3rd July 2006, Daily Mail, UK
Ten million female foetuses have been illegally aborted in India by mothers desperate to bear a son. What will become of this nation of ever fewer women? ANNE SEBBA investigates:
May you be the mother of a hundred sons – this is the Sanskrit blessing given to a Hindu woman in India on her wedding day. And the minute she falls pregnant, there is the traditional chanting of mantras by the other women of the family, calling for the foetus, if female, to be transformed into a male.
Increasingly, such age-old beliefs are becoming a curse in India, as, in this deeply patriarchal society, women have become obsessed with giving birth only to sons.
‘Asking me why I need a son, instead of a daughter, is like asking me why I have two eyes and not one,’ says one woman in the northern district of Haryana, who has just had an abortion after discovering that the baby she was carrying was female.
This woman is by no means alone in taking such shocking and drastic measures to avoid giving birth to a girl. In fact, such is the widespread determination to produce only sons that, since ultrasound scans became widely available in the Eighties, the number of abortions carried out on female foetuses in India has risen at a terrifying pace.
Even by the most conservative estimates, sex-selective abortion in India now accounts for the termination of some ten million female foetuses over the past 20 years. That means that each year a staggering half a million girls have been prevented from being born.
‘This is the world’s biggest genocide ever,’ says Chetan Sharma, founder of the Delhi-based organisation Datamation, which campaigns against female foeticide. According to India’s 2001 census, the number of nought to six-year-old girls per 1,000 boys was 927, a dramatic dip from 962 in 1981.
‘The future is frightening. Over the next five years we could see more than a million foetuses eliminated every year,’ says Dr Sabu George, who has charted the problem. ‘At this pace we’ll soon have no girls born in the country. We don’t know where it will stop.’
The female shortfall is not a new problem in India. Even during the days of the Raj, and the first census in 1881, the British made efforts to eradicate female infanticide. But the problem of female foeticide is a new phenomenon fuelled by advances in technology and the widespread liberal attitudes to abortion.
In 1971 India was one of the first countries to legalise abortion, partly intended as a means of population control.
‘Today, anyone can walk into a government hospital and ask for an immediate abortion up to the 20th week of pregnancy, free, merely by saying there has been a failure of contraception,’ explains Kalpana Sharma, whose columns in The Hindu newspaper regularly rail against the dangers of undervaluing women.
Women cannot admit that they knew the sex of their baby in advance of having an abortion because that is illegal in India.
According to a law passed by the Indian government in 1994, hospitals, clinics and laboratories are not allowed to use prenatal diagnostic techniques — including ultrasound scans like those pregnant women in the UK routinely undergo at 12 and 20 weeks — for the purpose of determining the sex of the foetus.
However, this law has been widely ignored — because local officials are reluctant to fight the will of the people.
Women know that if they produce only daughters, they will be pitied by everyone around them — or, worse, abused. In many cases, it is even considered a betrayal of the family.
‘I want a son as we have a big business,’ says another woman who has undergone nine abortions of female foetuses. ‘I want what my husband has built from scratch to go to his own blood.’ But it is not just that in Indian families it is the son who will carry on the family name or business and take care of elderly parents.
Daughters are an enormous financial burden because when they marry, a dowry must be found. Although it is illegal both to give and receive a dowry, the practice continues and the demands made by the groom’s family are increasingly nothing short of extortion, according to Kalpana Sharma. These days, they often include jewellery, clothes, furniture, white goods, cars and even a new home.
Lavish weddings in exotic locations and with mammoth feasts are also expected, and the groom’s family often makes last-minute demands. ‘Raising a female child is like watering your neighbour’s plant,’ says one woman in Gujarat.
For the boy’s family, it is gain, gain, gain. But for the girl’s parents, financing the dowry and wedding often involves selling off land and spiralling into debt that becomes impossible to pay off.
Female foeticide isn’t common only among poor families. Aborting a female foetus is increasingly becoming a lifestyle choice among wealthy women.
The states with the lowest ratios of girls to boys — 820 females to every 1,000 males — are also the most prosperous, like Punjab, Gujarat and Haryana. It is not simply that affluent women believe they will have a better standard of living if they have only sons.
It means, too, that there is more money to spend on sport, leisure and consumer goods, as well as more time to pursue a career. There is also the issue of land inheritance. Daughters are now legally entitled to an equal share of land when their parents die and many families do not want to see their legacy divided up.
The division of land has become a major factor in recent years because although sex-selective abortions are still largely an urban phenomenon, the easy availability of mobile scanning machines means doctors are now doing brisk business in rural areas.
Getting a licence for the equipment is easy and many so-called ‘doctors’ offer women the service without being qualified or registered.
There are 25,770 officially registered pre-natal units in India, but one doctor estimates there are as many as 70,000 ultrasound machines operating in the country. Nobody reports the unqualified technicians because it is not in their interest to do so.
Even the qualified doctors in registered clinics have ways of circumventing the law against using ultrasound tests to determine the sex of the foetus. If the ultrasound test shows a male foetus in the womb the doctor simply tells the nurse: ‘I think this calls for sweets,’ a well-known code to mean ‘Good news, it’s a boy’. No paperwork is filled in, so there is no evidence of illegal practices.
Anyone found guilty of organising an illegal abortion theoretically faces a prison sentence of between three and five years and a fine of 10,000 rupees (£118). But only two men have been convicted since the law was introduced 12 years ago.
So why do such highly-trained doctors show such a disregard for the ethics of sex selection? Some doctors insist they are performing a valuable service by preventing divorces.
Others claim that the doctors’ union has been over-zealous in protecting its own, and that the doctors and lawyers have formed a powerful nexus in the fight against official clampdowns — to their mutual financial benefit.
The practice is hugely lucrative for doctors. Private doctors charge a minimum of 5,000 rupees (£60) for an abortion and often much more, depending on how far into the pregnancy the woman is. Dr Puneet Bedi, a specialist in fetal medicine, says: ‘Everybody knows that thi
s technological wonder [ultrasound] is being used at random, to diagnose and kill girls. Foeticide is performed by trained professionals with licences and registration numbers; it is a multi-billion rupee industry.’
Many social workers in India believe it is unfair to accuse women of being complicit in this genocide, a denial of the girl’s fundamental human right of being allowed to be born. A few believe they are acting out of kindness: ‘Why bring a girl into the world who will be subjected to a dreadful life of misery?’ one told me.
There are many stories, even in relatively prosperous families, of young girls being undernourished while boys are well-fed, or girls being treated as maids while the sons lead a life of leisure.
But more often than not, an abortion to terminate the development of a female foetus is an action forced on a woman by the twin pressures of a powerful mother-in-law and husband. A key reason for the woman’s compliance is the fear that they may be replaced by a younger, more fertile woman who will produce sons if they do not submit.
Alarmingly, this fear has spread to Indian women in the UK who face the same patriarchal attitudes. An increasing number are travelling to India for an abortion, as far fewer questions are asked there than in Britain.
‘There is definitely an increase in abuse faced by Asian women in the UK who are mothers of girls,’ said Jasvinder Sanghera, who runs an advice centre in Derby. ‘We see women who are beaten or abused by their husband and especially their mother-in-law for producing daughters. They are not considered worthy or dutiful daughters-in-law.’
Tragically, there are already disturbing consequences of the falling ratio of females to males in India. In Gujarat, and some villages in Punjab, there are so few higher caste women that tribal women are being imported to service whole families of men — father, sons and brothers. The demand for sexual services is such that in some areas middlemen have started supplying girls for between 500 rupees (£6) and 60,000 rupees (£711) a month. The money goes to the husband or father who hires her out.
Long-term worries are not simply the fear that such an imbalance will result in the rise of prostitution and sex trafficking. The danger to women’s emotional and physical health from repeated abortions is huge.
Sex-selective abortions are often performed later in the pregnancy and are therefore more dangerous. Only 20 per cent of all abortions conform to the provisions of Indian law and those performed outside hospital often result in complications that lead to the deaths of thousands of woman.
So how can this demographic catastrophe be averted?
The Indian government is taking steps to impose regulations on the registered ultrasound clinics throughout the country, but Chetan Sharma, of Datamation, says that local officials are guilty of corruption and will simply continue to turn a blind eye.
Feminists believe that until Indian society begins to value women, no amount of laws will help.
‘Until women take control of their own lives and refuse to give in to pressure, nothing will change,’ says Rasil Basu, who has made a film about the crisis called Vanishing Daughters. ‘Empowerment of women is the only answer.’
Kalpana Sharma, of The Hindu newspaper, believes the beginnings of change have been prompted by recent revelations that girls are consistently doing better than their male counterparts at school and college and are beginning to branch into traditionally male fields like engineering and medicine.
‘I know women who have been persuaded to have multiple abortions and who feel absolutely rotten, but they have no choice — either abortion or divorce,’ says Sharma.
‘But I sense things are changing with a younger generation of very well-educated women who are not prepared to put up with this. Women are starting to find their courage, even if it means leaving their marriage.’