New Internationalist

Saving the girl child, and brides and prejudice

Next week, there’s a national Stop Female Foeticide workshop in Panipat, Haryana.

A few years ago I was shocked to hear that female foeticide has wiped out a generation of girls in the two Indian states of Haryana and Punjab.

I’ve used female foeticide statistics in lectures and articles. The starkest one was that, of 1,000 foetuses aborted in a Mumbai abortion clinic, researchers discovered 999 were female. This led to the campaign to stop sex determination tests throughout the country. Amniocentesis is now illegal, but of course it goes on in shady sex-detection centres in every small town, in almost every part of India.

The North East is an exception; girls are preferred to boys in matriarchal societies. But, as long as girls remain bad news, as is the case in our ‘little Maharaja’ society, women, with or without pressure from husbands and in-laws, will continue to abort them till the long-awaited male heir arrives.

An adivasi girl from the Nilgiris. She is loved and welcomed from the day she is born and treated exactly the same as boys.

Still, reading about the falling sex ratio in India and China does not prepare you for the shock of visiting one of these miserable states where girls have disappeared. Haryana and Punjab are among the wealthiest states in India. Slowly, it’s sinking in. No girls to marry!!! No local brides for love or money!

Men from Haryana and Punjab are being forced to go in search of brides to distant West Bengal and Bihar. The language is different, the customs are different, the food is different. But the brides, poor girls, travel to these distant states because they are poor. Their parents can’t afford the dowry demands in their home states. Now for a Bengali or Keralite girl to marry a Haryanvi groom is like a Sicilian girl being dispatched to Siberia. Everything is different. It’s a whole new country.

But for the girls, apparently, it’s not all gloom and doom. If you ask people questions without a preconceived agenda, the answers will often surprise you. They certainly stunned me.

A group of girls from Kerala, where dowry demands are huge, decided ‘to screw Keralite men and their avaricious families. Why allow your parents to be humiliated and pauperized with dowry and wedding demands when there are families desperate for girls elsewhere? These North Indian families are willing to give our parents money to take us into their families as brides. First of all, that was unbelievable. We thought, why go through the degrading, shaming practice of parading yourself before arrogant Kerala grooms and their revolting parents.’

So these girls opted to be daring. To fly away, over a thousand kilometres north, and settle in a new land. And although the food is different and the language and customs strange, they’ve adapted. They’ve decided this is definitely not worse than a dog’s life with no dowry back home. What’s more, they write home and tell others it’s not such a bad deal, come join us.

Girls from Bihar and Bengal say: ‘We were starving at home. These people gave our parents large sums of money to bring us here. At home there was not enough food for one meal, here, we eat huge meals everyday, and drink enormous glasses of milk and lassi.’ The milk and lassi of the north is legendary and delicious.

I heard a few horror stories too. That in some poorer Northern families, one bride was required to service several brothers and the father, if necessary. Much has been written about these things. But it was news to me.

I was completely baffled by Haryana and Punjab. I really didn’t know what to think. And I can’t comprehend the social and psychological problems these women might go through. But it occurred to me that a hundred years from now, this mixture of cultures and people – Punjabis are hugely different from Bengalis or Keralites – will change Indian society completely. Whether that’s good or bad I have no idea.

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