issue 240 - February 1993
The unwanted sex
Abortion. Infanticide. Preference for sons leads to the
destruction of baby girls. Sakuntala Narasimban explains why
it happens in India - and what women are doing about it.
When Vithal, a Bombay shop assistant, returned from the hospital where his wife Ratna had given birth, his mother did not need to ask: 'boy or girl?'. One look at his long face and empty hands and she knew. Had it been a boy Vithal would have bought a box of sweet peda to share with friends and relatives.
They named the baby Leela, but the naming ceremony was a very simple affair. Two years earlier at the naming of their son Raja there had been an elaborate feast for 50 guests and a thanksgiving at the temple.
When Raja started school at the age of six, Leela loved his uniform and new satchel and clamoured to be sent too. Her grandmother told her: 'Eh, you're a girl, why would you need schooling? Girls stay home and help their mothers so that they can be good wives when they marry.' To divert her, they put a toy rolling pin and a tiny plastic bowl in her hands. 'Let's see how good you are at rolling chapatis!'
Leela played at mixing dough and feeding it to her doll. But make-believe soon turned to reality when her mother began work as a domestic help to eke out family finances. A new son had been born, and Leela - aged seven - was left to mind the infant during the day.
By age eight she was fetching water from the community tap to fill the drum at home. By age nine she was sweeping the floor each morning and learning to cook. Now, at 12, she does most of the cooking and housekeeping because her grandmother is no longer around and her mother Ratna is working extra hours to help put Raja through high school.
Ratna protests when I point out the difference in her treatment of son and daughter. 'It is not that I do not love Leela. But my son has to earn, so education is important for him. He will support us in old age.' Leela will be given in marriage - a heavy cost to Vithal and Ratna - and will 'belong' thereafter to her husband's family. 'We will have no claim on her once she is married and goes away.'
This, then, is the pervasive cultural perception: daughters are paraya dhan, another's property. Sons have economic value, perpetuate the family name and perform religious rites for the ancestors' souls after death - rites which girls cannot perform. 'May you be blessed with eight sons' is often intoned by elders when a girl prostrates at their feet on ceremonial occasions.
With son preference so strong, girls are unwelcome, a burden. This is reinforced by the system of arranged marriage - still the norm - and dowry, which maintains a strong hold in spite of its legal prohibition since 1961. The spread of consumerism means that the savings of a lifetime can be wiped off by a daughter's wedding. The more attractive the man as a prospective groom, the greater the demands made by his family. The result: heavy debts. And keeping a daughter unmarried is considered sinful and socially unacceptable.
India's skewed sex ratio is itself an index of anti-female discrimination. The number of women per 1,000 males in the population has fallen steadily this century, from 972 in 1900 to 933 in 1981. The 1980s saw increases in two dreadful manifestations of social prejudice against girls: female infanticide, and the use of tests on the unborn (amniocentesis) to determine sex and abort the female foetus.
In the Kallar community in Madurai, southern India, it became known that newborn girls were often fed poison berries to escape the ruinous effects of dowry. Of 640 families questioned, 51 per cent admitted to killing a girl baby within a week of birth. Villagers were reported as defending the custom: 'Better to snuff a life at birth than to suffer lifelong misery.' A local woman medical doctor agreed. 'These mothers have suffered so much, they don't want the pattern repeated in their own lives.'
Stories of baby girls smothered with a pillow at birth come from Rajasthan, where again the problem of dowry is severe. Rajputs will not marry their daughters to families lower in the social hierarchy. In order to snap up suitable grooms, girls can be married at the age of four or five.
Amniocentesis tests are intended for checking congenital abnormalities in the foetus. But in India, this modern technique has been hijacked to serve conventional prejudice. Abortion is legal, so many families are using the test to find out the sex of the child and then abort a girl. The survey most often quoted comes from a clinic in Bombay, where of 8,000 abortions in the late 1980s, 7,999 were of female foetuses.
One Indian Government Minister declared himself in favour of the practice, on the grounds that it would 'improve the status of women by reducing the number of women, thereby making them more sought after'. But following widespread protests by women activists and organizations, the State of Maharashtra (which includes Bombay) passed a law in 1989 against the use of tests to determine the sex of the unborn child. However it is not banned in neighbouring Gujerat, where women under pressure may easily travel to.
At a less pernicious level, social conditioning adds to the girl child's handicaps. A 'good' woman is submissive and selfeffacing, and girls are indoctrinated in uncomplaining docility from birth. If food is short, girls go without; always men and boys eat first, women and girls last. Nutritional deficiencies are higher in girl children within the same family. Although biologically girls are stronger, the mortality rate for girls rises sharply between the ages of one and four, from 109 to 300 per 100 male deaths. One recent study found that 51 per cent of boys were breastfed, compared to 30 per cent of girls: some mothers stop sooner after the birth of a girl so as to conceive again and maybe produce a much longed-for son.
The same pattern is repeated in access to health services. Girl babies are taken to the doctor less often than boys: 63 per cent of cases of female sickness compared to 80 per cent of male, according to the National Institute of Nutrition. And, echoing Leela's grandmother, many parents think that education is wasted on girls, and anyway they are needed at home. The primary school drop-out rate is much higher than for boys.
Much of the hard information about this grim scenario was brought to light as a result of the 1990 Year of the Girl Child. Now the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation) countries are planning a Decade of the Girl Child. And slowly there is change for the better.
Leela's case typifies the change. Her mother Ratna began to wish, after all, that Leela could be literate. So for the past six months Leela has been coming to me for lessons in the evenings when we have both finished work. Already she can read aloud from the newspaper. She wants to learn how to use the sewing machine so that she can earn some money stitching. The sense of self-worth that this will bring to her is worth far more than what she will earn.
Education is among the most vital ways to bring about improvement in women's status. The national committee set up to formulate long-term plans for women's advancement has suggested that creche facilities are needed in schools so that girls may bring along the siblings they have to take care of. There are also major programmes for income generation and self-reliance among poor women; the World Bank has recently provided Rs 1,300 million (£26 million) for such a programme in the Hyderabad region of central India.
Further laws - against sex tests of the foetus, for example - and large sums of programme money will not on their own sweep away attitudes passed down through centuries. Social attitudes must also change. With this in view, a series of spots are aired on prime-time national television. One shows a rustic family at dinner with the son's plate piled high with chapatis and vegetables while the daughter's has left-overs. The voice-over urges: 'A daughter is just as precious as a son. Don't discriminate'. Some popular serials have highlighted the girl child's plight. One, called Udaan ('flight') is about a little farm girl who dreams of becoming a police officer.
Leela sometimes watches television at my place. Her adolescent face alight, she turned to me at the end of one episode. 'When I have a daughter,' she said conspiratorially, 'I'll make her very smart. And she will become an officer!'
Sakuntala Narasimhan is a writer on women's issues based in Bangalore.