Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Where have all the girls gone?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, April 17, 2011


Does economic development only reinforce regressive values? How else can one explain the phenomenon of disappearing girls in modern India?
Photo: V. Sudershan 

Will laws alone help?

India's Cricket World Cup victory followed by Anna Hazare's indefinite fast on the Lokpal Bill virtually knocked out of the news arena some really bad news. Just days before all these media-grabbing events, the Census office released preliminary figures for 2011. The most shocking of them is that in the 0-6 year age group, the number of girls to every 1,000 boys is just 914, even lower than the 927 of the 2001 census.

How has this happened even as the adult sex ratio has gradually crept up from 933 women to 1000 men in 2001 to 940 women to 1000 men today? Why has this happened even as women's literacy rate has gone up and the gap between male and female literacy rates has shrunk? Why has this happened even when there are laws in place to ensure that sex-selection does not lead to the elimination of girls?

Perhaps a coincidence, but just a few days after the disturbing census results were made public, a group of activists met in Mumbai to mark 25 years since they launched a campaign against the use of medical technology for sex detection and selection. Their campaign had culminated in the first law against sex-selective abortions being passed by the Maharashtra government on January 1, 1987.

Misuse of technology

In those days, the popular method of sex detection was amniocentesis. It was an invasive procedure involving amniotic fluid being extracted from the womb for testing. The technology had been devised to detect foetal abnormality. Instead, in India it began to be used to detect the sex of the foetus. Women risked an abortion if the test confirmed a female foetus even if they got to know at a later stage of pregnancy.

In the absence of a law or any restraining regulation, those conducting these tests were openly advertising them. Advertisements like “Better 500 now than 50,000 later” were common, suggesting that Rs. 500 on a test to confirm the foetus today was better than spending many times more for a dowry later.

There are several aspects of how this first legislation came about that are pertinent in the context of the recently-concluded agitation by Anna Hazare and his supporters for a Jan Lokpal Bill to check corruption. The Maharashtra law banning sex selection came about through a push from below by the activists and a response from above. The activists tried to gather together as much evidence and data that they could about something that was just below the surface. It was virtually impossible to prove as neither the mother, nor the doctor, would admit that the test had been used for such a purpose. Ironically, they had stumbled upon this issue when a multinational company, concerned about the mounting medical claims from its women employees who had sought abortion, asked women activists to speak to them.

Through a variety of techniques, including sending in decoys to doctors suspected of conducting such tests, the activists assembled some proof. They were lucky to find at least one sympathetic senior bureaucrat, the Maharashtra Health Secretary. Without any dharnas or fasts and little media coverage – there were no private TV channels those days – the government and activists spoke to each other, argued over the provisions in the Bill and ensured that it was finally passed. That law was the precursor to the central law banning sex-determination tests passed in 1994 and amended in 2003 – the Pre-conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex-selection) Act 2003.


Even after the 1994 Central Act was passed, the activists were not happy. They pointed out that not a single doctor had been convicted under the Act. Also the law made women who undertook the test culpable for the crime. Furthermore, sex pre-selection techniques did not come under the ambit of the Act. After advocacy and dialogue had failed to get the law amended, the activists turned to the courts and presented their case. It was at the intervention of the Supreme Court that the government was compelled to amend the law to make it more watertight.

But given the latest Census figures, it is evident that the law even today is not strong enough. So the question that must be asked is whether making it any stronger will make a difference if the mindset of families remains firmly set against girls. Can laws really deal with what is essentially a social problem in India?

The other question that needs to be raised and discussed is whether high economic growth and women's status in society are necessarily linked. As India becomes economically stronger, will the value and worth of its women also become higher? In 2001, this was disproved as the lowest sex ratios existed in districts that were the most prosperous.

Today, there is an additional and more worrying phenomenon. Like a virus, the declining child sex ratio is spreading to districts that till now had not been affected. More research will reveal why this has happened but could this be one of the negative fallouts of economic growth?

For, has increased prosperity actually resulted in easier access to technology that assists sex selection? Sonography, the technology currently most popular in sex selection, does not come free although it is far cheaper today than when first introduced. Portable sonography machines can be loaded in the back of a car and taken to even smaller towns or larger villages. But even this would not have made a difference had there been no demand for the technology. That a growing demand exists is evident from the census figures.

Getting more conservative?

Also, is the availability of more money actually having the opposite effect? Is it reinforcing regressive attitudes? Instead of bringing in more enlightened and liberal attitudes, is it making people more conservative, getting them to hold on to beliefs that should find no place in a modern India? How else can one explain the story of India's disappearing girls?

Apart from the law, a great deal of work has been done to create awareness about the value of the girl child. There have been campaigns; state governments offer incentives for girls' education, and even the media and the advertising fraternity has been sensitised to the issue.

But all this seems to be of no avail. So while India shines on the cricket field and in other arenas, the darker, uglier side of our society continues to stare us in the face.

Dealing with this is at least as challenging as rooting out corruption. But will people come out and demonstrate for what someone called this ‘invisible constituency'?

(To read the original, click on the link above)

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