BACK FROM THE DIWALI break, I was chatting with the elderly lady who comes to sweep our street everyday. Though she is employed by the municipal corporation, the wages are paltry so residents usually help her with small tips in cash or kind. As I handed over her Diwali tip and a small box of sweets, she blessed me saying, “May you have male children year after year!” Quite apart from the fact that overburdened India doesn’t need anybody producing children year after year, what is with this obsession with the male child, that simply refuses to go away?
If anything, technology only seems to be ensuring that parents can select for gender more effectively. A recent book, Disappearing Daughters reveals that the female-male sex ratio across five north-western Indian states is abysmal, and worsening. Nor does affluence necessarily seem to improve the situation, because upper-caste families, more likely to have access to land and education, are no better. As InfoChange India mentions,
In four of the five sites surveyed, the proportion of girls to boys had declined since the 2001 census. In one site in Punjab state, there are just 300 girls to every 1,000 boys among higher caste families, the report says.
A few months ago, I read Elisabeth Bumiller’s ‘May you be the Mother of a Hundred Sons’, the title of this post. Though the book suffers from some generalizations that would be obvious to an Indian eye, I thought that it did a pretty good job of covering many of the issues faced by women across the country. The pity is that though the book was written almost 20 years ago, we don’t seem to have progressed much on some of them.
One of the things she brings up in this book is sex-selective abortions. The dilemma is this: on the one hand, it is important that women have the right to abort as an inalienable right over their own bodies. On the other hand, to prevent the rampant killing of foetuses identified as female, the government has made such identification illegal. Then, is this equivalent to giving a woman only partial control over her womb? You may abort, but only for reasons that we approve of–is that what we are saying?
To me, while this is a dilemma in theory, circumstances in India may need a different solution. For one thing, it is a well known fact that irrespective of what the law says, many Indian women do not actually have any control over their bodies. Whether contraception is used at all, for how long, whether to keep the foetus or abort it–these decisions are rarely in the hands of the woman, or even of the couple alone. Social norms, the economic situation and the wishes of family play an important role. (Here is an interesting account of a program to promote knowledge of contraception and change in child-bearing patterns in rural India, which shows that community involvement is important.)
In this situation, it is not feasible to say that any reason for abortion is valid–are women really exercising control over their bodies, or are women’s bodies being controlled by others to fulfil the demand for sons? (There will of course be some women who say that it is entirely their choice, but I’m talking about the majority here.)
Legally outlawing sex-selective abortion is not a panacea by itself. As the data shows clearly, it is not working, and will not work, as long there are plenty of unethical medical professionals. Poor law enforcement means that the culprits will rarely be booked, let alone punished. States like Tamil Nadu which have implemented the Cradle Baby scheme, find that there is no drop in the number of babies being dropped off there, showing that unless fundamental attitudes change, only the means of disposal will differ.
For poor families, girls are seen as an economic burden: they will not bring much into the family kitty and will deplete it as the cost of marriage is shouldered by the girl’s parents. For more well-to-do families, dowry may be one factor but there also seems to be an element of pride attached to having male children. This is closely related to a patriarchal society’s handing down of assets. So until girls are seen as economic assets–as people who can earn their own way–this practice is not going to stop. For girls to be able to do that, they need to be able to live, get enough to eat and then get to school, before they can learn a skill and start supporting themselves. This is apart from attitude changes towards dowry and marriage.
This then is the dilemma in a country where girls are blamed for being unproductive assets and killed before they can ever prove themselves: how do we bring up our girls to be productive citizens when they are rarely allowed to get here in the first place?