New Internationalist

Sex, lies and complicity in India

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Photographer Rita Banerji is the outspoken founder of the 50 Million Missing Campaign. She spoke to Vanessa Baird about girl-hating sex selection, rape and the chances of a ‘true feminist revolution for India’.

Boy child and mother in India [Related Image]
A boy's world? Sex-selective abortions are still commonplace in India. AZ Adam under a Creative Commons Licence

What needs to happen to bring the sex ratio at birth in India down to normal?

Rita Banerji: The most important thing that has to happen is that the laws on sex-selection have to be stringently implemented. The Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, 1994 law in India is blatantly violated. It’s as good as having no laws.

Dr BS Dahiya, the former Director General of Health Services in the state of Haryana, tried to set up sting operations [to catch medics breaking the law]. I believe that he did eventually get one doctor arrested. But he found that government officers who were supposed to help him implement the law were actually persecuting him for trying to implement it. This makes them complicit in the breaking of the laws! I spoke to him, and he said even that arrest took two years and had a massive toll on his health and family. It’s not surprising, because today sex-selection is a multi-billion-dollar industry that the lawmakers, the law implementers, doctors and medical companies are all benefiting from. That’s what keeps the sex-selection ‘industry’ thriving.

What’s the role of social movements in bringing about the changes in mindset needed?

I believe that laws are more important and more effective then social movements in bringing about change. In fact the law, and its implementation, is fundamental to changing social mindsets.

Sex-selection is a multi-billion-dollar industry that the lawmakers, the law implementers, doctors and medical companies are all benefiting from

It is very important to recognize that women in India are forced violently into having these abortions. Women who refuse to have abortions are frequently killed. Women who give birth to girls are killed. The baby girls that women give birth to are killed. We cannot look at sex-selection and the mindset it entails without looking at the larger picture of misogynistic mass violence in India that’s killing women after birth – at every stage of life: as mothers, as infants, as brides, and as widows. In 20 years, one fifth of the women in India will have been systematically exterminated. This is the genocidal targeting of a group by a society in whichever way it can.

So it’s odd to talk about ‘changing mindsets’ as the method of stopping this mass extermination of women, when we wouldn’t do that for the mass extermination of any other group.

How significant are current protests against gender-based violence? Are we seeing the beginning of women’s liberation in India?

I think the current protests are drawing attention to violence against women as a major issue that a section of society is no longer willing to keep silent about. The problem is that there is no cohesive, united, national platform to give women the political leverage for safety, protection from all forms of violence, on all other fronts in India. This is a major reason why the government is not dealing with sex selection or all other forms of violence against women.

In 20 years, one fifth of the women in India will have been systematically exterminated. This is the genocidal targeting of a group by a society in whichever way it can

There are some prominent voices and loud groups – many of them came out after the Delhi gang rape. But I’m wary of them because most of these women are from one or another political party. They are the so-called ‘women’s wing’ and serve the Party rather than women’s rights across the board. They are using the current social climate of public outrage as leverage where it suits them, but remain silent in the states where their own party is in power.

In 2013 the Supreme Court passed an order that all serving officials in government who have been convicted of crimes, should be expelled. It’s disgusting but the opposition parties came together to fight this ruling. Close to 40 per cent of members of Parliament and Members of the Legislative Assembly have criminal charges against them – charges that include rape and murder. If you take cases of rape and murder one by one, or state by state, you find that the men who rape and kill women get away because they are in some way connected to local politicians or the party in power.

Women’s NGOs and many high profile Indian feminists are reluctant to recognize the need to confront this as a human rights issue. The attempt is always to explain, understand, negotiate, and often to rebuff the scale and gravity of systemic violence against women in India. I get comments like: ‘This is not unique to India!’

So I think a big part of the problem is that the violence against women has been socially and culturally sustained for so long that it has become internalized – even in the women’s movement as it stands right now.

Is there any hope?

I see a glimmer of hope in the under-25 age bracket. It surprised me at first. These women are focusing on things like: bodily integrity and rights, accountability of government and law, safety on demand and unconditionally, safety as their right as citizens. I call them ‘the internet generation of feminists’ because I think that these younger women, via the internet and social networking circles, have found a whole new paradigm of viewing themselves and their rights as women and as citizens, that is not provided or pushed for within the Indian cultural context. I think the problem they run into is that they are not yet willing to challenge the old feminist order in India, and redefine the women’s movement.

Many of these young feminists will talk to me or email me their frustrations and disagreements with the old feminist order, but they are not willing to go public on it. They will sometimes get angry – writing on social media forums about how the Western feminist movement compromises the safety and rights of Indian women using ‘culture’ as an excuse to accommodate violent misogyny in India. But these young Indian feminists are not yet willing to bring their frustrations and fight to the older Indian feminist order.

My fear is that they’ll give in to the Indian way that says ‘respect the older generation; they are wiser and will show the way’. My hope is that courage will strike the younger feminist generation and they will fight for their own platform at a national and international level to bring a true feminist revolution to India!

Find out more at the 50 Million Missing Campaign website.

It’s a man’s world - and becoming more so every day. Latest UN estimates show that 117 million females are missing - due to a combination of female infanticide after birth and sex selective abortion. This isn’t just a demographic oddity - it’s a social and global disaster. This issue looks at why so many of the world’s parents are opting to have sons. What are the consequences for girls - and society as a whole? What can be done to get the sex ratio back to normal? To ensure that girls are not only allowed - but welcomed into this world? Read more in the October 2013 issue of New Internationalist.

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