Indian filmgoers have a weakness for feel-good song-and-dance spectaculars. So it's not surprising that Matrubhoomi: A Nation Without Women won a handful of international prizes, but flopped at home. It is a tale of unrelieved horror. An innocent young girl is sold to a rural family of five sons and married to all five, plus the father. In the end, the whole woman-less village gets into the act and murderous fights break out for her favours. The film ends with the lass giving birth to a daughter.
Is this a nightmarish fantasy dreamed up by man-hating feminists?
To Western audiences, perhaps, but in India, the notion of “a nation without women” is no fantasy. It could be the future. So many unborn and newly-born girls are being killed as a result of a deep-seated preference for male heirs that millions of young men will find it hard to marry.
At the moment, according to figures from the 2001 census, the national ratio of girls aged 0-to-6 to boys is 927 to 1,000. The normal figure should be 950 to 1,000. However, this conceals enormous regional and social differences. According to the British NGO ActionAid, the situation is worst in the northern state of Punjab. "The most extreme case that we found in our research was among wealthy Punjabi families where in some communities there's only 300 girls to every 1,000 boys,” says Laura Turquet, ActionAid's women's rights policy official.
"The real horror of the situation is that, for women, avoiding having daughters is a rational choice. But for wider society it's creating an appalling and desperate state of affairs," said Ms Turquet. Despite India's growing prosperity – or perhaps because of it — there is growing pressure on women to produce sons, because girls are seen as an expense, rather than an asset. To marry them off, parents have to pay a huge dowry. “Spend 500 rupees now and save 50,000 rupees later,” is a slogan which every parent has heard.
|"The most extreme case that we found in our research was among wealthy Punjabi families where in some communities there's only 300 girls to every 1,000 boys.”|
The practice also reflects a trend towards ever-smaller families. Some couples now choose to have only one child — and they make sure that child will be a boy. Some doctors excuse their connivance in this by describing abortion as a “social duty” which prevents the ill-treatment of unwanted daughters or helps with population control.
Many couples use ultrasound scans to detect female foetuses and then abort them. Although the practice is banned, a study in the leading medical journal The Lancet has estimated that half a million are terminated every year. In some rural areas deliberate neglect of girls, including allowing the umbilical cord to become infected, is used to dispose of unwanted daughters.
This dismal story has recently been documented in yet another report, Disappearing Daughters, from ActionAid and Canada's International Development Research Centre.
Their researchers looked at a representative sample of about 6,500 households in five districts in states already known to have especially skewed sex ratios: Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The sex ratio had dropped in four of the five districts, compared to 2001 census data. And worst of all, there were only 300 girls for every 1,000 boys among upper-caste Hindus in urban areas of Punjab's Fatehgarh Sahib district.
"There's only a third of the girls there should be in those communities. We're talking about whole villages where there are hardly any girls and we're talking about classrooms with no girls in them, and streets where only boys are playing." Ms Turquet said.
This tragedy is no secret in India – the real tragedy is that Indian society, and even stringent legislation — seem powerless to stop it. In April Prime Minister Manmohan Singh – who has three daughters — launched the “Save the Girl Child” campaign. He declared that no nation could claim to be part of a civilised world if it condoned female foeticide. An estimated 50 million girls have been sacrificed because of son preference.
"Census figures illustrate that in some of the richer states the problem is most acute. These states include Punjab which had only 798 girls (per 1,000 boys), Haryana 819, Delhi 868 and Gujarat 883 girls in the 2001 Census. Growing economic prosperity and education levels have not led to a corresponding mitigation in this acute problem," he said.
"Female illiteracy, obscurantist social practices like child marriage or early marriage, dowry, poor nutritional entitlements, taboos on women in public places make Indian women vulnerable. The patriarchal mindset and preference for male children is compounded by unethical conduct on the part of some medical practitioners," the PM said.
But despite the fine words, the gender ratio continues to fall.
A women's rights activist, Dr Ruth Manorama, told MercatorNet, "It is a misconception to think that this is a problem related to extreme poverty and as is revealed, female foeticide is very high in Punjab and Haryana — some of the best-off states in the country.
“Female foeticide is a consequence of traditional gender bias and gender discrimination. Girls are seen as an economic liability and burden, partly because of the very expensive dowry that must accompany her future marriage. However, dowry is not the only cause for the selective abortion of girls; sons carry on the family name and often the business, usually inherit the property and perform the last rites. The poor eliminate their girls because of the poverty situation and for the rich, daughters are seen as less desirable. This is the deep rooted patriarchal society that we live in.”
“In spite of the progress of India on the global stage, the mindset is still primitive”, lamented Dr Manorama, laureate of the 2006 Right Livelihood Award (also known as the Alternative Nobel). “This social evil is deep rooted in Indian ethos and the most shocking fact is that the innovative and high-end technologies are eliminating our girl-child. Attitudinal change is essential to put an end to this social malaise.
“It is most ironic, that advances in medical sciences which are intended to increas the life expectations and quality of life for millions on the contrary are being abused by unscrupulous people to bring about death our of baby girls. Instead there is a culture of death at times being promoted with these innovative techniques, like biopsy, ultrasound, scan tests and amniocentesis, devised to detect genetic abnormalities.”
And Western technology is being used to promote this genocide. Only last month Google and Microsoft were forced to withdraw controversial advertisements from their websites which had been offering sex selection products, home kits and various genetic technique services in India.
The government has tried to ban ultrasound examinations for sex determination since 1994. Pregnant women who seek help for sex selection can be sentenced to a three-year prison sentence and fined 50,000 rupees (US$1,200), while doctors can be suspended. But there have been few prosecutions. In fact, tougher regulations against sex-selection abortions have had the perverse effect of increasing the level of infanticide.
The words of a woman doctor cited in the Disappearing Daughters report spell out the problem: “Even though many families are happy to have a girl if they already have a son, the social stigma of just having girls is enormous. Just today I was treating a woman who has two daughters already and she is suffering acute anxiety that her third child will be another girl. The abuse she will receive from her in-laws and her husband will make her life very difficult if she has another daughter.
“There needs to be a serious step-change in attitudes. India might be developing economically, but in terms of our attitude to women, we’re not moving forward at all.”
Anjalee Lewis is a freelance journalist writing from Mumbai.