In a 1990 paper, Nobel Laureate Professor Amartya Sen estimated that a great many more than 100 million women are ‘missing’, across the world. He referred to it as “one of the more momentous, and neglected, problems facing the world today”.
According to the Economic Survey 2018, there are an estimated 63 million “missing” women in India today due to the society’s “son preference”. Son preference has given rise to sex selective abortion and differential survival has led to skewed sex ratios at birth and beyond. Development has not acted as an antidote to son preference.
“Had the technology been there in the 1970s, I wouldn’t have been born. I’m the fourth girl in the family after the eldest brother,” said Dr. Neelam Singh who is a gynaecologist based in Lucknow. Small family norm has worked to the disadvantage of the girl child.
When she preaches to pregnant women or their family members not to abort a girl child just because she’s a girl, she is told, “Do you even know what it’s like not to have a son? You have two sons!”
These comments prick, she says. She remembers how she was showered with love, affection, gifts, celebration when she gave birth to a boy, and then another boy. She received respect for giving birth to a boy, more than for anything else she ever did, including being a doctor and later an activist. She also remembers how after delivering baby girls, mothers and their daughters were left alone in her nursing home to fend for themselves. Deserted. While the mothers who gave birth to boys were taken home with great pomp and show.
“Why wouldn’t a mother desire to have a son?” she asked the audience she was addressing.
As an expert on the subject of sex-selective abortion, she is a vehement critic of the role the medical fraternity plays in perpetuating this social evil. While social change may take decades or centuries, the menace may be curbed by reining in the doctors who are partners in crime.
From her long experience in the area, she believes that the extent to which sex-selective abortion takes place in India, does not get reflected in the figures or data (sex ratio). Pregnant women are subjected to huge risks for the sex identification of the foetus.
Also, the expertise to accurately determine sex of a foetus is not as widely available in India as is the practice. Her apprehension is that a lot of male foetuses, as well as female foetuses, are being aborted indiscriminately. Otherwise, the sex ratio in the north Indian states would have been between 300-400 girls per 1000 boys.
Such is the obsession that our society has with the male child.
My mother has two daughters. When we grew up she would share with us what she went through giving birth to us and bringing us up. Those were her subjective experiences. No one else would see or hear those things which she would be subjected to, being a mother of two girls. My father wouldn’t even understand those subjective experiences, as they were her lived realities, not his.
When my firstborn turned out to be a boy, my mother was the happiest person. And she was even happier when my sister’s first born was a boy as well. She thanked God. That even if God wasn’t fair to her, doesn’t matter. At least her daughters wouldn’t have to go through those “subjective experiences”. She was happy for her daughters.
Sex of the previous child appears to be a crucial variable in the phenomenon called ‘son meta-preference‘, which notionally creates “unwanted” girls in India, estimated at about 21 million. One of the consequences for these unwanted girls would be discrimination in diet, education and opportunities. According to a June 2018 research paper published by Lancet Global Medical Journal, 22% of the overall mortality burden of young girls (under 5 years) in India is attributable to sex discrimination.
While there may be several approaches to unravel the mystery of ” missing women”, for the purpose of this article I would restrict myself to Professor Amartya Sen’s paper I referred to above.
According to Amartya Sen, around the globe, there exists a correlation between “gainful employment of women” and “the chances of survival of women vis-a-vis that of men”. Though this may not be a cause-effect relationship.
Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, despite its economic woes, happens to be a region with the highest percentage of women in gainful employment and has the highest chances of survival of women vis-a-vis that of men. On the other hand, South Asia happens to be the region with the lowest percentage of women in gainful employment and the lowest chances of survival of women vis-a-vis that of men.
What South Asia is to the world, Punjab is to India, despite its economic prosperity
“Considerable empirical evidence… suggests that what is usually defined as “gainful” employment, (i.e., working outside the home for a wage, or in such “productive” occupations as farming), as opposed to unpaid and unhonored housework—no matter how demanding”—can substantially empower women.
In four ways, according to the Nobel Laureate.
First, an income of her own, makes a woman less vulnerable.
Second, an income of her own, improves a woman’s status and decision making ability within the family.
Third, gainful employment outside provides a woman access to additional social and legal security associated with the employment.
Last, the very experience of employment outside home is “educational” for the woman.
These factors may not only improve the ‘deal’ women get in the family, they can also counter the relative neglect of girls as they grow up” and counter the ‘son-preference’.
He further adds, “Of course, gainful employment is not the only factor… Women’s education and their economic rights—including property rights—may be crucial variables as well.”
In India, the Hindu Succession Act was amended in 2005 and re-interpreted in 2018 in a Supreme Court judgement to give daughters equal right to ancestral property as their brothers. Yet, there is a long queue of married daughters, all across the country to voluntarily give up their share. It becomes imperative to provide single window facilitation counters to daughters for the same. But if a daughter wants her share, she is at the mercy of her brothers. Those who take recourse to the legal system, are branded as unfaithful daughters.
A close friend of mine, Seema, who is a senior manager in a Government Enterprise, was recollecting with wet eyes, that one thing that hurt her the most. In her father’s official records, his parents and his wife had been named as his nominees. When her elder brother was born, within 2 months, he was made a nominee too. Then she was born. Maybe her father forgot to add her as a nominee. Then her younger brother was born. Within 2 months he was made a nominee too. She was never made a nominee. It’s not about money or property, but the feeling that for her parents she did not matter, only her brothers did.
That’s how it’s been, her husband told her – Don’t blame an individual for it. You are a parent now. What’s important is, how are you and I as parents going to raise our daughters.
Seema and her husband plan to provide for their daughter’s good education, medical facilities and plenty of other opportunities such as music, dance or swimming classes. They can afford all this. They would also be happy to give all their property and money to their daughters.
But, Seema wonders, can they allow their daughters to travel abroad before marriage? To wear anything that they want to or to drink (alcohol) and smoke? Can they allow their daughters to marry outside of their caste or religion? Can the daughters do the cremation of their parents? After all, they are daughters. Sigh! Seema wishes once more, if she had a son!
India is a patriarchy with a strong institution of ‘mother’. And this is no paradox. Mother, due to her role in the upbringing of children, is the prime agent of patriarchy. She plays a prominent role in perpetuating it from one generation to the other. Essentially by socialising girls as girls and boys as boys.
Then, this very institution of ‘mother’ must have the potential to bring about gender parity. To challenge the patriarchy with its unequal distribution of power between men and women. A social order where each child gets an environment conducive to his or her fullest development. Each child grows up to his or her fullest potential. Each child has an agency.
The institution of mother needs to be empowered. One crucial way to do so is by improving their participation in the work force. Equitable participation of women in the workforce is not just good economics, but also good politics.
In this context, to address the practical gender needs, the maternity protection and family-friendly work policies need to be extended to all and the deep-seated culture of sexual harassment at public places and workplaces needs to be tackled with an iron hand. To address strategic gender needs, the care economy needs to be made more equitable across sexes.
Finally, equal opportunities for women in education and employment is a means to empower the mothers and through them, the future mothers. Like mother, like daughter.
The author is an officer of the Indian Police Service. The author has interest in Gender Issues, Social Legislations, Juvenile Justice, Workplace Sexual Harassment, Violence against Women and Children and Police Investigation, Police Sub-culture and Women in Police. The views expressed are author’s personal views.