The 40th anniversary of legalised abortion in India went by unnoticed. Women's groups remained silent. The government was quiet. And there was virtually no mention of this landmark legislation in media.
Perhaps there was a reason for the sobriety. Forty years after the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, abortion is now increasingly being used to kill unborn daughters. The situation is grim and United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) says 7,000 fewer girls are born everyday in India than should be. The Lancet reckons that between three and six million girls were aborted in India over the past decade. And our latest Census figures reveal that the male-female ratio is the worst since we started counting in 1961 - just 914 girls for every 1,000 boys.
Some people call it a gendercide. But no matter what term you use - female foeticide, sex selective abortion - our daughters are going to inherit a world where women will (literally) count for less and less, and crimes, including rape, will spike, and so will discrimination in all forms.
Sex selective abortion doesn't happen because abortion is legal but because the tests to determine the sex of an unborn child are becoming cheaper and easily available. Ultrasound tests are now a part of the drill. It's illegal for doctors to tell mothers the sex of their unborn children. It's illegal to then kill them if they are female. There has been a law in place to check this since 1996. But 14 years later, despite six million missing girls, there have been a sum total of 55 convictions.
If this is a law that the State doesn't bother to implement, then part of the blame must lie in the gap between legislation and social reality. Where honour killings prevail, where women suffer chronic hunger and deprivation, where dowry (like sex selective abortion) is banned by law but persists all the same, how much control can women really have over their fertility? When to give birth, how many to give birth to, and ensuring that they continue to give birth until they produce that much coveted male heir is often determined by larger family and social pressure. Complicit in all this is the medical profession that diagnoses and aborts unwanted babies.
Mara Hvistendahl, the author of Unnatural Selection writes how doctors at All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), where the amniocentesis test was unveiled in 1975, were happy to tell women the sex of the foetus, and abort it if so desired. When the State's goal is a small family norm, you will hear these arguments: 1) It's better to abort a female foetus than have an unwanted child. 2) It's better to have an abortion than repeated pregnancies. 3) What about the right of a woman who has had, say, three daughters, to have the son she desires?
These are specious arguments for the following reasons: 1) If the abortion of a female foetus isn't an option, the child will be embraced and loved, not unwanted. 2) Repeated pregnancies? You can stop at one or two if you stop thinking of daughters as not 'completing' the family, and 3) The right of a woman to have an abortion is inviolate, but to have an abortion because she is carrying a girl isn't a choice she can make. When individual choice and the larger social good clash, social good must win.
Last week, Maharashtra's Satara district saw a minor revolution where parents who had made their disappointment clear by naming their third or fourth daughters Nakoshi (unwanted) were made to go through a renaming ceremony. As many as 265 Nakoshis were allowed to choose a new name. Waiting for her ceremony to begin, 10-year-old Nakoshi Bavdhane told a Hindu reporter that she was excited by her new name, Aishwariya, the goddess of wealth (though she could well have had the popular actress in mind).
But when gender bias begins with a name, renaming can only be a small step forward in a long, hard journey ahead.
(Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.)