At most one girl, at least one boy

Dr. Mary E. John. Photo: Svalorna ( one hears the word gendercide China is the first thing that comes to mind. Strict government-imposed policies have decreased the birth rate from 6 to 1.5 children per every woman. This has resulted in sex selective abortions and the abandonment of millions of girls. However, a similar tragedy is happening in the second most populous country – India. According to the last census India’s child sex ratio, the number of females 0-6 years old per thousand males, has fallen. In 1991 there were 945 females per 1000 men, ten years later this number decreased and is now averaged at 914. Mary E. John, a prominent Indian scholar working in the field of women’s studies and feminist politics, was invited by UPF Lund to give a lecture. Yana Brovdiy asked Dr. John a few questions about the causes and solutions to the problem of the sex selective abortions in India.

How do you see the situation with sex selective abortions in India today? What drives this practice?

The practice of sex selective abortions is happening in the families that want to have fewer children, maybe no more than 2, and they want to have one son. Why do you want to have a son? Not because you are living in some medieval time but because the nature of the contemporary society is such that families are in a situation where they depend on children for their future support. Girls usually marry out and go elsewhere. Families believe that they can depend more on their son than on their daughter since too few women can find economic independence through work. So when you want to have few children you want to have at most one girl and at least one boy. And this produces the sex selection problem. It was mainly concentrated in West India but it is spreading now.

What is the Indian government doing to solve this problem?

They have different kinds of schemes. But from our point of view, they have the wrong schemes. They say if you are a poor family and you have a daughter you will get some money for schooling until your daughter is 18. And you must be sterilized and not have any more children. This is the very wrong approach. You are mixing in population control and in fact it is a violation of human rights. So we say instead, make education free for girls. Give other kinds of chances to women to be independent. Moreover, we need to change the perception in the family. Can parents think about security in terms of the state providing it rather than having to depend on their children? These are much better ways of addressing the issue.

Ultrasound is a very important practice that made sex selective abortions possible in the first place and that is why sex determination has been illegal in India since 1994. This, however, creates a dilemma. On the one hand we are protecting unborn girls but on the other we are taking away the right of women to decide about their pregnancy. What should we do about this?

Portable ultrasound technology. Photo: Robert Scoble on flickr

I agree, but at the very least you want to criminalize the medical practitioners who are making money on this. They take this very portable ultrasound technology and go to rural areas where there is no health system. They say come, get tested, and you will save a lot of money on a dowry later. This is a criminal way of making money. So at least we want to see some of these doctors caught. So I agree with you. On the one hand, we want to curb the practice but on the other hand, the woman has to make a choice. For instance, there are some government officials who think they should monitor a woman all the way through her pregnancy and make sure she has a child. I think this is terrible thing to do. Are you going to force somebody to have a child? And suppose I just do not want to have a child at this time in my life but my child happened to be a girl, then what?

So these are huge problems and half of the time we are trying to say to the state that they are addressing them in the wrong way. I don’t want a woman to be in jail. We want to see the doctors who practice sex determination to be in jail. And I should say that this is what has happened, to some extent, in some states. If you look at 2011, the situation has improved in some parts of Northern India, probably because they had to close down some of the clinics. A lot of public awareness has also been created around this issue. So I think the most important thing to do in order to reduce sex selective abortions is to make families understand that it is ok to have girls.


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