Several researchers have found a significant demographic imbalance (male/female ratio) in North-West India: a strong preference for the birth of boys that leads to reproductive practices often discriminating girls (sex-selective abortion, infanticide and neglect) is suspected of being responsible for the phenomenon. This case study aims to understand how women live the preference for boys, and to explore why they reproduce either preferences or discrimination in their reproductive practices and education of their children. Women living in daily and symbolic violence from childhood to adulthood seem to be in constant insecurity. In this patriarchal context, marriage security is seen as linked with male protection and son birth.
According to the latest demographic estimations, there are between 36 and 45 million women missing to restore the demographic balance in India (Jha et al., 2006). Across Asia, a strong preference for boys is culturally rooted in various social practices, such as the dowry wives bring to their wedding, the reproduction of the family name, the financial support to the family budget and for parents in their old age (Das Gupta et al., 2003: 168-71). In this context, girls are considered a financial burden, whereas having a son is synonymous with ‘wealth’. The first part of this case study will focus on the definition of the discriminatory reproductive practices; then we will demonstrate that it can be the result of a cost-benefit calculation; and finally, we will explore the role of the Indian government.
When boys are preferred, female individuals can be discriminated even before birth. Sex-selective abortion of female foetuses, and girls’ infanticide lead to physical elimination of girls. It is important to describe how these practices occur.
First, sex-selective abortion, also called ‘foeticide’ is the abortion depending on the foetus’ gender. The dissemination of this practice has corresponded to the easier accessibility to abortion and new reproductive technologies (NRT), such as ultrasound. Abortion was legalized in 1971 by the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act (MTP Act), and NRT became accessible in the 1970-1980’s. Within only a few years, the first goal of the NRT, the detection of disability, foetal malformations and diseases, was diverted to sexual selection of babies. Private medical centres first settled in economically prosperous and urban areas then spread into rural areas. Excluding government public hospitals, various types of facilities cater services like ‘sexual selection’. Registered private clinics, hygienic with qualified staff and a rich clientele, or discrete clinics, with questionable hygiene and badly trained practitioners offer services to women of all social backgrounds. Finally, more or less qualified technicians travelling in the countryside by car, motorbike or ‘rickshaw’ with portable machines (Arnold et al., 2002) make ultrasounds available in villages. Sex-selective abortion is used in all castes, classes and religions and is hardly linkable to a specific group (ICRW, 2004).
Second, infanticide is defined as the killing of a child between 0 and 5 years (Miller, 1987). Although locally, infanticide may not considered a crime, concealment makes evaluation difficult. According to Croll (2000), there are two types of infanticide: “active” infanticide, or killing, and “passive” infanticide, causing the death of the child through neglect. Girls are less fed, cared for and vaccinated than their brothers and are thus more susceptible to die of infections and malnutrition. The National Health Family Survey III (2005-2006) notes that, in India, the child mortality rate for girls is 23 per 1000 live births, and 14 per 1000 boys.
Most authors argue that the selective abortion of girls is the major reason for the current demographic imbalance in India (Das Gupta et al., 2003; Croll, 2000). However there is disagreement as to the chronology. Therefore authors do not agree on the impact of the availability of prenatal diagnostic technologies.
There are two factors in son preference and sex-selection: costs-benefits calculation related to the birth of a daughter and family planning, that is to say, how families estimate the costs for health care, education and marriage of the girl compared to the profits from her work, salary and children’s birth. As she will marry and go to live with in-laws, girls are considered as a “lost” investment.
In the Indian context, family planning has a central role in son preference and although it does not have the same coercive approach as in China, it still encourages the decreasing number of children per family, thus intensifying the male preference and leading to legal abortion contraception. Menon (2004) explains that the right to abortion was not a feminist claim and struggle as elsewhere in the world. When the Indian federal government – under UN international pressure to reduce and even reverse the growth rate of the population – granted abortion rights to women with the MTP Act (1971), it was not to free the female body, but rather to use it for demographic and political purposes. In addition, family planning became particularly intrusive under the government of Indira Gandhi (1970’s). Financial compensation was given to men who voluntarily underwent a vasectomy. According to some famous Indian writers, including Rohinton Mistry (1998), vast sterilization campaigns were implemented: the government would have drawn up temporary camps away from the cities where sterilization operations were performed on the poor. Even today, family planning policies promote the nuclear, modern family with one or two children.
There are two approaches to the demographic imbalance. The first, considered as utilitarian, concerns mainly the potential scarcity of women in the years to come, and there will be fewer women to fulfil certain key social roles including reproduction, child care, marriage and domestic work. The documentary film Daughters of gardener (Marceau, 2007), shows that already a lot of young men cannot find wives. A second approach, more critical, produces a reflection on the structural aspects of the problem by questioning power relations, gender stereotypes and patriarchal values of the Indian society. Indeed, the demographic imbalance worries researchers and politicians because social implications are still uncertain, but could lead to, for example, an increase in wives trafficking, gang rape and polyandrous marriages (Croll, 2000). Some films are dealing with the subject including Matrubhoomi: A Nation Without Women directed by Manish Jha (2003).
Currently, some factors keep or even accentuate demographic imbalance and sex-selective abortion: a powerful medical lobby which does not wish to eradicate these paid services; a lack of political will; an inability to implement the law and to control doctors’ and technicians’ practices. The solutions around this phenomenon are not obvious, even if the Indian media have been warning about the lack of women for over 15 years.
Seeing itself as the largest democracy in the world, the Indian state has provided a broad legislative and legal device that wishes to defend the rights of its citizens, including women. Moreover, equality between men and women is in the Indian Constitution. To counter the dispossession of women, a law was amended, giving women the right to inherit and become joint owner of the common goods as well as their brothers. In addition, they can become sole owners and managers of the land inherited (Khan, 2006). In 2005, the Indian state created a decree requiring all marriages to be civilly registered, to counter precariat in case of rejection from the husband. Women can also reside in the home of their parents after their wedding, which was prohibited before. A decree on the protection of women against domestic violence was voted in 2006 to provide more legal power to women in family affairs. India’s federal government seeks to include women’s rights into its policies and improve their living conditions. India is also participating in international UN conferences relating to the status of women (Rio, 1992; Vienna, 1993; Cairo, 1994; Copenhagen, 1995; Beijing, 1995; Istanbul, 1996 etc.). Regarding specifically the demographic imbalance, the federal government developed the Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques Act (PNDT Act), in 1994, which prohibits the disclosure of the sex of the foetus during prenatal screening tests like scans. However, it should be noted that practitioners have developed strategies to circumvent these prohibitions.
India defines itself as multicultural, multi-religious and multi-ethnic, and therefore must grant some decision-making power to its communities. Thus, personal affairs such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, adoption, and inheritance end up being governed by religious laws and ancient cultural practices (Khan, 2006). This implies that numerous problems experienced by women are addressed within the communities and they have little opportunity to defend their rights as promoted by the Indian federal state.
A certain silence thus surrounds psychological and physical violence against women, especially those committed by relatives and family members. In this sense, Khan argues that several South Asian states perpetuate the distinction between public and private spheres causing a gap between the principle of equality promoted by the state and the daily reality of women.
To conclude, several social, cultural and economic elements from the current Indian context, where we observe the preference for boys and discrimination against girls, contribute to the demographic imbalance measured from the early 1990’s. Indeed, despite the fact that key actors (intellectuals, medical practitioners, politicians) are all aware of the demographic problem, there seems to be no change. Each year, a decline of the female/male ratio occurs across India, in urban and rural areas, especially in the North and West of the country (ICRW, 2004). Unequal gender relations that perpetuate the belief in the negative social value of daughters compared to brothers remain in families. Moreover, successive Indian governments have adopted family planning policies and made NRT available, which has a significant impact on the Indian family model and gender relations.
By turning into a neoliberal consumer society, the economic development of India has established new lifestyles based on new standards. Despite the enviable position of India in the global economy, individual economic insecurity continues and it is possible that the practices surrounding the preference for boys are being re-appropriated by families as a strategy and as a ‘family project’ to improve living conditions.
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