Gendercide? India’s population distortion

Ishtiaq Ahmed

Posted Feb 9, 2006      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Gendercide? India’s population distortion —Ishtiaq Ahmed

Whereas in agrarian societies male children are preferred, until the late 20th century people could not actively choose the gender of their children. But now with the help of technology such as ultrasound they can translate that preference into a choice by carrying out pre-emptive murder

According to the BBC News website edition of January 9, 2006 more than 10 million female births in India may have been lost in the past 20 years. These are the findings of Dr Prabhat Jha of St Michael’s Hospital at the University of Toronto, Canada, and Dr Rajesh Kumar of the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Research in Chandigarh, India.

They found that there was an increasing tendency to ‘select’ boys when previous children had been girls. In such cases the ratio of girls to boys in the next birth was 759 to 1,000. This fell even further when the two preceding children were both girls. Then the ratio for the third child born was just 719 girls to 1,000 boys. Not surprisingly, for a child following the birth of a male child, the gender ratio was roughly equal. Prabhat Jha said conservative estimates in the research suggested that half a million girls were being lost each year.

This practice has been common for most of the past two decades since access to ultrasound became widespread. Therefore a figure of 10 million missing female births would not be unreasonable. It meant that prenatal selection and selective abortion was resulting in a loss of 500,000 girls annually.

The research is based on a national survey of 1.1 million households in 1998. The most surprising finding is that the termination of female foetuses is not confined to conservative, middle or lower middle class. Educated families enjoying a fairly good standard of living, too, are no different.

According to the Indian Express of Sunday, January 15, 2005 every year, in the Indian Punjab almost 100,000 female foetuses are aborted. My guess is that Haryana has similar trends. In some very odd way ultrasound — an instrument of modern technology to find out if the baby conceived is healthy — has been converted into a weapon to eliminate female children.

Neither Indian Union law nor that of any Indian state has any provisions for selective abortion. On the contrary, such activity has been criminalised, but the implementation of the policy is not effective; only in a few cases were doctors and other individuals involved apprehended. In the Punjab there has been only one conviction in four years. Also, only a fine of Rs 1,000 was imposed.

The abortion of female foetuses is the result of a complex interplay between religious values and culture and economic considerations and pressures. The ultimate consequences of this would be e population distortion — a surplus of males. Millions of men denied access to women can be easy fodder for violent and militaristic ideologies, getting recruited for extremist causes.

A moral dilemma inheres in any defence of the artificial termination of pregnancy because every time it happens a potential life is taken away. In all cultures or religions killing a living baby is considered a great sin. The Quran expressly forbids it in Ch: 17: 31. Equally, moral philosophy deriving from humanism and atheism considers killing a living baby an unpardonable crime.

But abortion of foetuses is now accepted in many parts of the world as a legitimate right to restrict the birth of unwanted children. Feminists the world over jealously defend the right of the woman to decide if she wants to continue with a pregnancy or not. It is seen as a part of the birth control mechanisms.

But is gender-based termination of pregnancy a case of birth control? No, because a deliberate attempt is being made to prevent a girl-child from being born. It is a form of selective proto-murder. I have searched in vain in leading dictionaries of the English language and consulted a well read Englishman, my dear friend Dr Peter Lomas, to find out if a specific term exists for parents deliberately aborting female foetuses.

He suggested female foeticide, which I am already familiar with and have used in my writings earlier. Another word used is female infanticide, but that too is a combination of two words.

A search on the Internet brought forth better results. Terms such as gendercide, gynocide and femicide have been proposed to describe selective abortion of female foetuses. I am afraid, lexicographers will soon have to choose one and standardise it because modern technology makes the act possible and its prevalence can increase.

I think gendercide should be the most appropriate term, because terminating a female foetus is a cultural decision and the term gender has been devised precisely to describe damning and stigmatising the female sex on the basis of cultural prejudices and fears.

In traditional Hinduism a family without a male child is considered accursed. The male child stands for the continuity of the family. Only the son can perform the funeral rites of his parents when they die and saving them from the hell of Punnama where people without sons are believed to go.

A daughter, on the other hand, is also an economic liability. The burden of providing a dowry to daughters makes some parents desperate. Education and reform have changed attitudes but not entirely.

Pakistani Muslim families also value male children. This applies also to Pakistanis settled in the West. I have two sons but no daughter, and I don’t know how many times I have been told that I am blessed.

Among Sunnis if no son is born the daughters inherit only a portion of the father’s assets while the rest is claimed by other relatives. Among Shias if there is no son then the daughter can receive parental property as the son would. Unfortunately Shia law permits mut’a as a valid temporary marriage. Of course only men, married or unmarried, can obtain temporary wives. This law was banned in Iran under the shah, but was revived when Ayatollah Khomeini came to power.

I have yet to meet a decent Shia who would allow his daughter or sister to enter into a mut’a relationship, and such a law invariably perpetuates the exploitation of poor women.

One can say that whereas in agrarian societies male children are preferred, until the late 20th century people could not actively choose the gender of their children. But now with the help of technology such as ultrasound they can translate that preference into a choice by carrying out pre-emptive murder. How is the situation in Pakistan with regard to gendercide? I have no clues, but I hope my article will encourage conscientious researchers to throw light on this issue.

The author is an associate professor of political science at Stockholm University. He is the author of two books.

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