Nipped In The Bud
By Dr. Sudershan Vaid & Dr. Sharda Jain
Sheila, a village woman in Dodhana, a small village in Rajasthan, gave birth to twins, a daughter and a son. Dodhana is notorious for the gangrape for Bhanwari Devi and the 'sati' of Roop Kanwar. A month after the two babies were born, Sheila chose to keep and rear her baby son, but threw her live baby daughter into a well. Such heart-rending cruel acts of infanticide occur very often in our country. But very rarely do we talk about them.
We all know that this is a heinous crime. But yet, while we witness these gory goings-on, we don't squeal or cry murder.
What does this mean?
Despite the SAARC 'Decade of the Girl Child' and the toothless National Women's Commission, the future of the fair sex in India is grim even at the threshold of the 21st century. Girls and women have been gradually and inexorably vanishing from the face of our country. In fact, in our country, thew sex ratio has been unfavourable to women throughout the 20th century. Between 1981 and 1991, there has been a perceptible and alarming decline in the number of girl children allowed to survive. Consequent to the 1991 Census, even the UNICEF expressed its concern over this 'missing 10 per cent' from our projected national female population. This might well be testifying to millions of cases of foeticide, infanticide, death due to criminal neglect and deprivation of nutrition and medical care.
Ironically, it is the mother and the mother-in-law, who, due to socio-economic, religious and cultural reasons, perpetuate this gender bias more than the men. The men either abet the crime or are condescending conspirators in it. Women themselves contribute to, and take an active part in this violence. What this sadly shows is the self-destructive and self-negating female psyche of a mother. She would rather kill her baby daughter than see her child share her miserable fate.
The situation has worsened over the last 10 to 15 years. Even the Government of India admitted in a report that "two of the worst enemies of women have been the traditional woman and the conservative male." From the time she is conceived, the future of a girl child is bleak. Sex determination tests followed by selective abortions mar her life and threaten to nip it in the bud any time. Regardless of any law, like the social malaise of child marriages, female foeticide is a remorseless, inexorable, socially acceptable reality. There are over 50,000 such abortions of female foetuses annually in India; and statistics is only the tip of the iceberg. Despite the SAARC Decade of the Girl Child (1991-2000), Putrakameshi Yagnas were held in Cochin in 1992, and in Baroda in 1994. No wonder they were big draws. Of the 1.2 crore girls born in India every year, as many as 30 lakhs do not live to celebrate their 15th birthday. At least one in six female deaths is due to gender discrimination and gross neglect. There are no social or economic barriers to female infanticide, except that a few of the rich people prefer foeticide to infanticide. Among Hindus the malady has penetrated every caste. The incidence of both infanticide and foeticide is, however, less among Christians and Muslims. Among the rural poor, female babies are killed immediately after they are born either by the dais, the so-called midwives, or by their grandmothers.
The census of 1871-72 provided the first detailed record of systematic killing of female babies. In north India, Rajputs, Jats and a few other castes have a reputation for practising female infanticide over several centuries. Among these castes, a family which gives away a daughter in marriage has to accept a lower social status than the family which accepts the daughter through marriage. Thus have they come to the choice of either practising female infanticide or keeping their daughters unwed.
A few districts in U.P. have consistently recorded a lower population of women as compared to men. If you ask the older women or the midwives of the village, they will recall vivid memories of female infanticide. They feel that female infanticide will get reactivated on a major scale if female foeticide is banned.
In August 1994 the Minister for Human Resource Development ordered a survey of cases of female infanticide in nine states-Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Tamil Nadu. The report of this survey, if any, has not yet been made public.
A recent study startles us with the finding that the incidence of infanticide has not abated in Tamil Nadu despite public disclosures over a decade ago. Recently, the district of Salem in the state was again in the news for infanticide. Ironically, the cradle scheme launched by the Tamil Nadu Government, meant for the state government to accept unwanted female babies to take care of them, has been a non-starter from the very beginning.
In rural Haryana, the female-male ratio is 100:159 as against 100:130 in the urban areas. Infanticide is rampant in these villages. We can discern a similar trend in Punjab. In 1981, the ratio of girls to boys below the age of four, in Punjab, was 925 for 1,000. A decade later, in 1991, there were only 874 boys for every 1,000 boys below the age of four. Estimates suggest that the figure has dropped to 750 girls per 1,000 boys in 1999.
In U.P., there are 882 females for 1,000 males against the national average of 927. The difference has a tale to tell. In all this, we have to also bear in mind that the statistics put out by the different states tend to over-estimate the number of women. The actual female population is much less. As we veer towards the close of this millennium and the Decade of the Girl Child, it is a slap on our national face that in the Katihar district of Bihar alone 1,200 newly born baby girls are killed every year, on an average. Midwives administer salt and urea to these hapless infants soon after they open their eyes in this world and squint at the daylight. Otherwise, even more cruelly, sweepers bash their heads and kill them for a fee of Rs. 25. A survey of 35 dais in the state brought out the fact that, on an average, a dai kills three baby girls in a month, or 36 in a year. Therefore, if all the 15,000 dais in Bihar practise female infanticide, they should be able to exterminate half a million female infants for a pittance. Infanticide in Bihar is practised mainly by Bhumiars, Rajputs, Brahmins, Yadavs and Scheduled Castes.
In Tamil Nadu the scourge began with the Gounder community and later spread to others. The dais say that "the mothers are not willing to kill their children but the fathers force them." However, the grandmothers and the mothers-in-law have no qualms about the ghastly deed. According to UNICEF, there are only five states in India where no cases of either female foeticide or female infanticide have been reported. Four states are in the north-east: Sikkim, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram. The fifth is Jammu & Kashmir.
Surprisingly, female infanticide and foeticide have even been reported from states like Kerala, Assam and Manipur, which are reputed to be more progressive in their understanding and observance of the rights of girls and women. The latest survey reveals that in Kerala, in the below-seven age group, there were only 1,877,373 girls against 1,959,527 boys. The fact that girls are lower in number than boys by 82,154 could imply that a lot of baby girls have been killed, aborted, or died due to deprivation and wanton neglect. Clearly adverse changes are taking place even in societies where women have traditionally been held in great esteem and have enjoyed a high social stature.
A whole array of ingenious methods are used to kill infant girls: lacing their feed with pesticides, tobacco pastes, sleeping pills, or even a grain of poppy or husk (which can slit the tender gullet); stuffing the mouth with black salt or urea; suffocating with a wet towel or a bag of sand; feeding the juice or paste of poisonous oleander berry or another plant Calotropis (Erukkampal) or finally, starving the baby girl to death, strangulated or abandoned in the open to die on a cold wintry night.
How can I support another child, and that too a daughter, with a meagre income of five to seven rupees a day?" asks a poor mother. In one reported case, a mother had killed nine daughters in all, the mother-in-law also being an accomplice. The father reasoned, "with a measly income of Rs. 300 to Rs. 400 a month, we could not even dream of spending Rs. 30,000 on dowry, including a gold ring, a watch and some cash, to marry off a daughter." Crippling poverty and awesome dowry demands are cited as the two main reasons for the widespread practice of female infanticide in Sarkapalli in the Dharmapuri district of Tamil Nadu. The average monthly income of a family which kills its female babies here does not exceed Rs.200. 80 per cent of our population does not have access to, nor have the wherewithal for, sex determination tests, not to mention the resources for expensive abortions. Infanticide is therefore more in vogue.
Mere legislation cannot solve the problem. Neither can the evil be mitigated by the half-hearted implementation of various social welfare programmes targeted for the benefit of the girl child-like the 'Raja Lakshmi' scheme of Rajasthan and the 'Apni Beti Apna Dhan' of Haryana. By the time the flood of grants reaches the NGOs, it thins down to a trickle, having been gobbled up by the corrupt officials and other vested interests in the business of providing social welfare to the poor women.
Till the benefits of liberalisation percolate down to the masses, the elimination of poverty and illiteracy, particularly among women, must be accorded top priority in future planning. Meanwhile the media must launch a crusade to disturb the conscience of Sheila and her ilk. Unless society in general strongly condemns the abhorrent practice of female infanticide, the future of the girl child will continue to remain bleak.