India’s Lost Girls

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A baby is admitted to a hospital in Bangalore, India. Bite marks and cigarette burns scar her body. Upon further examination, doctors find that she has a broken neck. The baby girl dies soon after admission. She’s three months old.

The father, who was arrested for beating the baby girl to death, wanted a boy, a child to carry on his legacy — after all, girls are too expensive. The father said that the family would eventually need 100,000 rupees (about $1,800) to fund the child’s marriage, so he gave his wife an ultimatum: find the money or I’ll kill the baby.

The United Nations says India is the most dangerous place in the world to be a female. Aside from the threat of gang rape and other bodily harm, sex-selective abortions and infanticide are common in Indian families regardless of income or class. This is not a recent developing trend, but rather a centuries-old practice that is still widely considered to be a wise course of action in Indian society. The bias against females is fostered by the belief that males are a type of insurance policy — they are expected to provide income to their family and do the most work. Traditionally, the male child brings his bride back to his family and continues to support his parents as they grow older.

Baby girls are also disfavored in India because of the tradition of requiring payment of a dowry by the bride’s family to the groom. Although it is formally outlawed, the practice of requiring payment of a dowry is still prevalent. Payment can come in different forms including the transfer of money or property. For poorer families, it can be a great financial hardship and even lead to bankruptcy. Unfortunately, these traditions have often turned the birth, or potential birth, of a daughter into a business decision, sometimes with tragic results.

The killing of baby girls is not just perpetrated by fathers, but sometimes by Indian mothers as well. Documented forms of infanticide among some rural Indian families include the refusal to feed or nurse the child, force feeding the child makeshift poison, abandoning babies on the street to die, and literally throwing children off of buildings.

These facts all point to a horrific conclusion: that in some parts of Indian society, women are viewed as worthless and burdensome and, consequently, are not given respect or dignity.

Then there is the matter of sex-selective abortions. In 1971, India legalized abortion but it is now being illegally used to avoid the birth of a girl.

Amniocentesis is a medical procedure used for prenatal diagnosis of birth defects. Another use for the procedure is to determine the sex of a fetus. A flood of sex-selective abortions followed after its introduction in India in 1974. The female birth rate has since plummeted. According to a report done by the Central Statistical Organization in 2011, the female population in the 0-6 age group has declined by 3 million from 1991 to 2011.

This trend has significantly skewed the child sex ratio (the number of girls for every 1000 boys) in India. According to UNICEF, the sex ratio within the 0-6 age group sunk from 1010 in 1941 to 927 in 2011. There are even areas in India where the ratio is well below the 900 mark — but what makes that even stranger is that the areas with the lowest sex ratio are not the poorest places in India. In fact, the state of Punjab has the lowest sex ratio in the country but it is also the most economically well-off region. This reinforces the fact that women in India are not valued highly no matter where they are on the socio-economic ladder.

India’s government has taken steps to curb female infanticide, with lukewarm success. In 1992 the government created the “Baby Cradle” scheme to allow families to give up the child they didn’t want without having to go through any paperwork. It also added a financial incentive to families who had more than one daughter. But after a low turnout of children handed over to the program and still-decreasing sex ratio rates, the program was considered a failure.

Although the infanticide epidemic in India will not be completely remedied anytime soon, there are a few additional steps the government can take to curb its growth.

The existing 1961 law that banned the dowry system and the penalties associated with it should be strengthened so that women are no longer treated as commodities. The government should also more actively seek to shut down illegal clinics that offer sex-selective abortions, and remove the option of aborting a female pregnancy on discriminatory grounds.

Legal action aside, the best way to address the root of this issue is through education. India needs to implement educational programs that promote equality between sexes and a zero-tolerance policy toward gender-based discrimination and violence.

Only after such steps are taken to eradicate these inherently misogynistic attitudes will India be able to ensure that future generations outgrow the mindset of their parents.

About Eric Bates

Eric received his B.S. in political science with an emphasis in international relations from Santa Clara University in 2012. Upon graduating, he traveled and worked for a non-profit in Central America. He is a religious viewer of Conan O’Brien and also loves traveling. Eric is attending San Jose State University's graduate school program to receive a M.A. in Journalism and Mass Communications. He can be reached at ebates0@gmail.com.
Posted in: Civil Rights, Culture, International, Society