India’s Skewed Sex Ratio

Deepali Gaur Singh

The extremely skewed sex ratio in India tells a story of the "girl deficit" caused by banned practices undertaken by people of different religions, social strata and education levels.

This is the second post in a series of articles examining sex-selective abortion in India, by our Global Perspectives correspondent Deepali Gaur Singh. For the complete series, please click here.

The extremely skewed sex ratio in India—not just in one small part of the country but in virtually every part—tells a story … a story of the "girl deficit" caused by banned practices undertaken by people of different religions, social strata and education levels. With technology comes access, and when that technology penetrates the heartlands of poverty, indigent people have found ways of using it to their advantage—or at least the perceived "advantages" of rearing a boy as opposed to a girl child. While already accessible to the elite since its advent, over 20 years later ultrasound technology continues to be the most important, accessible and cheapest medical marvel for practitioners of sex selective abortion. Criminalization did nothing to reduce its usage despite the mid-1990s ban preventing doctors from revealing the sex of a fetus. With female fetuses selectively aborted at the rate of 500,000 a year, today India has a skewed sex ratio of 933 females for every one thousand men, according to the 2001 census. Despite what these astounding statistics reveal, prosecutions of the erring doctors have been negligible.

Amniocentesis (meant for checking abnormalities in the fetus) and the use of several such medical practices for sex-selective abortions has caused a severe shortage of women in parts of the country. Two decades hence the results are there to see (PDF). In the western state of Daman & Diu, the girl-to-boy ratio stood at 710 to 1,000. According to the same census, districts with the worst child sex ratio were all in Punjab and Haryana (two of India's wealthiest states), where a quarter of the female population is believed to have disappeared and the sex ratio could now be even as low as 500 or 600 females to 1,000 males. Things are not that rosy in the capital of the country either.

With such depleting ratios, buying wives from outside of the region appears to be the only alternative for many men. And even as women in these parts of the country are crossing from the realm of the "invisible" to the "disappearing" gender, they hardly come at a premium even today. The market here does not work on the "supply and demand" logic. The shortage has not brought an end to the dowry practice or shifted it in the opposite direction. There have even been signs of bride price—an equally abhorrent practice where the poorer families find themselves exploited to sell their daughters at astonishingly low prices, sometimes at even less than the price of cattle. There have also been instances where the combination of poverty and the acute shortage of brides led poor husbands to "lease" their partners for up to Rs.8000 ($200) a month to richer men.

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The shortage of women has in no way increased their value, simply because they are a "scarce commodity." It merely translates into stricter controls and greater restrictions placed over them. And as this acute gender imbalance is causing real social problems, many are resorting to "buying" girls from poorer communities beyond their region. Very often, these migrant brides come from far away places like the eastern Indian states of Orissa and West Bengal, sometimes even from across the border—Bangladesh or Nepal. Often as young as fifteen, some girls are pushed into the immediate task of child-bearing and child-rearing, thousands of miles away from home, serving as cheap labor on agricultural fields.

But it does not stop there. With many families unable to afford more than one bride for their sons, an informal system of fraternal polyandry seems to have found root here—with brothers sharing a wife amongst themselves. Though the system does have its references in Hindu scriptures and epics (like the Mahabharata), in the present context it has only served to institutionalize violence against women, reducing their status to sex slaves.

According to the National Commission on Women, there have been many instances of a woman being the wife of up to seven brothers—a practice that is believed to be spreading. Unchecked female infanticide and sex-selective abortions have so radically upset the balance that as women get increasingly outnumbered in these communities, the level and extent of exploitation—sexual, physical and mental—deepens, severely damaging their health and placing them at risk for HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections. In a patriarchal set-up, a woman's status is defined by matrimony and becomes even more dependent on her ability to produce a male child. Hence, apart from the conjugal duties that she's forced to fulfill with more than one husband, she must also bear children—almost always at least one male child—for each one of the husbands. This places further strain on her reproductive health as a direct consequence of quick and frequent pregnancies.

While laws have existed in India to safeguard women's rights, especially with regard to polyandry, dowry and sex selection (each tied to the other quite intimately), these laws have lacked teeth with law enforcement—who have been steeped themselves under the weight of age-old societal traditions and very often end up breaking the law. Women's groups and organizations have increased pressure on the erring states to implement the PCPNDT (prevention of sex selection) Act of 2003. But precious time is being lost as girls continue to disappear from the demography of the country and young women suffer the consequences of the vacuum left by their absence.

News Violence

Department of Justice Lawyer Argues Angel Dillard’s Letter Posed ‘True Threat’

Michelle D. Anderson

In a U.S. District Court civil trial in Wichita, Kansas, on Tuesday, DOJ trial attorney Richard Goemann argued that it was Dillard’s intent to intimidate and threaten the Wichita-based family doctor.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) sought to prove that anti-abortion activist Angel Dillard’s letter to a Kansas doctor posed a “true threat” in a U.S. District Court civil trial in Wichita, Kansas, on Tuesday.

Using news articles and letters sent to the letter’s recipient, Dr. Mila Means, DOJ trial attorney Richard Goemann argued that it was Dillard’s intent to intimidate and threaten the Wichita-based family doctor.

Based on court testimony, the letter, sent after knowledge of Means’ intent to become the state’s sole abortion provider was public, offered an image of what the doctor might face if she followed through on her plans and continued abortion care training.

The letter said people in the anti-choice movement would soon know where Means shops, drives, and lives.

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“You will be checking under your car every day—because maybe today is the day someone places an explosive under it,” the letter said.

Means testified to the selected eight-person jury that Dillard said in the letter, “It’s not too late to change your mind,” and that a collective, of which Dillard was a member, would do anything they could to stop Means.

The letter also made references to “squirming” fetuses and slain abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, who was killed in a church by Dillard’s associate, Scott Roeder, in 2009.

Dillard told the Associated Press in a 2009 interview that Roeder, in a single act, was able to accomplish what members of the anti-choice movement had not been able to do despite their many efforts. She was quoted as saying he “followed his convictions and I admire that.”

Although she had received anti-abortion letters before, some of which the DOJ introduced as evidence for comparison as to what constitutes a threat, Means said Dillard’s letter frightened her because it suggested murder was a consequence for providing abortion care.

“It sounded scary. It talked about potential bombs under my car,” Means told the court.

Upon learning about the letter, the DOJ in April 2011 filed a civil lawsuit against Dillard for violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. The federal law, signed by former President Bill Clinton in 1994, prohibits threatening or otherwise interfering with access to abortion clinics or providers. Just a year prior to the law’s enactment, Rachel “Shelley” Shannon, an anti-choice terrorist who followed the Army of God Manual, an anti-abortion document shared among extremists, had attempted to murder Tiller.

In August 2013, after the DOJ filed the suit, a federal judge dismissed the DOJ’s claim and said Dillard’s letter constituted constitutionally protected speech.

The DOJ appealed that ruling shortly thereafter.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit issued an opinion in July 2015 saying a jury should be left to decide whether the letter constituted a “true threat,” bringing the case to the U.S. District Court in Wichita.

The DOJ is requesting a civil penalty of $15,000 and $5,000 in damages paid to Means.

Much of Tuesday’s court proceedings focused on jury selection. Some jurors were eliminated, including a man who identified himself as a friend of an attorney in the case, and a woman who said she couldn’t be objective about Dillard’s relationship with Roeder.

Dillard’s defense team, which includes Wichita attorney Craig Shultz and Theresa Sidebotham, founder of the Colorado-based Telios Law, alluded in court to evidence they might use when the case resumes Wednesday.

Sidebotham said Dillard’s letter did not constitute a threat and that lack of evidence was “a huge problem for the U.S.”

Throughout her opening statement, she told potential jurors violence was completely against Dillard’s moral compass and accused the DOJ of being “oversensitive” in how it defines a threat.

She characterized Dillard’s letter as “fairly critical” and “harsh,” but said it was never meant to be threatening. The “consequences” Dillard provide, Sidebotham said, were “simply a list of things to reflect on.”

Dillard’s defense went on to distance the Kansas woman from radical anti-choice activists, saying Dillard only occasionally protested and didn’t know much about “the radical abortion groups.” She also argued that Dillard’s comment about Roeder’s conviction had been taken out of context.

The court will resume the evidence hearings on Wednesday, with Dillard’s defense presenting their evidence to the jury.

News Law and Policy

Congressional Testimony: Anti-Choice Measure Would Turn People of Color Into ‘Suspects in the Exam Room’

Kanya D’Almeida

All of the letter’s 56 signatories are people of color who have had abortions. They say the bill would force providers to interrogate patients’ reasons for seeking care and “erect a political divide” between patients and their physicians.

Dozens of people of color sent a letter to Congress Thursday expressing outrage over the introduction of the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act (PRENDA) of 2016 (HR 4924), which they say threatens the future of abortion care and codifies dangerous racist and sexist stereotypes against Asian American and Pacific Islanders, Black people, and Latinas.

Introduced by Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, the bill seeks to impose criminal penalties on providers who perform abortions knowing that they are sought on the basis of the fetus’ race or sex.

It also seeks to criminalize anyone who coerces a person into seeking a race- or sex-selective abortion; anyone who raises funds for the procedure; or anyone who transports a woman into the United States or across state lines to obtain the abortion—and imposes a penalty ranging from a fine to a five-year prison term.

Cloaked in the language of “nondiscrimination,” the act would achieve the opposite goal, the letter says, by singling out women of color for additional scrutiny based on, among other things, the “gross mischaracterization” of Asian-American communities, in particular, as having a preference for male over female children.

This assumption, referred to in the bill as “son preference,” has no medical or empirical basis—as the letter points out, and as research has shown, birth sex ratios indicate that Asian American and Pacific Islander communities are having more girls on average than their white counterparts.

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All of the letter’s 56 signatories are people of color who have had abortions. They say the bill would force providers to interrogate patients’ reasons for seeking care and “erect a political divide” between patients and their physicians, essentially transforming abortion seekers of color into “suspects in the exam room.”

Signatories say they are deeply troubled by the bill’s racist language, which came to the fore at a recent House hearing during which anti-choice activists and other witnesses evoked a history of eugenics by way of supporting the bill, essentially equating women who choose abortion care to slave owners and white supremacists.

“Several people of color—including immigrant folks, queer folks, and Black folks—walked out of that hearing feeling disgusted by the way terrible stereotypes were used to twist our history, and then put into the congressional record,” Renee Bracey Sherman, one of the original drafters of the letter, said in an interview with Rewire.

“It was so deeply offensive to have to sit there and listen to people like Catherine Davis [of the anti-choice National Black Pro-Life Coalition] invoke the names of Black civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King and Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), saying, ‘They did not march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge so that Black women could have abortions.’”

She pointed out that King was a strong supporter of family planning, while Lewis has been an outspoken proponent of reproductive justice and abortion rights.

Bracey Sherman also said she was disturbed by the fact that Alveda King, a prominent figure in the anti-choice movement, was allowed to submit her testimony in a letter to Congress.

“I kept thinking, She doesn’t speak for me,” Bracey Sherman told Rewire. “I didn’t want her words to be the only ones representing people of color who’ve had abortions, because the overwhelming majority of us don’t regret our choices. I felt that we needed a voice too, we needed our testimony to be heard.”

Bracey Sherman, together with Kristine Kippins, who is the federal policy counsel for the U.S. Policy and Advocacy Program at the Center for Reproductive Rights, and Shivana Jorawar spent the weekend drafting the letter.

“This letter was very personal for me as a Black woman who has had an abortion,” Kippins told Rewire in a phone interview. “I’d never publicly said that I’d had an abortion, and this has really compelled me to speak out.”

She recalled the moment in last week’s hearing when Chairman Franks repeatedly silenced Miriam Yeung, the executive director of National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum and the only pro-choice witness at the hearing.

“At one point Yeung said very quietly, ‘Black women choose abortion,’” Kippins said. “And I realized, she was talking about me. So I felt I had to stand up and say, ‘Yes, I am one of those women, I chose abortion and it was the best possible thing for me. I need people to trust me, and women like me, to make those decisions for ourselves,’” she added.

Her words echo the efforts of reproductive justice advocates like those in the Trust Black Women Partnership who have long fought to assert Black women’s bodily autonomy and push back against a wave of discriminatory laws that directly target or disproportionately impact Black women. These include a recent rash of anti-choice laws that impose medically unnecessary safety regulations on providers and force women to delay care by insisting on multiple medical appointments.

“If legislators actually care about women’s health they should work towards making abortion available to our community. They should vote the Women’s Health Protection Act, and the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance (EACH Woman) Act into law,” Kippins stated.

“We need access to housing, job opportunities, education for the children we already have. Lawmakers need to stop wasting our time and taxpayers’ money with bills like this and start addressing the civil rights and economic needs of the Black community and our Asian and Latina sisters and brothers,” she said.

Race- and sex-selective abortion is not a widespread occurrence in the United States, but anti-choice groups and lawmakers have cited isolated studies claiming to document the practice occurring in immigrant communities as a way to push anti-abortion legislation in the past.

Drafters of the letter say the current proposed act echoes these same cultural and racial stereotypes, and represents a blatant attempt to control women’s bodies.

“As an Indo-Caribbean woman, I can think for myself—I don’t need oversight from misogynist and paternalist politicians,” Shivana Jorawar said in a phone interview with Rewire.

Jorawar had her abortion when she was in high school. She was 15 years old at the time, harboring dreams of becoming a lawyer and making her family proud.

“My parents were immigrants from Guyana. They came here with almost nothing to their name, and access to education was really an important part of their American dream,” Jorawar explained, adding that they sacrificed almost everything they had to pay for tuition and send her to the best possible schools, working minimum-wage jobs around the clock to do so.

“They uprooted themselves and crossed borders and oceans to get to this strange land only to be greeted by discrimination. So to me, in that moment when I found out I was pregnant, I just felt I could not let my family down by ruining my chances at academic success,” Jorawar said.

She had the abortion and went on to become the first lawyer in her family.

“Every time I see my parents beaming with pride when they introduce me to new people and say ‘My daughter is a lawyer,’ or every time a young woman in my community comes to me for mentorship, I’m reminded that I made the right decision for my life,” she told Rewire.

“So this suggestion that we can’t make our own decisions, that we are not people capable of having a vision for our lives, is just incredibly insulting and it needs to stop,” she said.