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How Can We Have Gender Equality When Sex-Selective Abortions Continue?

The question of fertility and reproductive freedom are intertwined. Especially for the third world population, the issue of reproduction occupies a central place in feminist movements and debates. The UN report in July 2020 shows that approximately 4.6 lakh girls are missing at birth in India. India, along with China, contributes majorly to this statistic globally. This number in India has doubled over the last 50 years since 1970. Unlike the US, Europe or Japan where women outnumber men substantially, this is usually not the case in most Asian and African countries.

In most Asian countries in particular, women are deprived of basic healthcare and food services resulting in their higher death rates, immediately after birth, although the mortality rate for women and men across all age groups thereafter usually remain the same. The result is therefore a lower proportion of women than would be the case if they had equal care.

In India, in particular, gender discrimination surfaces most explicitly in terms of sex selective abortion.

What “missing women” calculates are the number of women who would otherwise have existed in these countries owing to the equal ratio of women to men. So, what is the reason for these excessive death rate of women and the resulting national and global statistics? The most important factor attributed to the death rate of women at birth are differences in stages of economic development that deprive women of equal access to healthcare and other basic services.

However, there is a larger system of inequality and hierarchy that governs this deprivation. Socio-cultural factors influence these differences across societies. In India, in particular, gender discrimination surfaces most explicitly in terms of sex selective abortion. For women in the third world, the question of reproductive freedom has been complicated due to overpopulation. Women in India are seen as the key to stability and reproduction of not only the society but also the patriarchal family. What is essential to this are the ways in which production and reproduction interact to create conditions that influence decisions of fertility.

For the woman in India, the decision to bear or not to bear or even the right to space childbearing is not entirely upon her. In fact, it’s her family, the one which she is married into, who decides this. This is where we need to understand the interaction between the production and reproduction spheres and how this creates preference for the male child over the female thus leading to pre-natal and post-natal abortion in India.

Family systems with patriarchal arrangements and cultural injunctions largely decide mortality rates of children within the household. Especially in families who have patrilineal descent, which is mostly the case in Northern India, sex selective abortion is considerably high. Under the internal labour market system, it is the male child who is understood to be the one contributing to the production sphere and the wages of the household. This self-regulatory practice of the production sphere and economic rationality of the individual household puts tremendous pressure on the woman to bear a male child.

The kinship model predominant in patrilineal societies further shows that because women marry out of the family, therefore it is only the son who is left behind to provide for economic and social support. This patrilineal descent is crucial to the social organization of families in India, which is why the preference for the male child is also high.

The female is considered a liability in so far as kinship arrangements in a patrilineal group requires exogamy, where the female is married outside the group but more importantly because of dowry at marriage. The Dowry system requires the family of the bride to transfer wealth to the groom’s family. Being on the giving end of this extremely exploitative system, the girl is usually considered to be a burden on the household property and resources.

The Dowry system requires the family of the bride to transfer wealth to the groom’s family.

Complicating this situation is the way in which state policy and family planning engage with the issue of female foeticide. That the public and the private is so intertwined is clearly visible through state policy of family planning. Given the overpopulation of the country, the Indian state used various measures to curb this population growth. And abortion was one of them. In India, abortion was decriminalized in 1971. Thus, while in the rest of the world, most feminists had to fight against various orthodoxies to legalize abortion, in India, this was not the case.

However, what have been the implications of this? The most important result of this legalisation has been female foeticide – the killing of the foetus in the womb itself. Because there already exists a strong patriarchal structure in the Indian society and thus a stronger preference for the male, it became easier to conduct sex selective abortion in India.

At this intersection of the private and the public was also an increasing body of international programs and organizations that marketed contraceptives and birth control services for women in India. For most of these programs and services were expensive, it only catered to the needs of the upper-class women. For the majority of those belonging to the lower strata, sterilization (forced) became the only instrument for curbing population growth along lines that were not coherent with their needs and demands.

As a result of feminist movements, the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act was passed in 1994 to place restrictions on pre-natal testing and sex pre-selection rather than on abortion directly. Which is why it has not been successful in particular to curb sex selective abortion. Further, the 1971 Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act has been changed to allow the maximum gestational period for abortion from 20 weeks to 24 weeks. This change has been another milestone with respect to the question of reproductive freedom of the woman and rights over their own body.

Therefore, there exists contradictory places with regard to abortion in India. Although the government provided various schemes like registering pregnancies and allowing abortion for only ‘valid reasons’, yet this has not helped solve the problem of sex selective abortion. For the government, the declining sex ratio is a matter of numbers that will decide its place in the list of global powers.

The attempt to improve these numbers is a goal in itself and not the effort to improves the lives of women or resolve the question of reproductive rights. Even now women, especially from the lower strata are forced into aborting their foetuses by her in-laws and frequently under conditions that are extremely dangerous and puts the women at risk.

There exist conflict of interests with regard to abortion not only between the feminists and state discourses but also in the narratives of different sections of women whose access to it is weighed by differential circumstances and often for most, the reluctance to perform it. The normative patriarchal structures and practices continue to strip women of the right to reproductive freedom and birth control. Sex selective abortion is not the only factor that contributes to this skewed sex ratio but also the relative neglect of the girl child when she is born resulting in death before completion of one year. Most of these numbers are not even recorded.

A power structure exists not merely between the woman and her patriarchal household with respect to decisions of fertility but also the different classes of women whose idea of reproductive freedom may not align with each other. Therefore, there is a need to understand what these challenges mean for different sections of women for they connote different ideas of empowerment for all and further to go beyond the state discourses to engage in a more socio-cultural understanding of female foeticide and reproductive freedom.

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