Sometime in the middle of an hour-long interview on female foeticide, Joanna Kerr, the South Africa-based chief executive officer of ActionAid, a global non-profit, asks a rhetorical question: “Have we become animals? How else can one explain mothers allowing female foeticide?”
Maybe we have.
In Beed, Maharashtra, a doctor couple, nicknamed the “Butchers of Beed”, were arrested in May for helping parents to murder their unborn daughters. The two have been thriving on foeticide for more than 20 years (24 abortions were carried out in the clinic every day). Reports say the duo fed female foetuses to dogs to evade detection. They are now in police custody and the case will come up for hearing on June 30.
Rampant female foeticide has impacted India’s sex ratio. The 2011 census shows that the ratio of girls to 1,000 boys (up to the age of six) is 914, a decrease from 927 a decade ago, in the 2001 census. According to the United Nations, while an estimated 15 million girls were not born in India over the last decade, the figure is 25 million in China, where the State's “one-child policy has become a one-son policy”. But the gap between the two giants is narrowing, warns Kerr. “In 10 years, India may overtake China”.
Female foeticide in India is not region- or class-specific; it is rampant in rural as well as in urban areas. Kerr, who was in India to launch a campaign on the adverse sex ratio, says foeticide is plain murder — and adds forcefully: “When a murder happens, the government becomes a party in the case. So why doesn’t the same happen when foeticide is reported?” Foeticide is on the rise across South East Asia thanks to the economic downturn and smaller family sizes.
India has a strong law to curb foeticide: the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Technique (PC & PNDT) Act, 2003. But it is business as usual for many reasons. First is the lax implementation of the law. “During our drive against female foeticide in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, we found that in many areas the appropriate authorities — like the Chief Medical and Health officer (CHMO) at the district level — had no information about the provisions of the Act,” recounts Malay Kumar of Prayatn, an NGO that has been leading the fight against foeticide for more than a decade now.
Second, a conspiracy of silence shrouds such incidents because the involved parties — families and doctors — have reasons to keep it under wraps. “The people who are supposed to implement the Act — officials and doctors — belong to the same community they are supposed to monitor and many of them see nothing wrong in such practices,” KK Dikshit, a Gwalior-based medical practitioner, who is known in the region for using the Right to Information Act to take on his colleagues who indulge in this illegal activity, tells HT over the phone.
There is a well-laid-out system that these doctors follow: as per the law, sonography clinics are supposed to submit ‘Form F’ with details of pregnancy-related tests of their clients. The completed forms then have to be submitted in the first week of every month to the CHMO. But in many cases completed forms are never submitted and the panel that is supposed to scrutinise the forms fails to meet regularly. Unscrupulous doctors have also started using fake addresses of patients or giving the wrong reasons for doing a sonography and even using mediators (auto drivers and quacks who roam in the villages) to get clients keen to undergo sex determination tests.
But then just ensuring the birth of a girl child is not enough: in June, the Jaisalmer police arrested the father of a baby girl for killing her by deliberately denying her treatment. “Discrimination can sometimes be very subtle and so we need to have a life cycle approach to save our girls,” advocates Kerr.
In association with ActionAid, Prayatn has been pursuing this 'life cycle approach' in many villages of MP and Rajasthan. The communities are divided into groups and each group is sensitised on gender issues and discrimination. One important target category is adolescent boys who through training and dialogue are taught about gender rights and masculinity. Children are also taught to understand gender-based behaviour in society and encouraged to expose gender discrimination at their homes.
After 10 years of community-specific activities and advocacy with policy makers and the medical fraternity, attitudes have started improving, says Kumar. “But the battle is far from over. The government must declare female foeticide and the declining sex ratio a national emergency to improve the scenario,” he adds. There is no reason to disagree with him on this.