Gender-selection abortions spreading in India
Rick Westhead/TORONTO STAR
JHAJJAR, INDIA—Muskan Goel is a beautiful 5-year-old girl with an expressive face and saucer eyes who would stand out in any crowd.
But in the north Indian farming service centre Jhajjar, Muskan commands attention simply because she’s a young girl.
She’s one of 16 girls who’ve been admitted to the school over the past year, compared to 43 boys, a symptom of this nation’s failing struggle against gender-selection.
India is a fast-changing country where luxury companies, car makers and cell-phone manufacturers all covet a piece of the growing market. But it’s also a nation with deep-rooted, centuries-old cultural traditions.
Families here have typically pined for a son, to carry on a father’s lineage, contribute to his household’s income and care for his parents as they age. Parents also want a boy because someone with their own last name is required to light their funeral pyre when they are cremated.
For the past four decades, since ultrasound machines were introduced in India, parents desperate for a son to carry on their lineage have had technology on their side, turning a cultural preference into a ruthlessly efficient girl-killing system. If their fetus is female, some mothers opt for an abortion rather than carry to full term.
That’s because even though it’s been illegal for 50 years, many families still pay costly dowries to have their daughters marry. When they do get married, those women leave their home to join their new husband and contribute to his family.
There are estimates that over the past decade alone, more than 10 million unborn females have been aborted across India.
The results of India’s latest once-a-decade census suggest that the gender-selection abortions are spreading beyond the traditional areas of devout Hindus in northern India. It shows there are 914 girls for every 1,000 boys under age 6, a steady decline from 927 girls in 2001 and 962 girls in 1981.
(Boys outnumber girls by a ratio of about 106 to 100 at birth in Canada, according to Statistics Canada).
Nowhere is the disparity greater than in Jhajjar, a district of wheat, mustard and grape seed fields in India’s Haryana state where there are only 774 girls for every 1,000 boys. The district is a centre of female feticide, local business leaders, politicians and police officials say.
But in Jhajjar township, a community of 50,000 that shares the same name as its larger district, opinion remains sharply divided over whether the trend is a cause for concern.
While some local leaders say more education and better policing is needed to stop the practice, others contend there’s nothing to worry about. Abortions, they say, help limit the size of families, which is a positive step towards improving maternal health, while women from other parts of India offset the shortage of marriage-eligible women.
On a recent weekday, Usha Gehlot ushered several visitors through Kidz Shaishav, a school she founded four years ago in Jhajjar for children aged two to seven.
Gehlot said she sees firsthand the effect of selective abortions in her classes. Of the 59 students she has admitted since January 2010, 43, or 75 per cent, are boys. While some families may simply choose not to send their daughters to school, Gehlot suspects something more sinister is responsible for the skewed figure — female feticide.
“It is a big problem,” Gehlot said. “When you have so many more boys, they get more aggressive, and we see that in our class. I think you’ll see more problems in the future with violence and rapes because of frustrated men.”
In Haryana and other states, educators have struggled for years to coax women to stop going to “kudi-maar,” or “daughter-killers.” Some officials have pushed state governments to pay families a bonus for having a daughter, while others pressed for changes to Indian law.
In 1994, India’s parliament passed a law calling for a prison term of up to three years and a fine of $320 for anyone who administers or takes a prenatal sex-determination test.
Not everyone in Jhajjar is worried about the widening gender ratio.
Sitting in a crowded chai shop, amid a row of two-storey grey concrete buildings, city councillor Kishor Saini gestured to a nearby open sewer.
“That is our biggest problem,” he said. “Sewers and drinking water. Many parts of our city don’t have water supplies and the government pipes are leaking.”
Saini says he doesn’t consider feticide a crime, or even a pressing social problem.
“The first thing that comes into peoples’ mind is to have a boy,” he shrugged. “It used to be that parents had three or four or five kids and they didn’t give a damn if they had a girl. But now they want smaller families and they do care.”
While several bachelors complain that already there aren’t enough eligible brides in Jhajjar, Saini says that’s not a worry. Haryana is a wealthy state that attracts migrant workers, and their daughters, from poor states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
“There are women to be married,” Saini said.
After spending less than an hour in town, several visitors this week were told about two health clinics in Jhajjar that purportedly provide ultrasounds and abortions.
A female journalist working with the Star entered the first clinic on Wednesday afternoon and told a doctor in charge that she was pregnant and wanted to find out if she was carrying a girl. The doctor nodded and provided the name and address of Hemlata, a doctor at another clinic.
A few minutes later, the reporter introduced herself to Hemlata. Operating out of an office barely bigger than an office cubicle, Hemlata spent 15 minutes grilling the journalist, at one point demanding her cell phone to see if their conversation was being recorded.
“This is so dangerous,” Hemlata said. “Can I trust you?”
Ultimately, Hemlata said she wouldn’t help and ended their conversation.
Later, Hemlata said in an interview that she doesn’t offer the illegal ultrasounds or abortions to anyone.
“I don’t allow anyone an ultrasound before they are six months pregnant unless they are bleeding,” she said, sitting next to her examination room, which consisted of little more than a bench, a flashlight and a box of disposable plastic gloves.
Hemlata was asked how the gender ratio has become so lopsided in Jhajjar if no one is performing illegal ultrasounds and abortions.
“Maybe it’s because of miscarriages and bad pregnancies,” she said.
Police inspector Ajmer Singh says that while he considers the illegal abortions tantamount to murder, he’s helpless without a complainant.
“Who’s going to complain?” asked Puchalapalli Sandhya, a social activist in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh who has worked on women’s rights issues for decades.
“The mother of the unborn won’t, and neither will the ultrasound operator.”
Sandhya said the only solution to India’s female feticide debacle is improved education, which will give a woman the chance to generate a monthly income when she gets married, a development that should bolster her leverage in family decisions.
“We have to keep pushing to ensure that young girls become better educated,” Sandhya said.
“Right now, too many women just feel guilty for being women,” she said. “Having a girl baby is a burden. It’s in the blood here and it’s something that has to change.”