Where have India’s baby girls gone?
Many of them have probably gone underground - literally - as was evident from a news byte on TV last week showing that a farmer, from Burhanpur, Madhya Pradesh, while tilling his piece of land, accidentally discovered a female infant who was buried alive and left to die but who, by some miracle, survived. All infant girls are not that lucky. They succumb to the diverse ways adopted to snub out their lives as soon as they are born…suffocation with plastic bags or pillows, poisoning, strangulation and even drowning in milk: all ingenious ways of taking a life that is precious, a life that can give meaning to many other lives if only it is allowed to reach out to them. Apart from killing girls at birth, there are also rampant instances of the so called ‘honor killing’ where murder of girls is justified in the name of upholding values!
Two of my colleagues were recently blessed with a baby girl each. However, one of them out rightly refused, the other was reluctant, for celebration of any kind on the premise that their spouses had ‘only’ given birth to girls! These two men were from two different states of India, Andhra Pradesh and Bihar. Therefore I concluded that from this small incident it was not possible to arrive at a regional profiling of any kind regarding the apathy towards the birth of a girl child and that this is an Indian attitude.
However, if one were to look at census data there is a clear regional trend visible in the reducing ratio of girls to boys. From the data available, it appears that the worst affected states are Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and Sikkim where there are less than 900 girls to every 1000 boys, followed by Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, UP, MP, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Arunachal Pradesh. The girl / boy ratio in these regions hovers between 900 and 950: 1000. The ratio is robust and healthy in the four southern states and in the hill regions Himachal, Uttarakhand, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, and Tripura. Only in Kerala do girls outnumber boys.
Such an imbalance in the demographic matrix of a country did not appear overnight. Its causes run deep down in the collective consciousness of a populace. This apathy towards the birth of a baby girl, how far back does it go in History? The status of women in early Indian society was an enviable one. They could avail of the highest learning and there were many seers and philosophers among them. Ghosha, Apala, Lopamudra, Vishwvara, Surya, Indrani, Yami, Romasha – all these names highlight the position and the esteem which women enjoyed in the Vedic period. As far as the history of ordinary womenfolk goes, their position on the whole was free. Girls were normally not married till they were in their late teens and sometimes even later. They had a fair amount of choice in the selection of a mate, which is evidenced by the – then prevalence of the "swayamvara-system". The cases of Sita, Damayanti, Draupadi, Shakuntala are instances of the choice women enjoyed in choosing their husbands.
Nonetheless, there are episodes in the lives of these same prominent women in the Indian epics and myths that can be questioned as revealing quite another status of women in India. For example, was Shakuntala abandoned by her birth parents? Was the amnesia of her husband voluntary? Why was Sita found by King Janaka in a field? Was she left there by her birth parents to die? Later on in her life why was she required to time and again prove her purity and fidelity to her husband? Why is her death shrouded in mystery? The reference to ‘patal prabesh’ could allude to either suicide or murder. Draupadi in the Mahabharatha was subjugated to play wife to five men at the same time while apparently she had given her heart away to only Arjuna. Some analysts argue that the wrath of this scorned woman was the major cause of the bloody war that forms the central motif of the epic. Is there any substance to historians’ claims that the invasion of foreigners into our adversely affected the position of women resulting in the rigid systems like child marriage, the shaving of widows’ heads, the widespread practice of dowry and Sati? That a dowry had to be paid, or still has to be paid, to get a girl married, does it not in a way define her as a liability that has to be passed on from one man to another? This same liability had to be burnt alive on the same pyre as her husband as subsequent to his demise she was perceived to be not just another mouth to feed, but also a corrupting influence on society, and therefore again a burden as she would no longer serve any honorable ‘purpose’.
In post independent India, the Indian woman has improved her social status considerably. Her legal disabilities with regard to marriage, inheritance, guardianship and adoption have been removed. She inherits, by right, the property of her father on the basis of equality with her brothers. With regard to her economic rights, she can hold and acquire property and can enter public services and can take to any profession. Things are quite as they should be at least on paper but the question remains as to whether it is the same in practice, whether she herself actively contributes to creating and maintaining this perception of girls as only second best? There is an undeniable prevalent perception that the girl is not expected to add to the family income or financially support her parents in their old age. So the girl’s education is secondary to that of a boy. In modern India, however, girls are educated at par with boys at least in the upper, upper-middle and middle classes. But, wonder of wonders, I am told that the degrees and diplomas that many, if not all, of these girls earn help to make their marriage prospects better! So it is commonplace even today to find Indian girls with Master’s and PhD’s, Engineering and Accounting qualifications not in any active profession! It is understandable if a woman wants to take a break from her career post child-birth and return a few years later. But I find it unfathomable that qualified young girls actually look forward to domestic bliss after marriage.
If the allusion to such a broad spectrum of things seems irrelevant to the primary issue I started of with - female foeticide -I can only say that issues must be looked at from inside out. In a country of more than a billion population, any proposed cure from the externals, be it through moral policing or legislation, imposing penalties or threatening with imprisonment, cannot uproot this evil. Things can improve rather with the spread of education, real education that empowers a woman, with the active intervention of men and women alike who would think differently to lead a change. To begin with parents of girls must endeavor to build self-esteem in their girls, instill into them that they belong not only in the family but also in society, that they can and should make a difference, to leave the world a better place than they found it. Then perhaps there will be widespread jubilation and celebration at the birth of every girl child.
Photo credit: Salvatore Barbera