This is the third 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.
“We must banish malnutrition, social evils, infant mortality and female feticide” is what India’s first woman president (in sixty years since independence) had to say at her investiture ceremony as she promised to bring an end to the "widespread practice of aborting female fetuses."
While many do hope that the new president will manage to bring about a more comprehensible shift in focus to issues of particular importance to women, what is especially crucial is how she negotiates this path. The reality of the situation is that the government has introduced one failed scheme after the other and the state of affairs only seems to be worsening. Early this month police recovered over a dozen female fetuses packed in plastic containers from a drain near a medical diagnostic and ultrasound clinic, in Bhubaneswar (the capital of the eastern state of Orissa) very close to the residence of Chief Minister of the state, Naveen Patnaik. Bangalore’s image as the IT hub almost took a beating when several fetuses packed in gunny bags were found dumped in a ground in the heart of the city.
However, preliminary investigations do not point to a case of sex-selective abortions since a majority of the fetuses were male. One almost heard a collective sigh of relief. And that is the tragedy of the situation — the lopsided sex ratios and frequent discoveries of female fetuses are being understood more as a matter of national and international embarrassment rather as a tragedy borne out of deeply entrenched gender-discriminating value systems. Even as the rather regressive cradle, or palna, scheme (in which the government will take responsibility for raising unwanted daughters) does more for institutionalizing the practice of abandonment of the girl child than anything else, has yet to take off.
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The Minister for Women and Child Development (WCD) has come up with yet another scheme which she, with the support of the Union Health Minister, intends to introduce in Parliament soon. The Bill, if passed, would make it mandatory for public and private health centers to register their operations in a centralized record under the Clinical Establishment Act. The new scheme will create a databank of all pregnant women. Meant to put a stop to illegal sex-selective abortions, this system would also put the reproductive health of the women at such critical risk. If the patterns of sex-selective abortions are anything to go by, then the new law is doomed to fail. Laws, albeit quiescent, like the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques Act (PNDT) and the Registration of Births and Deaths Act 1969 with similar objectives, already exist.
Do we really need another such a law? Is the new law going to be yet another census that the government is introducing apart from the pre-existing ones? The more important question is how many doctors abetting sex-selective abortions have been prosecuted? Having a law in place that makes determination of the sex of the fetus a crime evidently is not enough. Does the law have enough teeth to ensure that the law breakers are punished?
While the minister is armed with alarming statistics on sex-selective abortions and the skewed sex ratio to justify every new scheme, what does the government have to show in terms of prosecutions of the erring doctors and clinics? Most flourishing doctoral practices dealing with natal and pre-natal care are running on the single-handed earnings of sex-selective abortions reflecting the extent people are willing to pay to have the choice of bringing up a male child but not a female. Sex-selective abortions are a part of the social set-up and have little to do with whether the woman had much of a say in the matter in the first place.
With already very limited agency within her marital home, with regard to child bearing and rearing, monitoring pregnancy by the state will become yet another tool to take away whatever little control has remained with women, especially with regard to birth control. More often than not, whether the girl child is to be borne is a not a choice that the pregnant woman makes but a choice that is made for her by the immediate and extended members at her marital home. “Abortion will be allowed when there must be an acceptable and very strong valid reason,” according to the minister.
So the minister wants women to provide "valid and acceptable reasons" for an abortion. And who decides that the reason is valid enough? The registration of pregnancy moves into the realm of the contentious issue of privacy and hence is not just intrusive but also a coercive measure. The ministry would do better to look into the root cause of female feticide rather than entering a personal domain as the basic tenets of the law threaten to rob from women even the little independence that they were able to exercise when it came to themselves and their bodies.
The distorted sex ratio has to be seen within the context of bigger social problems and state control or monitoring is not going to change the distorted, prejudicial value structures that these practices are hinged upon.That an ostensibly educated, elite medical fraternity is not averse to breaking the law and disclosing the gender of the fetus and facilitating a sex-selective abortion is what should be of graver concern. Another law will only place women at greater risk by further forcing abortions into the hands of quacks operating out of make-shift, ill-equipped clinics in decrepit gallis (back alleys).
The mindset against the girl child is still negative and this cuts across the socio-economic spectrum. And so it's hardly surprising that in many families with daughters even the blueprint for rearing a girl child tends to vary from that of a boy. Rather than give people the legitimized space to abandon their daughters advocacy programs undertaken at the policy level need to be taken out of the files of the government offices down to the grassroots.
In introducing the palna scheme the minister seems to have buckled in acceptance that it is tougher to change age-old social norms and beliefs and prejudices and much easier for the state to rear the girl child while boys enjoy the privilege of biological families and homes.