Friday, August 6, 2010

India's Big, Dirty Secret

Between 2001 and 2007, nearly 5% of female births in India did not occur because of pre-natal sex selection. It's tempting to draw attention to the magnitude of this tragedy by saying that it is equivalent to 600,000 girls going "missing" at birth every year. And that this is much higher than the number of people we lose to farmer suicides which, although a very important issue, receives much more media coverage than sex selection.

But I want to be careful here. From a pro-choice perspective, fetuses are not people. Nevertheless, the deliberate targeting of female fetuses is still horrifying.

Why is this happening? To put it crudely, for their parents, daughters are an economic/financial loss, not gain. They are a loss because of the dowries, or "gifts", that the bride's family have to buy for the groom's family at the time of the wedding, and because once married, even if the bride earns, her income goes to her husband's family. Traditionally dowry was only a practice in Hindu families, and in fact in Muslim families, the bride-price was paid by the groom's family to the bride's. However, this might have changed today.

In 2008, the Indian government launched a program that provides Rs.200,000 to the families (preferably mothers) of girl children. They will receive this amount spread out over 18 years, if certain conditions are met, such as making sure the child gets vaccinated, stays in school, and doesn't get married before 18. For 2008-2009, the government had set aside money for approximately 100,000 girls.

100,000 girls a year is a drop in the bucket, if 600,000 female fetuses are aborted in that same time period. The government's program is still significant and important, but it's not going to solve the problem. And while I don't know what an average family in India spends on a dowry today, the Rs.200,000 might just be enough to offset it. It might be a practical solution, but it doesn't help a girl feel that she is being chosen as a bride on her own merits, and not because of the dowry she brings.

Because dowry, and sex selection, are secretive issues that are negotiated within the family, it is girls themselves who can know what is going on when outsiders can't. But while girls must be our allies in this, they can't do it alone. School syllabuses, for boys and girls, must educate against dowry and sex selection, if they are not doing so already. And for those girls who are brave enough to speak out against dowry and sex selection, there must be a community justice system that they can turn to.

This is a difficult time to talk about community justice systems, given the recent uproar over khap panchayats and their draconian rulings on couples marrying within the same sub-caste. (This article defines khap panchayats as community groups - usually comprising elderly men from the Jat community - that set the rules in an area comprising one or more villages).

The challenge before us is to promote community justice systems that include women's groups as representatives, and that rule in a gender-just manner on issues such as dowry, sex selection and domestic violence.

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