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.
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