New Internationalist

Disappearing girls

Photo by travelmeasia under a CC License.

A recent news item about China shocked me. Though why, I don’t know. It was the most logical, natural consequence of China’s one-child, little emperor policy. Not empress, please note. Families in China, like those in many parts of India, have been aborting female fetuses for many decades. The heir apparent must be a male.

The story in question will probably give feminists a laugh. It’s a tragicomedy of sorts. But like Punjabi males who have to go to India’s poorer states for brides, Chinese men are now looking to Korea and Vietnam for women to marry. And, apparently, many Chinese bachelors are being taken for a ride.

Agents provide Vietnamese and Korean girls for a fat fee. But quite a few of these reluctant brides disappear after getting money from the men. The grooms are left, not merely desolate, but also with their bank accounts considerably depleted. I can almost hear some of my friends saying, ‘Why shed tears for them? It serves the bastards right!’ The story went on to say Korean and Vietnamese agents were promising to replace the model if the bride bolted! The ads read: ‘Buy one, get one free.’

For the girls, it’s not funny. It’s highly probable that the brides in question are being trafficked from one Chinese groom to the other. It’s also likely that the money, as in most trafficking cases, is going to pimps and agents, not to the poor women or their families. And not much was revealed about the girls. Were they willing brides? Or coerced, kidnapped, brutalized women?

I’ve always thought of unwanted girls as being a particularly Indian phenomenon. This Chinese tale made me take another look at the whole South Asian scenario. I don’t know about the dowry scene in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal or Sri Lanka. But in these countries boys are definitely preferred to girls. I also know little about the Southeast Asian scenario. Are girls valued there? The situation for women in Thailand, which I witnessed for the first time in the seventies, is shocking. In the poorer regions it seems that many girls are valued because of the income they can generate in the sex trade when they reach puberty. Even official government brochures advertised the girls as a tourist attraction.

In Tamil Nadu, south India, cribs are placed in special centres, begging women to leave their unwanted newborn girls in them instead of killing them. Is this a solution, I grimly wonder. Female infanticide is a fact of life. I recall a feminist friend, Kamla Bhasin’s angst, ‘I have worked for the women’s movement all my adult life, for over forty years, and yet the figures for dowry deaths, female foeticide and infanticide are higher today than when I started.’

But will the millions of missing girls change the way society values its women?

I don’t see women being valued. They are needed to gratify men’s sexual appetites, to produce more sons, to perpetuate the species.

The future for India and China, galloping economies or not, is grim. A society with a massive gender imbalance is doomed. It’s a twist in the tale that Malthusian theory didn’t explain. But it’s a part of history that needs careful documenting. How, as the world’s most ancient civilizations became modern, did they regress into venal, sick societies? 

But there is another question: is it better to have never been born, than born into a second-rate life of domestic abuse and perhaps violent death? It’s a question better left unasked of those baby girls, cursed from the second they enter the world. What a pathetic indictment of our society.

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  1. #1 dhun daruwala 05 Sep 11

    In spite of efforts to stop these abuses such as foetecide etc they are bound to increase due to the explosion in population of the two countries.

  2. #2 Sabita Banerji 06 Sep 11

    I've traveled widely in my career and often talk to women and about the attitude towards girls in the family. Their responses remind me of the saying ’If an egg falls on a stone, alas the poor egg. If a stone falls on an egg, alas the poor egg.’ If the culture is that a girl's family is given a bride price, alas the poor girl who is bartered like a chattel. If the culture is that the groom is paid a dowry, alas the poor girl who is aborted or killed in infancy. But, as with most symptoms of a ’venal, sick society’, wouldn't these atrocities be far less likely if people were not poor? To mangle another saying, it isn't money that is the root of all evil, nor even the love of money - but the lack of money.

  3. #3 Rehmat 06 Sep 11

    It is very encouraging to learn that some of the top Bollywood actresses are taking active part in the emancipation of Hindu women who are still victims of centuries-old anti-woman Hindutva culture. Shabana Azmi is very active in spreading the breast cancer awareness among the Indian women and Preity Zinta blasted Hindu religious teachings and Hindu elites for “the dire plight of India’s oppressed and neglected widows” during a press conference in New Delhi on January 13, 2010.

    “I am a Hindu and I would like to say I think religion is always interpreted by various different people and the greatest reason for misinterpreting religion is greed. “

    In Hindu society, a widow is not allowed to remarry or even wear colorful clothes or jewellery. Widows are outcasted as witches and considered impure and burden on family and Hindu society in large. Some of the widows were forced to shave their heads and were blamed for the ‘untimely’ death of their husbands. India is home to world’s largest widow population (34 million or 8% of total women population). Many of these widows end up working as prostitutes to survive. Ironically, in the same Hindu society, where cow is worshipped and cared both by the government and religious organizations.

    “The Dalits (untouchable Hindus) account for 165 million of India’s one billion-plus human population. The population of cows is pegged at 206 million. There are more cows than Dalits in India. The cows therefore, have more rights tha Dalits. For instance, you can kill Dalit before thousands of witnesses and get away with it. But the imagined murder of a cow will not be suffered. The state promotes the drinking of cow urine and dung, while Dalits are forced to eat the shit and piss of caste Hindus,” – S. Anand, Outlook India.

    Another inhuman treatment carried out on Hindu women in the past was religious ritual of Sati or a widow immolating herself on her husband’s funneral pyre. Muslims rulers in India avoided to interfere in this disgusted Hindu ritual – but British colonialists banned the practice in 1829 CE. However, it were the anti-Sati campaign carried out by Rajaram Mohan Roy and Gandhijee which succeeded in eradicating this cruel practice to a large extent. It’s still practiced in some of the remote areas of India, but rarely reported in the press.

    Preity has been appointed an Ambassador for the UK-based charity ‘Loomba Trust’, which has been involved in education over 2300 children of Indian widows. The Trust was established by Raj Loomba in memory of her mother Pushpa Wati Loomba in 1997. Mrs. Loomba became widow at the age of 37 and had to raised her seven children single-handed.

    Like Judaism and Christianity – a Hindu woman, once married, is not entitled to inheritance from her parents. Contrary to that – marrying a widow is commanded as a great charity in Islam while daughters married or unmarried are entitled to inheritance from their parents.

  4. #4 mari 08 Sep 11

    Sabita, the situation is no different for rich or poor baby girls. In Punjab, Haryana and China rich people did amnio centesis tests to determine the sex of the foetus and aborted girls. In a Mumbai abortion clinic of 1000 foetuses aborted 999 were female. So its not just about the lack of money. Thanks for writing in.

  5. #5 Rajan 08 Sep 11

    Sex ratio in Tamil Nadu is up. It has reduced in a few districts. Ironically, many male babies in Tamil Nadu too end up in government cradles as unwanted children.

  6. #6 Roopa Devadasan 11 Sep 11

    Over all yet another sign of a fragmented society.....
    I'm finding it difficult to respond to all the articles and blogs my friends write....with facts and information of such startling proportions....I can only say this.
    What is wrong with the human mind today that it takes census reports and international conferences to see what is happening to they babies or grow up into women? And how is it possible to change things? Does it need more information/ debate/ or quiet reflection/ action. Or both? Thanks Mari,for keeping at it and reminding us.
    Probably until we realise ’ we’ are ’society’ we are doomed to reading this for the next thirty years.

  7. #7 Gouthami 12 Sep 11

    I recently heard a presentation by a leading Management Consulting Group who showed that Business Houses that have a better gender representation have better profits!!! I am hoping that finally it will make economic sense to have equal numbers of women! Kind of a long link - but I am willing to grasp at anything!

  8. #9 Jo 08 Feb 12

    Please be respectful of others in your comments. Insulting and inappropriate comments will be deleted.

    Thank you
    The Moderator

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

Read more by Mari Marcel Thekaekara

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