India - Public Policies & Changed Mindsets Needed to Balance the Gender Skew


By Neeta Lal – India – November 15, 2011



 "Usual labour" Maharashtra, India. Photograph by Flickr user nvbr11 and used under a Creative Commons license.


In an innovative bid to fight gender discrimination, Satara district in India’s western state of Maharashtra recently witnessed a minor revolution. Over 285 Indian girls named Nakhushi, ‘unwanted’ in Hindi, by their disenchanted parents were rechristened in a state-organized ceremony.


Trussed up in their Sunday best, the girls were all smiles amidst the pop of camera bulbs. "My friends will be calling me with my new name now. And that makes me very happy. My earlier name made me feel worthless," 15-year-old Nakhushi, now renamed Muskaan or ‘a smile’, says into the TV camera.


But will changing girls names combat their internalized sense of worthlessness and improve the status of women and girls in India?

India has never been a happy place for women. The World Economic Forum’s latest Gender Inequality Index (GII) places the country at 129 out of 146 countries, better only than Afghanistan in South Asia.


Gender bias in Indian society is blatant. Apart from the extreme practices of feticide, infanticide and honor killings, discrimination against Indian girls persists through parental prejudices, lack of educational opportunities, and unfair resource allocation.


The discrimination against the girl child manifests itself everywhere - even in educated, well-off households. A few years back I was shocked when one of my colleagues, a well-qualified woman in her thirties with two daughters, confided in me that she “got her baby dropped” when she found out it was a girl. “I’ll keep getting pregnant until I have a boy. The baby will be born only once it’s confirmed that it’s a male,” she told me with finality.


Was she being coerced into this situation I asked her, concerned about the ease with which she narrated the episode to me. “Yes,” she replied. “My husband hinted that my mom-in-law is keen her son remarry if we can’t have a male heir.”


In the mid-1960s, sex-determination technology was introduced in India as a population control measure. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen famously wrote in 1990 of the 100 million missing women, especially in Asia, and of how these numbers “tell us, quietly, a terrible story of inequality and neglect leading to excess mortality of women.”


The Prenatal Diagnostics Techniques (regulation and prevention of misuse) Act was enacted in 1994 and brought into operation in 1996. After over two decades, it seems little has changed. India’s latest Census figures reveal that the country’s male-female ratio is the worst since 1961 -- just 914 girls for every 1,000 boys. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), 102 to 106 boys should be born for every 100 girl children.


In Satara this equation is a grim 881 to 1,000 boys. For the northern state of Haryana, notorious for crimes against women, including honor killings, the picture is especially bleak - in Duleypur village, the sex ratio at birth is 400 females per 1,000 males.


The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates that every day 7,000 fewer girls are born in India than should be. So where does the problem lie? According to a UNFPA population report released in October, an overwhelming majority of the 117 million ‘missing’ girls in Asia are from India and China. They are vanishing primarily due to the increased use of ultrasonography or ultrasound machines.


The moment the UN report came out radiologists in Mumbai were up in arms. “Ultrasound has been around for decades. If it’s such a widely used tool for sex determination then girls should have disappeared in larger numbers by now,” Indian Radiological & Imaging Association president Dr Jignesh Thakker told one Indian daily. The city’s radiologists are already fighting a bitter battle against the Maharashtra government’s recent directive that forbids the use of portable ultrasound machines for sex determination purposes.


Not that the national capital city of New Delhi fares any better. Mara Hvistendahl, the author of Unnatural Selection writes how it is a standard practice for doctors at All India Institute of Medical Sciences – a premier state-run hospital – to disclose the sex of the fetus to the moms-to-be and even help them abort it if they so desire.


“We need to amplify our voices about sonography's misuse so that public opinion can be built up and stringent action is taken against the wrong doers," says Pramila Kirk, an NGO worker. Kirk advises that if the state government makes software to keep track of all scans mandatory for ultrasound machines, it will dramatically augment the child-sex ratio.


Some doctors believe, however, that instead of spending about USD800 per machine on installing silent observer software, the sum should be invested in pro girl child policies. Experts add that the argument that prenatal diagnostic tests give women a ‘choice’ to select a child of the desired sex is specious. Women’s choices, especially in India’s patriarchal society, are determined by societal pressure to produce male heirs.


This means that four decades after the passage of the landmark Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act that legalized abortion in India, the legislation is being exploited to kill unborn daughters. The Lancet estimates that between three and six million girls have been aborted over the past decade. Sex selective abortion happens because sex determination tests have become a breeze. Woman simply walk into a shop and get the needed test done.


India’s Planning Commission, the country’s premier body that formulates policy, recently relaxed the ban on sex-selection tests in rural areas. At the same time, it is also in the midst of proposing a program to ‘adopt’ female fetuses and give incentives to families and health workers to deliver female babies.


People suspect there are other interests behind the Commission's new proposal. According to human rights activist and lawyer Pramod Kamayani, "female feticide is organized murder. Parents do it because they want to get rid of daughters; the doctors do it for a quick buck and the government looks upon it as an effective and free population control method. With such a well-entrenched nexus in place, how can the situation be improved?”


Perhaps things can be improved by implementing imaginative public policies to set right the gender skew. Already, some state government schemes are providing incentives for parents to embrace girl children and make for more balanced birth rates. Measures like providing bicycles for school-going girls have proved to be efficacious in empowering the girl child.


While giving hundreds of nakhushis a new name is laudable, real transformation will come about only if, along with the name change, mindsets are changed too. Maharashtra is planning to reward couples whose third child is a girl by sponsoring her education and bestowing other financial rewards upon her. Hopefully this will truly lead to a new beginning.