In this article, Delhi University faculty member Bijayalaxmi Nanda details the efforts of academics, students and activists to challenge deep discrimination against girl children and women in India.
Census data affirms that sex-selective abortion has become increasingly prevalent in India, including among the urban and rural poor. Government attempts to regulate the practice are often harsh or manipulative, and unscrupulous medical practitioners play a significant role. The Campaign Against Pre-Birth Elimination of Females (CAPF) is reaching out to academics internationally in hopes of gaining collaborative support in campaigning, research and focused outreach. Readers are encouraged to contact the author if they would like to support the effort.
India’s 2001 census was extremely disturbing for some of us working on the issue of women’s rights. It revealed a dearth of girls in India, due to aversion towards daughters and sex-selective abortion. Conversations with students and teachers of Delhi University, where we taught, made us realise that there was very little awareness on the issue. The Campaign Against Pre-birth Elimination of Females (CAPF) was launched in 2002 in order to generate awareness amongst the teaching-learning community, as well as to initiate voluntarism amongst young people on this issue.
In the course of our journey we learned many lessons from the victims and survivors of this form of gender discrimination and violence. For example, the heinous practice of selectively eliminating daughters through abortion was more prevalent amongst the urban, prosperous, north-Indian population. However, we also interacted with many not-so-rich families and poor families in both urban and rural regions who admitted to practicing sex-selective abortion in order to get ‘rid of their daughters’ and limit their family size to about two sons. We also met many poor women who were victims of domestic violence because they were mothers of daughters. Women from poverty-stricken regions who had been trafficked and sold into marriage in regions which had no girls left showed the debilitating effect poverty has on women in this connection.
The most recent Census report, which came out in April 2011, reinforced our findings. The rising aspirations of the poor have made them adopt the practices of the rich at the cost of the girl-child in India. CAPF works towards countering this form of gender discrimination by awareness generation, voluntarism and providing support to women fighting against sex determination and sex-selective abortion in their personal lives.
Sex-selective abortion as gender discrimination
Gender biases appear throughout the life cycle of women in India. The still-declining child sex-ratio is a clear indicator of the selective elimination of female foetuses. Its causes can be traced to a complex nexus of patriarchal ideas, misuse of medical technology and the greed of unscrupulous medical practitioners. Specifically, the female-male ratio of the population in 0-6 age group has declined from 945 girls per 1000 boys in 1991 to 927 girls per 1000 boys in 2001, and to just 914 girls per 1000 boys in 2011. The fall, which in 2001 was more pronounced in richer northern India states such as Haryana, Punjab, Delhi, Maharashtra & Gujarat, has now spread to all parts of India, including rural areas.
Legislation banning the use of sex determination and sex selective abortion has thus so far not succeeded in countering the problem, mainly due to the lack of political will to implement the law. The ineffectiveness of the law has led to a mushrooming of unethical and illegal medical practice relating to foetal sex determination and the elimination of daughters. The last two decades have seen a proliferation of ultrasound clinics. Mobile ultrasound clinics in vans and cars reach nooks and corners of the country, even where the public health system fears to tread, enabling the systematic elimination of girl children.
The phenomenon is also propelled by the modernising norm of a small family. In effect, family planning in India is now male-child planning, with most families choosing to have at least one son. This ‘selective management’ is a silent crime of a series of sex selective abortions and/or, to a lesser degree, assisted reproductive techniques like in-vitro fertilization and pre-implantation diagnosis.
Alongside, sex-selective abortion, the tragic practice of female infanticide persists. Cases of this continue to be reported from the states of Bihar, Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, UP and Tamil Nadu. Methods include smothering the infant with a pillow, leaving her out in the cold, putting poison oleander on the mother’s breast before breast-feeding, feeding the child milk with the juice of poisonous dhatura, not breast-feeding the baby girl and starving her to death, drowning her in water or in a pot of milk. Limited access to healthcare, nutrition and education; girl-child labour, sexual abuse and violence, sexual exploitation, child marriage and early child birth, all contribute to the dwindling numbers of girl children. Given the numbers involved, it is not exaggeration to say that the problem has approached genocidal proportions.
Poverty and its compounding effects: dearth of women, trafficking for marriage and sexual slavery
The ripple effects of the sex-selective abortions in the poor families are now being felt all over India. Ironically, the consequences of this decline in the number of women in India are also borne by women. The Campaign’s work in the field bears testimony to this fact. In some villages of the northern parts of India like Haryana, Rajasthan and Punjab, three decades of sex-selective abortion have led to a wiping out of almost all women there. There is a dearth of women for marriage, which has far-reaching consequences for the poor, especially the women who are born into poverty. The trafficking of women for marriage from extremely poverty stricken areas of India such as Assam, Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal into these northern regions has led to a form of coerced polyandry: the practice of having more than one husband at a time. These women are sold into marriage, isolated from their birth families, and lead the life of sexual slaves in their marital homes. The children that these women bear are treated as social outcasts. In this situation, discrimination against women and the girl-child increases many times over. A daughter is killed, a bride is bought and the cycle of gender discrimination and violence continues unabated.
Apart from a law to counter sex-selective abortions, the Indian government has launched a number of girl-child protection schemes to encourage families to give birth to daughters. These schemes are mainly in the form of conditional cash transfers meant for poor families. While the strategies seem well-meaning and benign, they actually can become instruments of control over the poor. The conditionalities, which include compulsory sterilization of the couple, restricting the number of children, stopping at two girl-children, compulsory education, etc., put the whole burden on the poor families without any reciprocal obligations on the part of the state. Not only is the amount of the cash transfer insignificant, there are no forward linkages with skill development, employment and other forms of empowerment.
How ASAP network members can help
The CAPF has been struggling to address these urgent problems since 2002. In addition to staging rallies, protest marches, creative programmes for awareness generation and voluntarism amongst the youth population, we work in the field by supporting women and girl-children who are victims of such forms of gender-discrimination. We do advocacy on the issue with government and international agencies for better implementation and enforcement of legislation. The CAPF has collaborated with the World Health Organisation, United Nations Population Fund, and apex feminist research organisations in India to do action-research on the issue. We welcome any and all support from the ASAP network in the form of volunteers, collaborative research, and meaningful discussion, deliberations and coordination with academic and social initiatives in both national and international fora. Please contact me at either of the addresses below if you would like further information or to become involved in the Campaign efforts.
Bijayalaxmi Nanda is the founder and Campaign Coordinator of the Campaign Against Pre-birth Elimination of Females (CAPF). She is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, Miranda House, University of Delhi. She is the co-author of Human Rights, Gender and Environment (Allied Publishers 2005) and co-editor of Understanding Social Inequality: Human Rights, Gender and Environment (Macmillan 2007). She can be contacted at email@example.com and/or at the campaign email firstname.lastname@example.org.