As the declining sex ratio from Census 2011 shows, merely having laws against sex selective abortion is not enough. Fighting entrenched social attitudes is a much tougher call…
Three cheers for Japanese women. Their soccer team beat the powerful U.S. team and won the FIFA Women's World Cup. Indeed, in a week with much gloom, this was the one cheerful piece of news. Even more to celebrate was the fact that women's sports is finally making headlines, and is not relegated to a single column at the bottom of the page.
But the bad news from Census 2011 about women is relentless. Once again, as provisional data is released on the 2011 Census, and we know now, for instance, that India is becoming increasingly urban, we are also getting confirmation that India is increasingly male. We were warned in 2001 that the situation was alarming; in 2011 that adjective appears an understatement.
Persistent problem
India's declining sex ratio is a subject one has to revisit repeatedly. No matter how often you think about it, or write about, it is difficult to come up with a straightforward or simple solution to the situation we face in India: Where girls are simply not wanted. They can excel in sport, in studies, in jobs, as politicians, as bureaucrats, as writers, as engineers. But none of that changes the attitude of the couple on the verge of parenthood — who long for a boy and grieve if a girl is born.
Now, in addition to the usual breast-beating about this appalling situation, we have people suggesting that access to abortion should be restricted. In Maharashtra, where the 0-6 years sex ratio has seen a precipitous decline, suggestions are flying around of restricting access in different ways. For instance, the Nagpur Municipal Corporation has made it compulsory for all radiologists and gynaecologists to post details of their work online. That might prove a salutary step. But in addition, they must get clearance from the municipality before they perform an abortion. How adding a layer of bureaucracy to the process will check the misuse of abortion facilities for sex-selective abortions beats comprehension.
India's abortion laws are considered to be progressive because they recognise the right of women to have access to safe abortion. The importance of safe abortion cannot be emphasised enough. India has the highest number of unsafe abortions in the world and an estimated 56 per cent or more than half the recorded abortions that take place, are under unsafe conditions. As a result, 15 to 20 per cent of maternal deaths are due to unsafe abortions. India's maternal mortality rate is one of the highest in the world. So women who need to undergo an abortion for a variety of reasons including rape, or contraceptive failure when they are not ready for another child, should have legal, safe and clean facilities for the procedure.
Unfortunately, even what exists by way of public facilities is grossly inadequate. According to studies on abortion in India, only 25 per cent of abortion facilities are in the government sector. Studies have also revealed that as little as six per cent of all primary health centres have abortion facilities. This means women living in rural areas have no option but to turn to private practitioners, of whom many resort to unsafe procedures.
In cities, health facilities are better. But the people who misuse legalised abortion for sex selection rarely use government facilities. They can afford the private practitioners who ask no questions and charge a hefty fee.
Not a solution
So restricting abortion facilities will affect poor women, already burdened with inadequate health facilities; while those with money, who also seem to have decided they do not want girls, will continue as before.
The dilemma is a real one. Since 2001, when the first shock of the extent of the decline in the sex ratio hit home, there have been many discussions about the problem. The Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, 2003 has been tightened. Despite that, there have only been a small number of convictions; out of 800 cases in 17 states, only 55 convictions. Clearly the law is not being implemented the way it should be.
But even if it were strictly enforced, would there be a difference? Indians are notoriously proficient in bypassing even the best-made laws. If they want to do something, they find a way of doing it.
To give you a simple example of how difficult it is to get people to obey a law. In most states, it is compulsory to wear helmets if you drive a motorbike or scooter. The law has been made for the safety of those who ride these machines, people who should know that the law is in their best interests. Yet, in city after city, you will see people risking their lives and finding ways to evade being caught rather than wearing helmets, or quickly putting them on just before they see a policeman. In fact, there is an advertisement on television these days showing a young man finding an ingenious way to side-step the rule when he sees a cop on the horizon; he puts on a hollowed-out watermelon on his head in place of his non-existent helmet. And the ad is supposed to be light-hearted and funny.
Perhaps this example is not a direct parallel to the ways in which the PC&PNDT Act has failed to make a difference. But it illustrates an approach towards law that makes implementation of any law an even greater challenge in India. When that law meets entrenched social attitudes, the hurdle appears almost insurmountable.
So the dilemma before us is how we get people to actually not resort to sex selection and sex selective abortions. One way is to keep the issue alive in the media, to provoke debates on this in colleges, and to constantly remind people that a country progresses if all its people are secure, if all feel they have rights, and not if one half of the population is made to feel so unwelcome that you ensure that they are never born.
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