India's disappearing daughters: Child sex ratios continue to plummet all over the country

Exactly a month ago, Dr Mitu Khurana lost a 11-year-old court battle. This gutsy mother of twin daughters was the first woman in India to file a case under the Preconception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act - the great legal tool which is supposed to protect the lives of our unborn daughters.  Her lengthy battle came to end in just five minutes when the Supreme Court dismissed it on a technicality.

Representational image. AFP/File photo
Representational image. AFP/File photo

Dr Khurana's case is a well documented one and has been covered quite extensively by the Indian and foreign press. She is a doctor, married into a family of doctors, and more importantly - a strong and determined woman who never gave up. She had said that in 2005 when she was under heavy sedation, her in-laws had got an illegal sex determination test done in a high-end clinic in Jaipur. She had proof that this was an unregistered clinic and that the crucial Form F which records the woman's consent to have an ultrasound had gone missing… all punishable offences under the PCPNDT Act.

And yet she lost.

Meanwhile in other parts of the country, sonographers or ultrasound specialists who do the very important task of scanning pregnant women to check fetal health, went on a one day strike in protest against what they called the draconian PCPNDT Act.  They wanted the Act amended because they said they were being persecuted for trivial reasons like a clerical error.

“Look at the piles of paperwork to be done for every single scan,” said an exasperated sonologist at a conference on sex selective abortion. “If I slip on even a single one, I can get arrested and my ultrasound machine can be locked. I came into this field because I was interested in fetal health. Now I regret it. This was once the most popular specialisation for gynaecologists. Now the youngsters are afraid to get into this field.”

At the same time Sabu George who has spent several decades researching and fighting against this form of gender discrimination pointed out to a newspaper that the child sex ratio has dropped drastically in a state like Karnataka, which was once considered comparatively “safe”. This he said is mainly because of poor implementation of the law against sex selective abortion. Today the child sex ratio in Karnataka is 943 per 1,000 males as compared to 973 in the 2001 census. And in thriving Bengaluru, the capital city the ratio is a pathetic 916 to 1,000.

But there are also districts in Karnataka where there are more girls than boys in the 0-6 age group. Udupi with 1,094 girls to 1,000 boys tops the list. Others included in this star list are Dakshina Kannada (1,020), Kodagu (1,019), Hassan (1,010) Chickamagaluru (1,008) and Raichur (1,000).  So, does this mean that the PCPNDT Act is enforced better in these districts, or is there something else? Something more intangible? A different mindset? A matrilineal tradition? No dowry?

So where does the problem lie?

By now it is a well-established fact that our daughters are disappearing not from the families of the poor and uneducated but from educated middle and upper middle class families who have access to illegal sex selection and abortion clinics. We all also know that the main culprit is our patriarchal society which has brainwashed several generations of families into believing women are commodities of trade in a marriage and a girl's life is better snuffed out before she is born, lest she grow into an expensive and unaffordable member of the family.

I have been investigating female infanticide and sex selective abortion for over 20 years now.  In 2005, I started researching my book Disappearing Daughters, on the alarming consequences of sex selective abortion.  At that time, the worst hit states were Punjab, Haryana, and Gujarat.  The PCPNDT Act was already in force and these states had “save the girl child” programmes, yet girls were disappearing by the thousands.  Today the virus has spread all over India as these maps (see right) indicate.

sex ratio map

Studies now indicate that Northeastern states like Tripura and Nagaland, and hitherto relatively unaffected states like Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh have also got plunging child sex ratios.

The problem is that, like in a sinking ship, we don't know how to stop the downward descent.  Every time we plug one leak another one springs up.

Once upon a time the desire to have a male child was just that... a desire, an aspiration, maybe, or even a dream or a hope.  Advances in medical technology have made it possible to turn all those dreams into reality.

First it was amniocentesis, then the ultrasound and now the genetic blood test and embryo selection.  Every new advance was actually meant to ensure the safety of the child in the womb irrespective of its gender.  But these benign diagnostic tools have actually turned into killer weapons in the hands of a patriarchal society.

Gender selective destruction is not new to our society. Gruesome forms of female infanticide have existed in pockets of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat and even Tamil Nadu for a long time. As prenatal gender selection is possible now at a very early stage the female fetus is more endangered than ever.

Every gynaecologist I know has any number of stories of people in high places who tried to pressurise him or her into revealing the sex of the unborn child. I know women who have swallowed all sorts of herbal medicines to ensure the unborn foetus is male and ended up having a deformed child instead. I have been threatened by the doctor wife of an MP because I was investigating charges of sex selection against her. I have talked to weeping women who told me how they were pressured by their families into destroying their unborn daughters.

Disappearing Daughters came out in 2007 and I thought the situation was dire then. If anything, it has become much worse 10 years down the line.  Crimes against women have increased in states like Haryana where there is a huge deficit of young women. Child sex ratios continue to plummet all over the country.

One thing is for sure.  The change in thinking has to come from the very basic social unit, which is the family. As long as we have a 'son hungry' society, unscrupulous medical practitioners as well as quacks will continue to exploit the situation.

Gita Aravamudan is a journalist. She has authored the books Baby Makers: The Story of Indian Surrogacy and Disappearing Daughters: The Tragedy of Female Foeticide.

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