a girl”. In an era when women lead shuttle missions as well as countries, the birth of a girl child is still unwelcome in our society. Had it been a boy, she might not have hurried me for a second child and accepted my family as complete. As far as I am concerned, the world has not moved even an inch ahead since the day I myself was born.

Girl-with-Baby

I am the second child of my parents. During my childhood, I heard the account of my birth from many relatives and neighbors on how unwelcome I was in my family. After my sister, everyone was eagerly expecting a boy. When I was born, my grandmother didn’t even see my face until I was a month old. Rather than being happy, my mother was more scared of facing derision from family, relatives and neighbors for giving birth to a girl again.

I count myself as lucky to be born. For having got proper food and nutrition and not dying either in the womb, or in my early childhood days. As per the last count, the Census 2001 reveals that more than 35 million girls in India were not as lucky as I have been; while some of them died before age six, most of them did not even get the chance to be born. These “missing girls” are victims of discrimination and negligence in accessing health care and nutrition – either when they were infants or by way of sex selective abortion when they were still in the womb.

India’s male preference culture is not a new phenomenon; even in 1950, sex ratio at birth (SRB) in India favored boys. But with the introduction of sex determination techniques like ultrasound and amniocentesis in the 1980s, sex ratio at birth in India has increased significantly. Ideally, SRB should range between 103 and 107 (103 boys per 100 girls); this is close to or more than 120 in states like Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat, Rajasthan. What is also worth pointing to here is that while everywhere else in the world the sex ratio adopts number of girls as the base, in India, the base is the number of boys. We measure it as number of girls per 1000 boys. Doesn’t it show how patriarchal we are?

When it comes to SRB, India has shown interesting demographic variations as compared to other countries. In China, SRB is lower in urban as compared to rural areas (i.e. there are more boys in rural areas) as agrarian societies prefer male child. But in agrarian India, easy access to technology along with a predominant male preference culture, it is the urban areas that are worse-off in terms of poor SRB.  This resonates in the rural areas too. During a field study in Madhya Pradesh in 2008, a group of women justified sex selective abortion on the grounds that poor people are saved of dowry demands later. One of them said, “Why not use 600 rupees today if it saves you 50,000-60,000 in future”. But if this is the reason, then how can you justify the lowest recorded child sex ratios of 830, 846, 866 in the economically prosperous states of Haryana, Punjab, and Delhi respectively?

The Pre-natal Diagnostic Act (PNDA) enforced in 1994 to control use of sex determination technology has been amended more than three times in 20 years. But it fails to control both the demand (the parents) and the supply side (the medical practitioners). Despite such a legislation, SRB has increased from 107.8 in 2001 to 112 in 2009. Recently, Oxfam India organized a comic workshop on inequality in Patna. One of the participants, Nida Karimi, developed a comic strip on her mother’s life story – how her father forced her mother to abort the female fetus and upon refusal to do so, abandoned her mother when she did not commit the heinous crime.

What is the solution? Some blame technology and others blame right to abortion for increasing sex selective abortion. We need to look deeper as the root cause is not that superficial; lower socio-economic value of women in our society is one of the prime reasons for such violence against women. Instead of finding some quick fix solutions, we need to learn from South Korea, which once with the lowest sex ratio at birth, has found practical solutions such as acknowledging women’s unpaid care work and increasing their participation in the labor force.

 The author is with programmes and advocacy, Oxfam India

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  1. Monistaf

    The doctor that delivered your daughter was female based on the following quote from your article “Despite her concern, the words which struck me the most were..”. Another quote from your article “When I was born, my grandmother didn’t even see my face ..”, clearly shows who establishes and perpetuates gender preferences in your family. Of course, it is easy and convenient to blame the “Patriarchy” for the devastating effects of femicide. Are your grandmother and the “educated” doctor part of the “Patriarchy” you complain about or are you trying to make excuses for their preferences by claiming that they too are just victims of the “Patriarchy”? I could not agree with you more about the barbaric practice of female infanticide, but where I differ is that you can’t blame it all on “The patriarchy”. The brutal irony of femicide is that it is oftentimes an evil perpetrated against girls by women. The most insidious force is often the mother in law, the domestic matriarch, or as in your case, grandmothers. I am not saying that this is always the case, but we cannot ignore the fact that it is a significant contributor. If we are going to address this issue, let us see beyond our own individual prejudices against “The patriarchy” and recognize that there are plenty of other contributors to the problem of female infanticide, including the “Women” of the “Patriarchy” that insist on preserving gender roles and preferences. I am not familiar with the law on abortions, but I believe no abortions can be performed without voluntary, informed consent from the woman with the exception of medical necessity to terminate the pregnancy to save the mother’s life. If we can empower every woman to assert her right to have a child, regardless of its gender, it would be a good start. Even if the rest of her family is against it, the law is on her side and she can choose to have the baby, so in my opinion, the solution starts with the educating the women of their rights.

    1. Sabita Parida

      Monistaf, thanks for raising a very vital point. But who says patriarchy is all about men. When we talk about patriarchy- we do not mean that it is enforced only by men and women are the only victims. Patriarchy is the social system , social construct which affects both men and women, but not equally. Patriarchy is all about power, and often the power is controlled by men. When some women acquires that power, they use it more stringently than the men, as you mentioned in many dowry cases mother-in-laws plays significant role in victimizing daughter-in-law. In some cases, it is the other way around- daughter-in-law victimizes mother-in-law. Most often, both these women draws their power from the same man. Considering the alignment of the man, respective woman plays the role of patriarch.

      According to our society, girls are burdens- you need to pay dowry to pay them off, mostly they are not part of the paid labor force and the work they contribute are not recognized economically. I doubt education of girls about their rights how much change will able to bring; otherwise, urban area sex ratio would have been better than rural area. But it is other way around. Urban India performs worse than rural India. And most often abortion are coerced also. That is the blog tries to point out- we need to think deep about the issue and instead of only building awareness, we need to think about the policy measures too.

  2. Babar

    Millions of boys are kidnapped for forced labour, drug peddling, sale of organs, illegal adoption, and begging.

    No one talks about the millions of missing boys in India.

  3. Babar

    while some of them died before age six …. These “missing girls” are victims of discrimination and negligence in accessing health care and nutrition.

    Lack of health care or nutrition has to do with poverty, not discrimination.

    1. Cees Tompot

      Babar, a simple mind is a joy forever isn’t it? How can you say that there in no discrimination against girls. Ever heard about feticide when boys were concerned?

  4. thethaggu

    Personally I don’t feel technology is to be blamed. Since there are countless cases when the girl child is killed after she is born. It is the mindset which needs a drastic change and also the traditions.
    Unless women don’t stand against this, there is nobody who is going to help us.

  5. Amlan

    The root lies in our this whole system of Male biasing, ie. Patriarchy to which women also plays a crucial part in its maintainance to receive some short term but easier to obtain loyality from this unjust biased system. Ask people why they need to have atleast one son?? they will say- to hold the family name and lineage, to earn and gather dowry for their sisters, as old support, financialy and through daughter in- law, to burn the funeral pyre of their parents which only sons are allowed to do. And say problem lies with exactly these norms. Why should society be strictly patrilineal and patrilocal?? Instead of these factors being dependent in the needs of a family rather then a mere convention.If a girl should join her husbands family after marriage, why cant a boy join his wifes family after marriage, if his wifes family are having no sons??why cant daughters look after her aged parents?? what if we make family lineage and family name carriage gender neutral with the eldest or the youngest child holding the family,irrespective of gender, and inviting in his/her spouse into the family in a marriage. With his/her spouse being ( opposite gender offcourse generally) of opposite birth order like the new rules of gender neutral throne inheritance in British and Swedish Royal Families??Why daughter in laws contribution towards in laws is duty but son in laws comtribution towards in laws is mercy??why cant a daughter or atleast the son in law burn the pyre of her parents or his parents in law?? Solving out these questions can solve out the whole problem, and then gender of child born will stop becoming a matter of much relevance.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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