domenica 1 maggio 2011

Millions of unborn girls

India's sex ratio, among children aged 0-6 years, is alarming. The ratio has declined from 976 females (for every 1000 males) in 1961 to 914 in 2011. Every national census has documented a decline in the ratio, signalling a ubiquitous trend. Preliminary data from the 2011 Census have recorded many districts with sex ratios of less than 850. The ratio in urban areas is significantly lower than those in rural parts of the country. Reports suggest evidence of violence and trafficking of poor women and forced polyandry in some regions with markedly skewed ratios. The overall steep and consistent decline in the ratio mandates serious review.
Medical technology (like amniocentesis and ultrasonography), employed in the prenatal period to diagnose genetic abnormalities, are being misused in India for detecting the sex of the unborn child and subsequently for sex-selection. Female foetuses, thus identified, are aborted.
Many studies have concluded that prenatal sex determination, followed by abortion of female foetuses, is the most plausible explanation for the low sex ratio at birth in India.
Girls of Cochin

The steady decline in the sex ratio suggests that marked improvements in the economy and literacy rates do not seem to have had any impact on this index. In fact, the availability of new technology and its easy access for the urban, wealthy and the educated have worsened the trend and harmed the status of women in Indian society.
The social system of patriarchy, with males as the primary authority figures, is central to the organisation of much of Indian society. The system upholds the institutions of male rule and privilege and mandates female subordination. Patriarchy manifests itself in social, religious, legal, political and economic organisation of society. It continues to strongly influence Indian society, despite the Constitution's attempt to bring about an egalitarian social order.
Patriarchal societies in most parts of India have translated their prejudice and bigotry into a compulsive preference for boys and discrimination against the girl child. They have also spawned practices such as female infanticide, dowry, bride-burning and sati. They have led to the neglect of nutrition, health care, education, and employment for girls. Women's work is also socially devalued with limited autonomy in decision-making. The intersections of caste, class and gender worsen the situation. Despite its social construction, patriarchal culture, reinforced by the major religions in the country, maintains its stranglehold on gender inequality. The prevalent patriarchal framework places an ideological bar on the discussion of alternative approaches to achieve gender justice.
The declining sex ratio cannot be simply viewed as a medical or legal issue. It is embedded within the social construction of patriarchy and is reinforced by tradition, culture and religion. Female foeticide and infanticide are just the tip of the iceberg; there is a whole set of subtle and blatant discriminatory practices against girls and women under various pretexts. It is this large base of discrimination against women that supports the declining sex ratio.
While women are guaranteed equality under the Constitution, legal protection has little effect in the face of the prevailing patriarchal culture. India needs to confront its gender bias openly. It would appear that nothing short of a social revolution would bring about an improvement in the health and status of women in the country. Irony and hypocrisy are the two words that come to mind when patriarchal societies talk about justice for their women. Surely, the disappearance of millions of girls in India is reason enough to question the acceptance of patriarchy and search for an egalitarian social order.

(Professor K.S. Jacob, Faculty of the Christian Medical College, Vellore)

Read full text of the essay on The Hindu

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