Axeing the X Chromosome; Female Foeticide in India
In a recent newspaper, I saw a story about a woman who’d given birth to twins, a boy and a girl. Apparently, she decided that she couldn’t take care of both of them. Therefore, she took one of them (this was recorded by CCTV cameras in the maternity ward of the hospital; and what were CCTV cameras doing in maternity wards, huh? Well, actually, I admit closed-circuit cameras in maternity wards may sound a little odd, but are essential in India to prevent theft of babies) and threw it off the hospital balcony (said maternity ward being some floors up). The baby was found, already dying, and couldn’t be saved.
Guess which of the twins, the boy or the girl, she decided to throw off the balcony?
Some weeks ago there was a slightly similar case. In this, two women who shared the same name (very common in Indian village communities) gave birth in the same maternity hospital, on the same day, one to a boy and one to a girl. Somehow or other there was a confusion as to which of these two similarly-named women had spawned which of these two babies.
Guess what happened then?
You’ve got it right – both women claimed the male baby, and both refused to take the female. The last I heard of the matter, there were plans to carry out a DNA test on the babies and the two sets of parents, to decide which was whose. In the meantime, one of the women had been asked to take the male baby, for the time being, while the other was persuaded (somehow) to temporarily care for the female. Both women were informed that the situation was only temporary, until the DNA tests decided who the real parents of which kid were.
I hope the police were keeping a close eye on the woman who was in charge of the male, to ensure she didn’t run off with the baby. If they didn’t, that’s what she’s done, you can depend on it.
I’ve written previously of Indian people’s obsession with male children, to the point where there are couples, in this day and age, with twelve or fifteen kids, all females…and still trying for a male. Those twelve-to-fifteen-kid couples, of course, are relatively rare, because even a female child does need some food, shelter and clothing, and may even require the rudiments of an education, not to mention, in time to come, a dowry. The much greater majority, therefore, take a simpler way out.
Now what is this simpler way out? Adoption? Good heavens, no! How do you know what baby will be delivered to your doorstep? It might be a low caste baby, or even, gasp, a Muslim one. No. For virtually all of these male-craving couples, adoption is a non-starter.
So, logically, since you can’t afford to raise a female and adopting a male is out, the only remaining option is to get rid of the female.
Now do you begin to understand why the woman threw her baby off the hospital balcony?
Generally speaking, there are (assuming you can’t simply dump your newborn daughter somewhere and walk away), three ways of getting rid of your unwanted daughter.
One way is to snuff her at birth, and this is much commoner than thought. Yes, there are only a few cases that come to the news, such as the balcony woman, and hence their newsworthiness. However, it’s in the desolate swathes of rural India, where such concepts as health services are unknown, that this is the standard method. After all, there’s nobody to know if you quietly smother your female neonate or starve her to death by holding off from breastfeeding her, or, as in large parts of South India, poison her with the juice of oleander berries. After that, it’s just a tiny grave in a corner of the family garden, and come here, wife, it’s time for you to do your duty again and produce a male heir for the family.
If you don’t snuff her at birth, for whatever reason (lack of opportunity, or failure of nerve, or whatever) there’s still no reason to descend into despair. You’re not necessarily stuck with caring for the useless baggage until you can pay some man to take her off your hands. You can always give her only just enough food to stay alive, and systematically neglect her, and chances are that one of the multifarious diseases that ravage this great and splendid land will carry her off before she even reaches school age; not that you’re planning to send her to school, of course, even if she does live.
Now, both exterminating her at birth and letting her die of neglect are methods restricted, mostly, to the rural and urban poor, though they do sometimes show up elsewhere. Among the Great Indian Muddle Class, though, including the rural rich in affluent states like Punjab, the most convenient way of ridding yourself of the bother of the female child is to abort her before she’s born.
Now, before I go any further, let me clarify that I am not anti-abortion. I am, in fact, strongly pro- any measure which will prevent children from being born, and not only because I frankly and openly abhor and detest them. However, the purpose of this article isn’t to discuss the rights or wrongs of abortion, which is easily available in India – unlike “advanced” societies like an Empire I could name, abortion isn’t, fortunately, an issue here at all. The problem isn’t abortion, per se; the problem is when abortion is used selectively to get rid of the female foetus.
You’ll find them all over, especially, North India, in back streets and in fashionable shopping areas; ultrasonography clinics, far more than you’d think necessary for the market they cater for. In rural parts there are even mobile sonography machines that go around from village to village, allegedly catering to the villagers’ needs (said villagers not even having access to basic health care). Until a few years ago, the all used to openly advertise sex-determination services, so that you could get the sex of your unborn foetus checked and decide whether to “clean it out” (as one woman interviewed on TV said as I recall) or to let the pregnancy proceed. I once read an article which said that of several hundred abortions that had followed sex determination tests, only one, solitary case was of a male foetus.
Finally, sometime in the 1990s, the government stepped in and made sex determination illegal. As almost always in India, this law remained strictly on paper and was openly flaunted until women’s groups protested enough to get the authorities moving…sort of. Nowadays, in all these clinics, you’ll find a board proclaiming (often only in English) that sex determination tests are illegal.
Did that stop the sex-based abortions? Do you really think so? This is India, where anything is possible.
You see, it’s a crime to tell the parents the sex of the unborn baby. But it’s easy enough to convey the information in coded language – such as “the sky is blue” for “you have a male” or “you’re in the pink of health” if the foetus is a girl. And that has an added advantage, in that if the parents are in the pay of some government agency and this is a sting operation, you can’t be penalised; you aren’t, after all, stating the baby’s sex, are you?
It’s one of the ironies of modern India that the more developed parts, where people are rich enough to afford sex determination tests and repeated abortions, are also the parts where for every thousand male children, there are only eight hundred or nine hundred females; while the “backward” parts have virtual parity in sex ratios. Obviously, then, the sex determination ban isn’t working, except on paper. But as in everything, what’s on paper is what the splendiferous Indian government cares about.
Now, of course, it might have occurred to some of my readers to wonder what happens when the number of girls drops so low that there aren’t anywhere near enough to go around. Wouldn’t, those of you who are comfortably unfamiliar with societies like this one will wonder, the pendulum swing back and parents begin to treasure the girl child? Wouldn’t more girls be born to make up the deficit?
There’s a wonderful and disturbing film, Matrubhoomi: A Nation Without Women , which examines the fate of a woman in a village where there are no girls left. It’s a story, of course, but far from fictional. What happens in the film is happening, on a smaller scale, all over North India, from where agents go out and purchase women from poorer parts of the country to marry into families. These women quickly become common property for the men of the family, who use them as sex slaves and domestic drudges. Usually illiterate, trapped among people whose language, customs, food habits and clothing are all equally alien, there’s little or nothing these women can do to help themselves. And, this being India, if they go to the police, they’re most likely going to be raped at the police station as well, before being returned to their owners.
No – as long as there are women to be had, you won’t find the value of the girl child increasing.
And guess what’s the crowning piece of irony? Ask almost any Indian male, and he’ll jump up to say nobody respects women as much as Indians do.
I am, of course, a proud and card-carrying anti-Indian traitor; but I find it disturbing when Indians make my job of hating them so easy.
It’s, like, no effort at all.
Bill the Butcher: Both women claimed the male baby, and both refused to take the female. There were plans to carry out a DNA test on the babies and the two sets of parents to decide which is whose.