What is Female Foeticide?

Female Foeticide is the act of aborting a foetus because it is female. The frequency of female foeticide is indirectly estimated from the observed high birth sex ratio, which is the ratio of boys to girls at birth. The natural ratio is assumed to be between 103 to 107, and any number above it is considered as suggestive of female foeticide.

Why is it in news?

The Supreme Court has directed the State governments to provide up-to-date data on steps taken to curb female foeticide. The recent order by a Bench headed by Justice Dipak Misra came on an application filed on August 6, 2013 by Dr. Sabu Mathew George, a member of the National Inspection and Monitoring Committee (NIMC) set up under the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act, 1994 to inspect medical clinics suspected of indulging in the illegal practice.

Background:

India is one of the several countries where higher human sex ratio is observed. The decline in the number of women in India is evident by looking at the child sex ratio. According to United Nations International Children Emergency Fund (UNICEF), in 1991, the figure was 947 girls to 1000 boys. Ten years later it had fallen to 927 girls for 1000 boys 1. A decline of 20 girls among 1000 boys should set alarm bells ringing.

This is assumed to be caused by female foeticide, an assumption that is the subject of considerable scholarly debate and continuing scientific studies.

  1. High sex ratio implies female foeticide
  1. One school of scholars suggest that any birth sex ratio of boys to girls that is outside of the normal 105-107 range, necessarily implies sex-selective abortion.
  2. Significant deviations in birth sex ratios from the normal range can only be explained by manipulation that is sex-selective abortion.
  3. In a widely cited article, Amartya Sen compared the birth sex ratio in Europe (106) and United States (105) with those in Asia (107+) and argued that the high sex ratios in East Asia, West Asia and South Asia may be due to excessive female mortality.
  1. High human sex ratio may be natural
  1. Other scholars question whether birth sex ratio outside 103-107 can be due to natural reasons.
  2. A research reports that, there is an excess of males at birth in almost all human populations, and the natural sex ratio at birth is usually between 102 to 108.
  3. However the ratio may deviate significantly from this range for natural reasons such as early marriage and fertility, teenage mothers, average maternal age at birth, paternal age, age gap between father and mother, late births, ethnicity, social and economic stress, warfare, environmental and harmonal effects.

Reasons for female foeticide

What makes India, which venerates the Goddess of Wealth – Lakshmi, and the Goddess of Knowledge, Art & Science – Saraswati, hate its daughters? Possible reasons:

  1. Sons ensure the continuation of the family
  1. In a predominantly patriarchal society like India, the concept of family is limited only to a surname, women are unfortunately seen as temporary ‘guests, who ultimately have to leave and join their ‘true’ family, that of their husband
  1. India is traditionally an agrarian economy, though this is rapidly changing. More sons meant more hands to help in the fields that increased productivity hence income.
  2. Sons will bring wealth into the family through dowry, while daughters only mean expenditure and wealth depletion
    1. What once began as a means of giving a daughter her fair share in the family property at the time of her marriage by her parents as streedhan that literally translates to woman’s wealth, so that later on she was not forced to beg or fight her brothers has degenerated to a terrible social custom of the bride’s family providing dowry to the groom’s family for taking their daughter’s hand in marriage. The better the match the higher the dowry.
  3. Sons will be able to take care of ageing parents while daughters will not do so as they are dependent on their husbands and parents-in-law.
  4. Girls need to be protected from the big, band world or they will bring in shame to the family
    1. By trying to marry of their own choice and may be in to the wrong social class/caste/community.

Is Femal Foeticide a crime?

Thankfully, infanticide is equivalent to murder in the eyes of the law, with special emphasis on the heinousness of the crime and the vulnerability of the victim – the girl child.

  1. The law prohibits the determination and disclosure of the sex of the foetus in, The Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation & Prevention of Misuse) Act, 1994.
  2. The Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act and Rules 1994 (as amended up to 2002) dictates that sex selection by any person, by any means, before or after conception, is prohibited. Culprits can be punished with a jail term of upto five years.
  3. Doctors, lab technicians, hospitals & clinics, nurses and other support staff – all can be charged in case of violations. Hospitals can lose their licences, and so can doctors. But this is a light deterrent and regulating quacks, unlicensed clinics and hospitals is difficult.

Long Term Consequences:

  1. Fewer women eligible to marry
    1. Haryana, a state in northern India that followed this cruel practice is now reaping the poison of its actions. Men are forced to travel over 3000km to find suitable brides and somttimes even pay for the same. Women from outside Haryana might not be able to adjust to the culture and patriarchal society of the palce leading to higher divorces and instances of domestic violence.
    2. Polyandry is another outcome of this situation and many tribes and families in backward areas are being forced to adopt this illegal practice.
  2. Increasing crimes against women
    1. Rapes, molestations, lewed behavior against women in both rural areas and cities have increased sharply over the years. Women’s groups are fighting for an amendment in the existing laws – the terminology of verbal and physical molestation needs to be changed from ‘eve teasing’ to ‘sexual harassment’.
  3. Women losing their place in society
    1. With fewer women their representation in places of importance like parliament, the judiciary, civil services will decline. With girls being hidden behind closed doors for fear of the outside world that is out to harm them, we will have generations of women not reaching their true potential for want of opportunity.

The way ahead/How do we correct our mistakes?

A singular approach in tacking this malaise might not bring about the change that is required. A multi-pronged strategy is required to stop the dwindling numbers of girls and correct the havoc brought about by years of systematic crime.

The four pillars in this fight to increase the lop-sided sex ration could be;

  1. Abolishing dowry and strengthening the laws against it
    1. The current Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 limits the maximum punishment that the crime of demanding and accepting dowry can warrant, at five years. This needs to be increased to further discourage the practice of seeking dowry
  2. Stronger inheritance laws for women-irrespective of religion
    1. The Hindu Succession Act of 1956 did not grant equal status to daughters in the division of the family property until its amendment in 2004
    2. However the laws applicable to other communities in India do not bestow upon women the same benefits and rights. These need to be amended and common law for all religion could evolve giving equal rights to be enjoyed by all women
    3. By allowing every woman, irrespective of religion, to a share in inheritance, the chances of her being at the mercy of others is reduced and allow her the status, dignity and power to make her own choices
  3. Illegal doctors and pre-natal clinics offering sex-determination and sex-selective abortions to be suspended and banned
    1. The efforts in this endeavor need to be encouraged and monitored to prevent the final act of terminating a pregnancy based on gender determination
  4. Educating people on the ill effects of female foeticide & infanticide and the rights of women
    1. The most important way to curb this malaise is to educate the youngest generation-school and college students and women on the evils of female foeticide & infanticide. The rights of women also need to be discussed more openly to foster a culture where the rights of a women are not begrudged and her choices are respected and supported
    2. This is also an area that we are sorely lacking in our education system that does not spend much time or give much emphasis on this subject
    3. Encouraging women to participate in local governing bodies-right from the gram panchayat or village council level-will be a step in this direction

Only when a culture that supports and encourages women in every sphere is created only then women can reach their potential and are no more seen as a liability and burden by their loved ones.