As pressure under PCPNDT builds up on diagnostic clinics and doctors, is there a danger of a return to female infanticide, asks Usha Rai, at the end of a year-long campaign in 23 states on the falling child sex ratio
As a journalist writing on social issues I was shocked when I travelled through Salem district of Tamil Nadu over 20 years ago to report on female infanticide. Then a trip to Bihar revealed that the practise was alive and thriving there too with the dais delivering the babies given the responsibility of killing it if it was a girl. The newborn girls were put in an earthen pot and rocked till the child’s neck broke. In the sandy desert areas of Rajasthan, the unwanted newborn was smothered with sand. A myriad devious ways were found across the country for getting rid of baby girls.
With the availability of modern technology and ultrasound machines, infanticide slowly gave way to female foeticide. Though the PCPNDT Act of 1994 was brought in to check sex-selective abortions, the child sex ratio has been falling steadily. The 2001Census revealed that there were 927 girls to 1,000 boys. In 2011, it fell another 8 points to 919.
A whole year of campaigning on the falling child sex ratio (CSR) by 200 NGOs across 23 states of the country in 2012-2013 under the banner of the National Foundation for India indicates that we have only skimmed the surface of this silent emergency. The implementation of the PCPNDT (Pre-Conception & Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques) Act continues to be poor, and the nexus of greed forged by clinics, doctors and the political class is proving difficult to break.
While patriarchy continues to form the bedrock of the issue, advances in technology have made sex-selection easier for those wanting sons and a greater challenge for activists working on the issue. Mobile ultrasound machines zigzig their way into the heart of rural and tribal India and medical advancements have made it possible to determine the sex of the foetus through blood and urine tests. The testing machines too are getting smaller and easier to hide. Now there is not just a son preference but also a ‘daughter aversion’.
Today, the falling child sex ratio has become a national issue because, except for Chhattisgarh and a few states of the north-east, the entire country is in the red. The trend to eliminate girls spans class, caste, ethnic and religious moorings. It is people like you and I who are eliminating girls. The situation is more disturbing in urban areas but even in rural areas, prosperity is leading to a fall in the CSR.
Both in 2001 and 2011, in the north zone, the worst-performing states on CSR are Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Jammu & Kashmir, Rajasthan, Punjab and Chandigarh. While Rajasthan has filed the maximum number of cases under the PCPNDT -- more than 500 cases since 2009 -- Delhi has reported 62 cases, J&K one case and in Himachal Pradesh, no case was filed. In Punjab and Haryana more than 100 cases were filed under the PCPNDT Act. In UP and Bihar, 108 and 126 cases were filed and 10 cases were disposed of in UP but none in Bihar. The number of convictions, if any, are very few.
Even women like Mitu Khurana, a doctor herself, whose husband and in-laws tried their best to get rid of her twin girls when they were in the womb, finds it a Herculean task to get justice. She is the first woman in the country to have taken legal action under the PCPNDT Act against her husband, in-laws and the hospital for the sex-determination test. The lower courts gave cognizance to her case but the hospital and doctor have appealed in the higher courts against cognizance and it has been pending since 2010. In fact, Mitu is fighting a dozen other cases including domestic violence, dowry and custody of children, and her email is being hacked. How long will the system further victimise mothers like me, she asks.
In Dhanbad, Jharkhand, Kakoli Devi, an anganwadi worker known as the avenging Durga, has filed a case against her husband and in-laws for beating her up, duping her into having a sex test and then eliminating the female foetus. When her story appeared in a newspaper last year, the chief medical officer, the Appropriate Authority, filed a case under the PCPNDT Act against the husband, the radiologist at the diagnostic centre, the owner of the centre and the doctor at the nursing home who terminated her pregnancy without her consent. With the medical system backing the case, Kakoli’s lawyer is confident of justice, but the harassment continues with the husband asking the school where his son is studying to withdraw his name as the father.
As pressure builds on diagnostic clinics and doctors, there are dangers of a return to infanticide. In September 2011, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights went to investigate complaints of infanticide and foeticide received from Jaisalmer which has a skewed sex ratio of 849 females to 1,000 males. Although the cases of reported female infanticide had been investigated by the district government which confirmed death from natural causes, the NCPCR team found several gaps and discrepancies in the statements given by the ANMs (auxiliary nurse midwives) in charge of these cases when they visited the Chhor, Sitadoi and Devra villages and the Devikot Primary Health Centre.
A healthy girl born to Bhanvri Devi, a resident of Chhor village, died soon after her mother, discharged from the Devikot primary health centre, reached home. When the NCPCR team questioned the ANM who had recorded the case, it was told that the child had died of natural causes. However, she could not provide the registers recording the details of the child. On the first postnatal visit of the ANM to the family at their residence, she was told that the baby had died the previous night and the last rites had been performed. But postnatal registers and other records could not be produced.
Different regions have different weak links. In some areas, the appropriate authority for implementing the PCPNDT Act has not been formed, in other areas, it has been formed but is not working properly and somewhere else the doctors lobby is very strong. Identifying the weak links of each region is as vital as a sustained campaign over 10 to 15 years to bring back the balance in the child sex ratio.
Despite the pervasive gloom on the future of the girl-child, some excellent work is happening in different areas and these best practices need to be replicated and shared with the bigger movement to save the girl-child. In Ganganagar district of Rajasthan under the Let Girls Be Born campaign of Plan India and Urmul Setu, the Chamber of Commerce and the Gurudwara Committee are supporting education of girls in schools and colleges. Local panchayats are celebrating the birth of girls and several families have come forward to adopt girls from families that feel they cannot afford to support more than one daughter. “Don’t kill the girls, the movement will find good homes for them,” is the message.
Since in many states increased female workforce has shown an improved sex ratio there is need to focus on education and employment for women and girls. However, in Kerala, which has the highest literacy rate in the country, the CSR is declining. It is also declining in tribal belts of Odisha that never had this problem.
There are other reasons too for containing the falling child sex ratio. In a country where the Medical Termination of Pregnancy was legalised in 1971, women, quite rightly, don’t want to lose out on this right that gives them control over their bodies. However, the public at large is not able to distinguish between ‘safe abortion’ that is legal and ‘sex-selective elimination’ that it illegal. In the north-east, a pro-life group is adding to the misunderstanding and confusion on the two issues and needs to be addressed. Another issue calling for attention and action is the violence against women. This only gets aggravated when the woman is unable to produce a male child. Both Mitu Khurana and Kakoli Devi are victims of this strong male preference. Why this male preference? Patriarchy, the demand for dowry, not wanting to share property and land rights with the girls/women in the family and of course to perform the last rites and supposedly take care of parents in their old age.
The year-long campaign by 200 NGOs has shown that laws have to be strengthened through implementation. It is equally important to educate medical professionals because medical ethics are completely absent and the judiciary has to be more pro-active.
Working with faith-based organisations cannot be ignored because they lay the cultural foundations of society. The slight improvement in sex ratio seen in Punjab is due to proactive work by the gurudwaras, but many feel working with religious groups “is a double-edged weapon”.
(Usha Rai is a senior development journalist based in New Delhi)
Infochange News & Features, December 2013