Monday, June 30, 2008
Killing Female Babies in India
BAGHPAT, INDIA - Six years ago, Sandhya Sharma lived in a mountain village in Himachal Pradesh, the land of snowy mountains that is nestled in the western Himalayan range.
Sharma, 26, had never left her village before she was brought here, to the Indo-Gangetic plains of Uttar Pradesh, India's most densely populated state, married to a man whose language and culture were unknown to her.
Sharma talked about the deep isolation she felt immediately after her marriage.
"At first I never spoke to people. When I did, no one would understand me, so I cried a lot," said Sharma as she gently fussed over her year-old twins.
Such set-ups are neither marriages of convenience, nor of choice. But in the northwestern states of Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, such arrangements are on the rise. It's a trend that seems strange in a culture where language, caste and regional identity are so deeply and separately treasured. But take one look at the 2001 national census and the numbers offer an explanation – they reflect the sad saga of the killing of baby girls and aborting female fetuses in India.
As the Indian population has grown, the country's ratio between girls to boys has declined. With a national average of 927 girls for every 1,000 boys, the ratio for children from infancy to age 6 is 798 girls to 1,000 boys in Punjab, 819 girls in Haryana and 916 in Uttar Pradesh, according to the 2001 census of India.
Over 27 per cent of India's 593 districts have an adult population ratio of under 900 females for every, 1,000 males, indicating a long-standing practice of female infanticide and feticide.
That means thousands of men can't find brides in their areas, a shortage that is felt particularly in states where the practice of female infanticide, and now feticide, is practised and accepted.
The British medical journal The Lancet recently estimated that 500,000 female fetuses are aborted each year in India solely because of their gender.
It's hard to tell whether marriages of majboori or helpless compulsion are a rising trend. The stories, to date, are anecdotal, and research on them is limited. But social workers documenting the impact of female infanticide and feticide on society insist that such marriages are on the rise.
"They are importing women from all over," said Davinder Singh Dhamo, who runs the Navodya Lok Chetna Kalyan Samiti, a non-governmental organization that has worked hard to advocate for the rights of girls, and that has fought against ultrasound clinics that are aiding the feticide business.
"In every village there are a few women who have come from far-flung areas – from Assam, from Bihar, and Jharkhand, for example."
Loneliness and culture shock shape the experiences of many of the women who've been traded casually by their families, poor mountain dwellers or impoverished rural folk for whom the spectre of dowry and the lifelong financial burdens it promises ease the crime of selling or sending their daughters far, far away.
Beyond the interstate marriages fixed through personal ties and word-of-mouth, is the more sinister trade in trafficking women, which analysts say, is on the rise. Dhamo has a vault full of horrific tales about women sold off through auctions. Among them is the tale of Sonia, a young woman from Banaras who was sold for $1,000 before a sea of curious faces.
The business in trafficking women for marriages wouldn't be thriving quite so much if female feticide and infanticide were under control. In April, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh termed female feticide "a national shame."
"The practice (of female feticide) is rising and it's all about money," said Sabu George, a researcher and activist who has worked in this area for several years.
"There are increasing numbers of doctors getting involved in this profession. Let us wait for the 2011 census and we will see."
More marriages of a forced nature are taking place every day, according to George, who fears that failure to implement laws against feticide will only add to this small but growing population of unnatural unions.
Several decades ago, men from villages in these parts trekked across India in search of brides. Almost all such marriages were second marriages, borne of desperation – a widower's desire to remarry after being spurned by a village girl on account of his age.
That was the fate of Tanjala, 35, from Bihar, who was married 20 years ago to Lal Mohammad, now 60, in Ibrahimpur, in Uttar Pradesh. Her friend and village mate, Sameema, 32, also from Bihar, was married to a man 28 years her senior when she was just 17.
"It was hard for my husband to find a young woman willing to marry him so they looked outside the state," said Tanjala.
"It was so difficult when we first came," said Sameema, whispering so that other women in the village would not hear her. "People would call us names and abuse us under their breath."