Son preference in India leads to illegal abortion of female fetuses and severe sexism. But the tide is turning, as more women are succeeding in business and sports, and police are raiding clinics that perform sex-based abortions.
Weakened and traumatized after two miscarriages and weeks of excruciating bleeding, Ritu decided to stop trying for a baby. This was to the dismay of her traditional Indian family, who wanted a male heir. Instead, the 32-year-old housewife – who at 19 was married to a man of her parents’ choice – decided to raise her four daughters to become “as capable as a son”.
This is what happens when there aren’t enough girls, when people kill their girls: girls are bought and forced to become maids and sex slaves.
“They will finish school, then go to university and then become pilots or engineers,” Rito says. She lives in a village in the Hisar district of the conservative northern state of Haryana and bears one name, like many rural women. “But they have to get out of here,” she says as she washes a bucket of clothes and looks over her shoulder to see if her husband is around. He did not agree to leave their daughters home before the wedding. “Otherwise they will achieve nothing… like me.”
Preference for children
The preference for sons in India – who are seen as breadwinners, carry on the family name and perform last rites for their deceased parents – has led to the illegal abortion of millions of female fetuses, especially in northern states such as Haryana.
But the latest government data and anecdotal evidence from women and health experts suggest that the trend is changing. This is the result of education, the success of prominent Indian women in business and sports, and the crackdown on clinics that perform illegal abortions on girls. For the first time, the 2019-21 National Family Health Survey (NFHS) found that there are more women than men — 1,020 women per 1,000 men, to be exact. In the last NFHS for 2015-2016, there were 991 females for every 1,000 males. India’s child sex ratio reached an all-time low at the 2011 census, with 914 females aged 0-6 years for every 1,000 males. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the normal sex ratio at birth is about 105 boys for every 100 girls.
Women and dignitaries say sexist attitudes are beginning to change. Fathers began to see that daughters could contribute financially rather than be a burden, and could claim a dowry when they were married.
There are no official data on gender-selective abortions. But the United Nations agency for sexual and reproductive health, the United Nations Population Fund, estimates that India lost about 590,000 girls to prenatal sex selection every year between 2015 and 2020.
Gender expert Manasi Mishra has spoken out against female feticide in Haryana for three decades. She constantly explains how this encourages marital trafficking, rape and “women’s participation” because there are more men than women.
Through programs such as sports for girls and women’s leadership training, and by encouraging fathers to raise their daughters, Mishra has sought to enhance the position of women in society.
Sunil Gaglan performs a similar task. Several years ago, he persuaded millions of Indians to post selfies online in honor of their daughters. By doing so, he promoted the government’s Save the Girl Child campaign in 2015, which wanted to end gender-selective abortions. Now he travels through villages to talk to locals about domestic violence and gender discrimination.
“It was a very patriarchal mindset…but when I had my two daughters, everything changed,” said Jaglan, a former village chief in Haryana. “I knew I wanted to create a better world for them.”
This can be done by getting more women into work, says Mishra of the New Delhi-based Center for Social Research.
World Bank data shows that India has one of the lowest employment rates of women in the world, with only 20 percent of women in the workforce. A report by McKinsey showed that with more women at work, India could add $770 billion to its GDP by 2025. Pointing to the success of wrestlers Sakshi Malik and Finch Phogat, says Mishra, referring to the success of wrestlers Sakshi Malik and Finch Phogat: This daughter’s aversion begins to fade.” The two women won gold medals at the Commonwealth Games last month. The Haryana government rewarded the women with 15 million rupees each (about 190,000 euros).
chess for marriage
But dozens of women in Haryana describe how they were evicted from marriage, locked up in their homes, and beaten by their husbands when they did not wear a headscarf in front of other men. They think there is still a long way to go.
“I can’t work outside. Every time I say it, I get beaten up,” said Rina, 45, who was trafficked three times when she was 12.
The women, who gathered at a community center in the village of Blawas for a lecture by Jalan, say people are increasingly afraid of arrest for aborting girls. Ultrasound examination of pregnant women is done by health authorities, who investigate clinics if they suspect gender-selective terminations. “You never know when the police use booby traps (in clinics), pretending to be doctors or receptionists,” Kavita says. “One of my cousins saw it a few years ago when she was there for a routine ultrasound.”
Two women were arrested in August at a private clinic in the Indian capital, New Delhi, for their involvement in gender-selective abortion practices. In May, health officials raided a house on the outskirts of town and police arrested a doctor and two others for what they described as involvement in the killing of female fetuses. Earlier that month, police raided a private clinic and arrested 13 people for conducting illegal check-ups and abortions in the eastern state of Odisha.
Despite the deterrence, the preference for sons runs deep, leading fathers to choose to continue having children, Al-Nisa and Jajlan said.
As men smoke their traditional horn outside under the trees, women describe how India’s skewed sex ratio has affected their lives.
Mamata Singh, 25, was put in a car with five other 12-year-old girls and drove 2,500 km from the northeastern state of Assam to Haryana, where they were sold for marriage. Singh was bought by a 35-year-old man for Rs 25,000, while the others were sold to men in their fifties and sixties.
“It’s what happens when there aren’t enough girls, when people kill their girls,” Singh said. “It still happens. Girls are bought and forced to become maids and maids.”
Her 11-year-old daughter looks away.
“My son will only succeed because he is born. But my daughter needs my support,” said Singh, who is determined to help her daughter finish school. “I will not allow her to be treated like an animal.”
This article originally appeared on the IPS partner Thomson Reuters News Foundation