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.