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Hukumnama against female foeticide

By Anosh Malekar

In Punjab, the state with the lowest sex ratio in India at 798 girls per 1,000 boys, the Sikh clergy has been roped into the effort to save the girl-child. The Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee is planning to set up cradles to receive unwanted girl-children at gurdwaras, while the state administration has already started its own cradle baby scheme. Will this strategy work in a state where 50 discarded female foetuses were found at the bottom of a well in 2006?

Grandmother Majit Kaur

Her arrival set off a flurry of activity at the district branch of the Red Cross. A woman attendant rushed out followed by her male colleague from administration. "A baby has just been abandoned in the pangura (cradle) outside," they shouted and waved to me to follow them into the sunny courtyard.

An old woman was standing at the gates with a newborn wrapped in an old bedsheet. "It is a girl; her mother wants me to hand her over to your organisation," the old woman whispered to the attendant after introducing herself as Manjit Kaur, maternal grandmother of the newborn.

The baby girl had been born a week earlier, and was nameless. After directing the attendant to feed and wrap the baby in a clean blanket, the man from administration got onto the telephone. Between making calls he explained how this girl-child was lucky not to have been dumped in some dark, stinky toilet at the railway station or a bus terminus.

A senior official arrived soon, followed by the media. The nameless baby girl, now wrapped neatly in a clean blanket, was taken to the specially built metal cradle by the busy road. The frenzied photographers and cameramen wanted to photograph the old woman abandoning the baby girl in the cradle and then pressing the alarm bell, while the senior official patiently awaited his turn to be photographed receiving the baby girl.

baby girl abandoned

I was in Amritsar, spiritual and cultural centre of the Sikhs, and famously home to the Harmandir Sahib or Golden Temple that attracts more visitors than the Taj Mahal in Agra. I was looking at efforts to save the girl-child in Punjab, a state that is struggling with a sex ratio that has dipped to 761 girls for every 1,000 boys -- the lowest in the country.

In November 2007, the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) announced it would set up cradles at select gurdwaras to receive unwanted children so as to give the parents a humane alternative to female foeticide/infanticide.

The SGPC cradles were nowhere in sight. But the deputy commissioner of Amritsar, K S Pannu, had taken the initiative to start a cradle scheme, Pangura, with the help of the Red Cross early in 2008. The nameless seven-day-old whose arrival I was accidental witness to on March 4 was the second girl-child to have been abandoned at the Red Cross's pangura in Amritsar.

Grandmother Manjit Kaur, who belongs to Thobe village in Ajnala taluka, said: "My daughter, Gurjit Kaur, was pregnant when she got a divorce a few months ago. We want to marry her off again but the prospective groom had a condition -- he would adopt her newborn only if it was a boy."

The Red Cross cradel

Manjit Kaur added that they were farm labourers. "We are very poor and may not be able to look after the girl well. Instead of abandoning her I brought her to the Red Cross."

Earlier, on January 8 this year, a mother of two girls handed over her third child, a one-month-old baby girl, to the pangura. Praveen Kaur, who worked as a domestic help, mentions in the official document that "my husband is handicapped and our family is too poor to bring up a third child".

According to Amritsar's additional district collector Paramjit Singh, not all abandoned girls come from families too poor to feed them, but the administration, aware of the social trends, does not quiz the family members on this. "We expect that it will be largely girls who will be left in the cradle. Boys are abandoned in our society only if they are disabled or are born to single mothers," he said.

"We make the parents or guardians sign a legal agreement wherein they relinquish all claims to the children before putting them up for adoption through the five NGOs approved by the state government," Singh added.

The cradle scheme was launched due to growing concerns over the increase in female infanticide after the official clampdown on sex-selective abortions in the state. In September 2006, the police uncovered over 50 discarded female foetuses at the bottom of a well at Patran in Patiala district, sparking an aggressive statewide crackdown.

The additional district collector noted that girl-children like those abandoned at the Red Cross cradle were lucky survivors of a society where it has always been dangerous to be conceived female. Though Jaswinder Singh Jassi, official spokesman of the Shri Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple), maintains that Sikhism believes in gender equality.

"The Akal Takht jathedar (head priest) had proclaimed that any Sikh indulging in female foeticide would be ostracised from the community. There is a hukumnama, a commandment, against ultrasound tests in Punjab. But newer technologies and better communication facilities are defeating the whole purpose," Jassi said.

Ironically, educational and technological development does seem to have worsened the situation of the girl-child in Punjab. Chandigarh has one of the most skewed sex ratios -- 777 females for 1,000 males -- in the country.

Recent district census figures compiled by the Directorate of Census Operations reveal that Chandigarh's sex ratio could be much worse if the slums, with 926 females per 1,000 males, are excluded. The city's urban sex ratio would then stand at a dismal 500 females per 1,000 males.

The city also lags behind many states as regards women's education. There are only 681 literate females against 1,000 males in Chandigarh, says the district census report. This is what prompts sociologist Santosh Kumar Singh, who teaches at the Government College of Girls, in Sector 11, to describe Chandigarh as "a mistaken mascot of modernity in India".

Interestingly, the Chandigarh Union Territory (UT) administration has now zeroed in on the priestly class to take the Save the Girl-Child campaign to citizens. "Our intention was simply to prevent some Hindu priests from sending out, through their sermons, soothsaying or astrology, signals that would harm the girl-child. We were pleasantly surprised when they volunteered to join our campaign," recalled Director (Higher Education) Raji P Shrivastava.

Pandit Omprakash, head priest of the Radhakrishna temple in Sector 23, said: "Killing a female foetus is a maha paap (big sin) because the Hindu religion worships Nari Shakti. The campaign for saving the girl-child is in keeping with the shastras and the tradition of worshipping the female as a devi mata or Laxmi and Saraswati."

Pandit Omprakash carries the official campaign materials along with puja articles in his jhola (bag). Wherever and whatever the occasion, he urges people through his discourses to turn to "true religion, a religion that does not discriminate on the basis of sex".

It is not uncommon to see men in their traditional saffron or white robes telling temple visitors: "Kanya bhrun hatya sirf gair-kanooni nahin balki ek samajik, sanskritik, dharmik evam naitik paap hai. Aaiye is apradh pe chuppi toden aur betiyon ka swagat Karen." (Female infanticide is not only a legal crime but a social, cultural, religious and moral sin. Let us end our silence on this crime and welcome the girl-child.)

Shrivastava explained the intention behind involving temple priests in the campaign: "The UT administration, while looking at different ways to grapple with the problem, felt the State cannot go beyond a point. Gender sensitisation programmes in colleges and schools and getting more and more NGOs involved is all fine. But the campaign had to be taken beyond women's education and empowerment and issues like dowry and property rights. What about the anxiety over attaining moksha (salvation)? The State cannot talk salvation to people."

Sociologist Santosh Kumar Singh believes that religious interventions are long overdue. "The kind of educational values imparted so far have failed to tackle social evils and need to be seriously looked into. If religion helps impart the right values, then so be it."

Of course it is going to be a long haul and this was just the beginning in Chandigarh, conceded Shrivastava. For, son-preference and rejection of the girl-child runs deep in the Punjab where female infanticide has been in practice for centuries.

"Among the Sikhs, the practice of female infanticide was most widely practised among the Bedis, the descendants of Sikh gurus... Due to their extraordinarily high status they found it difficult to find biradaries of higher status from which to draw husbands for their daughters... Being exogamous, they could not marry among themselves... To solve this problem they borrowed a solution which had been used by the Rajput landed aristocracy in various parts of India: they killed female offspring at birth..." writes Harjot Oberoi in the book titled The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, Identity and Diversity.

Santosh Kumar Singh said: "The practice of female infanticide spread with the newfound prosperity among all sections of society following the Green Revolution across Punjab. The advent of affordable and convenient sex determination methods, especially ultrasound imaging in 1991, led to a spurt in female foeticide. The Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act (PNDT) was implemented in the year 1994, but hardly put a curb to the crime."

"Until the stringent measures initiated by the government in the last couple of years, it was not uncommon to see signs put up by sex-selection clinics across Punjab and Haryana urging people to make a choice: 'Spend a few hundred rupees now (to abort a female foetus) and save lakhs of rupees later (in dowry)'," Singh added.

According to the 2001 census, the national sex ratio was 933 girls to 1,000 boys, with Punjab (798 girls to 1,000 boys) followed by Delhi (821 girls to 1,000 boys) and Haryana (861 girls to 1,000 boys) faring the worst.

According to a Unicef report released in December last year, 10 million girls may have been killed by their parents in India over the past 20 years, either before they were born or immediately after.

Although the Union government seems to have woken up to "a national crisis", the response, according to some public health experts, almost condones the abandonment of female babies. Union Minister of State for Women and Child Development Renuka Chowdhury reportedly announced plans to launch the cradle baby scheme across the nation by saying: "lf you don't want a girl, leave her to us."

Campaigners like Sabu George, a Delhi-based researcher who has done pioneering work on declining sex ratios in India, said that though the cradle scheme does have a role, the positive approach adopted by religious leaders and organisations like the SGPC, though significant, may have come too late. "Chowdhury should have announced the cradle scheme 10 years ago," he said.

"The SGPC's present stand has more to do with its concern for the dwindling population of Sikhs than any concern for the girl-child," George added. "As far as the involvement of individual religious leaders is concerned, we would not have been dealing with this issue if they were so influential. For leaders of any religion in this country, women are not equal to men."

Amar Jesani, trustee, Anusandhan Trust, Mumbai, is also wary of involving religious leaders in the campaign. "One primary reason for religious leaders joining campaigns on sex-selection is that they see a great opportunity to oppose abortion, which is not pro-women."

Jesani, though, feels the cradle scheme is needed to provide good support, home care and love to abandoned kids. "Such a scheme should not be linked to sex-selective abortion because it should be for all children, not only for female ones. More importantly, it should not be a gimmick as it has become now," he said.

Both George and Jesani appeared more concerned with the State's failure to make medical regulations work in India. "Why only the PNDT Act, is the Medical Council Act effective? That law is also for the regulation of doctors and their practice. How many doctors are disciplined for unethical practices," asked Jesani.

George said: "It is being said that Indian parents are choosing to abort female foetuses in such large numbers that over 900,000 girls are now being lost every year. The reality is doctors are encouraging parents to kill female foetuses. Why? Because they are making money."

According to George, India is not committed to protecting women and strictly regulating the medical profession and healthcare services. "What we are talking about is mass medical crimes and the State is refusing to do anything about it. We have killed more girls than the Nazis killed Jews. Only China is worse than us with a sex ratio of 832:1,000. But we will get worse by 2011, killing more than a million girls every year," he said.

By making timid appeals, by providing mere education, society and the power relations therein cannot be changed, said Jesani. The battle will have to be fought by all those who genuinely believe in non-discrimination and, of course, by women. Jesani added: "Unless they take it up in a big way, the State will show laxity in regulating doctors and healthcare services."

InfoChange News & Features, October 2008