As the dust on the sedition saga was settling “Bharat Mata ki Jai” stirred fresh nationalist fervour. Patriotic and constitutional implications have been invoked by the ‘great debaters’ of our country but for most Indians the slogan is simply a salutation to the mother figure. This paradox of women worship calls for a revisit on an issue recently raised by the Union Minister for Women and Child Development. At a conference in Jaipur, Ms Menaka Gandhi proposed to make prenatal sex determination compulsory and follow it up with institutional deliveries. This strategy of tracking female foetuses and monitoring their birth is to ensure that they are not aborted or killed at birth. This proposition is diametrically opposite to the present stance of prohibiting gender disclosure. The PC – PNDT act in its present form was implemented two decades ago but census shows the results have not been as far reaching as anticipated. The sex ratio which was at an all time low of 927in 1991 improved only marginally to 940 in 2011. Moreover many doctors opine that the law has become a tool for harassment of medical professionals in the country.
Although it was later clarified that Ms Gandhi’s statement is just an idea over which the ministry is inviting suggestions, the support it garnered from the medical fraternity is understandable. This move will shift the onus of female feticide to the parents which seems fairer than accusing doctors. The pitfall is that it will expose the pregnant women to undue psychological and social pressure and she may face neglect for carrying an ‘unwanted’ child. Also, a pregnancy which doesn’t reach term may still put the doctor in the dock.
But the most troubling truth is that whichever way the law is moulded, whether the sex of the fetus is disclosed or not, the girl child will remain an endangered species. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN-DESA) has labeled India the most dangerous place for a girl to be born. Despite distinct biological advantages an Indian girl is more likely to die in early childhood than her brother. The child sex ratio in the 0-6 age group continues to be lower than the birth ratio indicating a higher female mortality which can only be attributed to acts of commission ( infanticide) or omission ( malnutrition and neglect). So even if state policy ensures a girls safe entry into the world, she still faces the risk of a premature exit.
This evil practice will persist in a country where a daughter is often excluded when counting offspring. Where a girl is called paraya dhan before marriage and paraye ghar ki afterwards. Where women are considered a liability despite repeatedly proving their worth. Where men worry about the security of their daughters and sisters but feel no shame in being unfair to the fair sex. Where women are worshipped as Devi but treated like trash. Till women are empowered through economic independence, parents, even mothers, will be wary of daughters and continue to seek methods to eliminate them.
The fact of the matter is social validation has more authority than legislation. The law has been ineffective because it targets the symptom of sex selection, instead of comprehensively treating the deeply resistant malady of son preference. Sati Pratha was easy to abolish because society saw it as a barbaric custom. Dowry and skewed inheritance practices, on the other hand have social sanction hence persist despite legal reforms. The same holds true for female feticide, unless society condemns it as a inhuman practice, Indians across the country, irrespective of class and caste will keep finding means to select boys over girls.
In all fairness the state has tried to address this issue by putting up billboards exhorting us to ‘love the girl child,’ ‘beti bachao’ and ‘stop killing girls’. January 24 has been declared the National Girl Child Day. Also a number of conditional cash incentives have been announced by the government. Though well intended, these steps appear ill conceived as they are aimed at poor BPL families. Census, on the other hand, has suggested that the rich and not-so-poor are more often the perpetrators of this crime. It is more prevalent in beautiful cities ( Chandigarh has a shameful sex ratio of 818 ) than seedy suburbs.
Nothing can be achieved unless we change the way we bring up our children, Gender sensitisation has to be introduced in schools. The pliable minds of children should be influenced so that they consider dowry and female foeticide immoral. If thirty years ago when the first rumblings of this avalanche were heard, more efforts had been made in this direction we would now have a generation of gender sensitive youth. But no concrete steps were taken to catch ‘them young and make them grow’. Pick up any school textbook and it is filled with misogynist filth. It could be seemingly innocuous things like showing girls with rolling pins and boys with stethoscopes which send subtle messages of gender roles, or asserting that ‘boys don’t cry’ and ‘girls are weak’. The remaining damage is done by the family where boys are given preferential treatment over their sisters.
Policy makers must understand that professing their love for the girl child isn’t enough, specially when the Women’s Reservation Bill lies pending in Parliament. Girls will grow into women needing equal rights and opportunities. When we, as a nation realise that ‘Bharat ki maataon ki jai ‘ is as important as ‘Bharat mata ki jai ‘ everything else will fall into place.
( published in the Sunday Tribune as my column ‘ Reading the Pulse’ on 3/4/2016