India must follow South Korea in empowering women if we are to tackle the preference for male children
YASMIN Khan, a middle-class woman living in a Mumbai suburb, already had two daughters. Anxious for a son, she went in for a third pregnancy and was desperate to find out the sex of her unborn child. So she did something illegal: she went to a clinic where the doctor-owner (also illegally) performed an amniocentesis and told her she would have another girl. Yasmin opted for an abortion and then tried to dispose of the dead foetus.
Unfortunately for her, she was caught. Her response? “Main sabse mafi maang rahi hoon, isse zyada kya karun? (I seek everybody’s pardon, what more can I do?)” She added that she could not afford to bring up three daughters. All this was reported in detail on the front page of the Mumbai Mirror, with a picture of a tearful Yasmin.
The case highlights one of the most shameful aspects of our society, namely, the utter neglect of the Indian girl child. Despite the big talk supporting reservation for women at all political levels –from the panchayat to Parliament – the sad fact is that we remain an essentially male-oriented people. Yasmin was only doing what millions of Indian women feel they are forced to do because of the compulsions arising from obsolete Indian customs and traditions.
Daughters are an economic burden to their parents due to the costly dowries that have to be provided for them when they get married. What’s more, they usually leave their parents to enter the households of their in-laws, whereas sons, even when they get married, tend to stay with their parents and look after them. In developing countries like India, with no proper social support system like free healthcare and old-age pension, the dependence on sons is that much greater. There’s also the silly Hindu custom that a son is required to light his father’s funeral pyre (though former Cabinet Minister Renuka Chowdhury defied this recently by lighting her father’s pyre since she has no brothers).
In north India, where female foeticide and female infanticide are
particularly prevalent, there is an average ratio of 120 boys to 100 girls.
The result is a shocking statistic: in north India, where female foeticide and female infanticide are particularly prevalent, there is an average ratio of 120 boys to 100 girls. The only other country that has a similar statistic is China (in developed and socially advanced countries, on the other hand, the ratio is more or less equal). In China, too, there is a strong preference for male children, which is made far worse and complicated by Beijing’s “one child per family” policy.
To control China’s population growth rate, Beijing has been stipulating for many years that couples should have only one child. It has produced results but since Chinese families, much like Indian families, have a preference for males, many of them have ensured that their one child is a boy. Which is why female foeticide and female infanticide is just as prevalent there as in India. Be that as it may, what can be done to reverse matters and make Indian society more equitable and less male-centric? The answers are all long-term. There are no short fixes.
In a foolish and thoughtless knee-jerk reaction to check the declining girl-child ratio, the Maharashtra government recently proposed that female foeticide be treated as murder and culprits booked under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). In other words, should such legislation go through, Yasmin could be prosecuted for murder. However, as the Forum Against Sex Selection, a group of NGOs, has rightly pointed out, this will only increase illegal abortions and make access to safe abortions more difficult for women.
PART of the answer is, of course, greater female literacy. The 2011 Census shows that, while the literacy rate for males has gone up to an encouraging 82%, that of females remains a dismal 65%. Educated women are more likely to make more enlightened decisions about their children than illiterate ones. That’s common sense. But it is only part of the answer. Even in fairly literate states like Punjab and Haryana, where the families tend to be relatively small, there is still a male child preference.
South Korea was also once obsessed by the male child, right up to the 1990s, and had a skewed sex ratio. Then, a dramatic change took place. Women began to earn as much as men at the workplace, sex discrimination legal suits were filed and there were equal rights rulings by the courts. Women became not just politically empowered, but economically empowered as well. Son preference became old fashioned and South Korea’s culture changed. That is the road that India has to take. g
The writer, former Editor of Reader’s Digest and The Indian Express, is a population expert and author of Family Planning Success Stories: Asia, Africa, Latin America. (firstname.lastname@example.org)