Since the late 1970s when the technology for sex determination first came into being, sex-selective abortion has unleashed a saga of horror. Experts are calling it “sanitised barbarism”. Demographic trends indicate the country is fast heading towards a million female foetuses aborted each year.
Although foetal sex determination and sex selection is a criminal offence in India, the practice is rampant. Private clinics with ultrasound machines are doing brisk business. Everywhere, people are paying to know the sex of an unborn child. And paying more to abort the female child. The technology has even reached remote areas through mobile clinics. Dr. Puneet Bedi, obstetrician and specialist in foetal medicine, says these days he hardly sees a family with two daughters. People are getting sex determination done even for the first child, he says.
Spreading like a virus a recent media workshop on the issue of sex selection and female foeticide brought home the extent of the problem. Held in Agra in February, the workshop was organised by UNICEF, Business Community Foundation, and the Centre for Advocacy and Research. Doctors, social scientists, researchers, activists, bureaucrats, journalists told their stories of what they were doing to fight the problem.
If the 1991 Census showed that two districts had a child sex ratio (number of girls per thousand boys) less than 850; by 2001 it was 51 districts. Child rights activist Dr. Sabu George says foeticide is the most extreme form of violence against women. “Today a girl is several times more likely to be eliminated before birth than die of various causes in the first year. Nature intended the womb to be a safe space. Today, doctors have made it the most unsafe space for the female child,” he says. He believes that doctors must be held responsible — “They have aggressively promoted the misuse of technology and legitimised foeticide.”
Researchers and scholars use hard-hitting analogy to emphasise the extent of the problem. Dr. Satish Agnihotri, senior IAS officer and scholar who has done extensive research on the issue, calls the technology “a weapon of mass destruction”. Dr. Bedi refers to it as genocide: “More than 6 million killed in 20 years. That’s the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust.”
Foeticide is also one of the most common causes of maternal mortality. The sex of the foetus can be determined only around 14-16 weeks. This means most sex selective abortions are late. Abortion after 20 weeks is illegal in India. Donna Fernandes, Vimochana, a Bangalore-based NGO, says foeticide is related to a host of other social problems as varied as privatisation of medical education and dowry. Karnataka has the highest number of private medical colleges. Healthcare turning commodity has led to terrifying consequences. Adds Fernandes, “Wherever green revolution has happened foeticide has increased. With more landholdings and wealth inheritance dowry has increased. Daughters are considered an economic liability. Today, people don’t want their daughters to study higher — a more well-educated groom will demand more dowry.”
Ironically, as income levels increase, sex determination and sex selection is increasing. The most influential pockets have the worst sex ratios. Take Punjab for instance — 793 girls for every 1,000 boys against the national figure of 927. Or South Delhi — one of the most affluent localities of the Capital — 760. According to Satara-based advocate Varsha Deshpande, small families have come at the cost of the girl child.
In patriarchal States like Rajasthan where infanticide has existed for centuries, this new technology has many takers. Meena Sharma, 27, television journalist from Rajasthan, who did a series of sting operations across four States last year, says, “Today, people want to pretend they are modern and that they do not discriminate between a girl and a boy. Yet, they will not hesitate to quietly go to the next village and get an ultrasound done.”
Sharma was determined to expose the widespread malpractice. She travelled with pregnant women as “decoys” across four States and more than 13,000 km to do a series of sting operations. She says more than 100 doctors of the 140 they met were ready to do a sex selective abortion, some as late as the seventh month. “We were shocked at the greed we saw — doctors did not even ask why we wanted to abort, far from dissuading us from doing so,” she says.
What’s the solution? Varsha Deshpande says the PCPNDT Act (Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques — Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) is very well conceived and easy to use. “We have done 17 sting operations across Maharashtra and got action taken against more than 25 doctors,” says Varsha. She adds that other laws for violence against women such as dowry, domestic violence, rape, put the control in the hands of the police which is biased. Therefore, even though the law exists, offenders get away. This law preventing sex determination and sex selection is much easier to use, she says.
Akhila Sivadas, Centre for Advocacy and Research, Delhi, agrees that the law is very well conceived and the need of the hour is legal literacy to ensure the law is implemented. “The demand and supply debate has been going on for some time. Doctors say there is a social demand and they are only fulfilling it. They argue that social attitudes must change. However, in this case supply fuels demand. Technology will have to be regulated. Technology in the hands of greedy, vested interests, cannot be neutral. There is a law to prevent misuse and we must be able to use it,” she says. CFAR is currently partnering with local NGOs in six districts of Rajasthan to help ensure implementation of the law.
On the “demand” side, experts such as Dr. Agnihotri argue that women’s participation in workforce, having disposable incomes and making a contribution to larger society will make a difference to how women are seen. Youth icons and role models such as Sania Mirza are making an impact, he says.
Others feel there needs to be widespread visible contempt and anger in society against this “genocide” — “the kind we saw against the Nithari killings,” says Dr. Bedi. “Today nobody can say female foeticide is not their problem.” Time we all did our bit to help save the girl child. Time’s running out.
A) Which of the following will Dr. George agree to?