In 1996, Kuruppayee, a little known village woman in Tamil Nadu, earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first woman to be convicted for female feticide. Her husband escaped punitive action as he was not there when Kuruppayee strangled her fifth daughter soon after she was born.
But, if officials had hoped that Kurupayee's conviction would scare parents into letting their daughters live, they were mistaken. The decline in the number of girls born from 945 to 927 for every 1,000 boys between ages 0-6 years in the period between 1991 and 2001 tells its own story. The abortion of millions of female fetuses has shown that there has been no perceptible change in discrimination against the girl child. Only the method of killing her has changed.
The recently announced 'cradle scheme' is the government's solution to stem the practice of female feticide. According to Renuka Chowdhury, Minister of State for Women and Child Development, the idea behind cradle baby reception centers is to encourage parents to leave their girl child in the care of the government - instead of killing her if she was unwanted.
The cradle or 'palna' scheme will be introduced in the upcoming Eleventh Five Year Plan (2007-2012) and implemented, in co-ordination with state governments, once the Planning Commission approves it. Under the scheme, baby girls can be dropped off at government cradle centers - akin to orphanages - that would be set up in each district in the next couple of months. Cradles will be placed at various government agencies including primary healthcare centers, hospitals, nursing homes and short-stay homes. Later, these babies would be transferred to specialized adoption agencies for rehabilitation.
The main objective of this scheme, which is a part of a slew of measures detailed under the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS) proposed by the Ministry for Women and Child Development, is to save the lives of children, particularly girls, says Chowdhury. Therefore, child protection units would be set up at district and state levels to ensure abandoned children are registered and looked after with love and affection.
But can the government be a substitute for a parent? "I think that the government has a role to play. It has taken a stand by agreeing to take responsibility of the child and giving parents the choice. But it cannot be a preferred choice," says activist Razia Ismail Abbasi of the India Alliance for Child Rights, an NGO working for children.
Abbasi, who was a member of the ministerial sub-group on girl child that discussed strategies to counter the abortion of unborn female child, feels that the scheme is a well-intentioned attempt in this direction. "However, much will depend on how well it is promoted. It should not appear to be giving the message that the girls would be looked after by the government and the parents would look after the boys," she points out.
But the moot point is that the message be meaningful only if the baby girl gets a chance to be born. "Most of the girls are killed before birth, not after. So where is the option of abandoning girls if they are not born at all? In fact, studies have shown that parents prefer to eliminate the baby girl rather than abandon her," says Sabu George, consultant, Centre for Women's Development Studies.
If such a scheme could stop female feticide, then a similar initiative introduced in Tamil Nadu in 1992 would have had some significant success, argue activists. So far, the outcome has been more negative than positive. While it has not inspired confidence in mothers like Kurupavee to abandon rather than kill their daughters, for the many women whose girls were abandoned under this scheme, it has been heartbreaking. Many of the abandoned baby girls died because of lack of proper facilities in government hospitals.
According to George, who has researched female feticide for almost two decades, the cradle scheme will send out the wrong message. "The scheme does not address the issue of discrimination or the mindset against girls. In a way, it reinforces the fact that girls are not valued. So I don't see how it will stop sex-selective abortions when even the Pre Natal Diagnostic Technique (PNDT) Act has not had the desired effect."
Activists are of the opinion that the minister in her capacity as the co-chairperson of the Central Supervisory Board of the PNDT Act, should focus more on a more stringent enforcement of the Act by booking doctors engaged in sex-selective abortions. This will immediately enhance the survival chances of girls. However, according to government records, only one doctor in Haryana has been convicted under this Act since 2003.
"Our country has failed its children. There is no guarantee that the baby girl will be born and will survive; and if she does survive, that she would be given adequate nutrition and health care. The tragedies of infants being abandoned by poor parents is an indication of a collapse of all institutions designed to take care of children, especially girls. A programme such as the cradle scheme is just one more arrangement which, in reality, would not resolve the endemic issues preventing families from supporting their girl child," says Shantha Sinha, Chairperson, National Commission For Protection Of Child Rights.
The biggest obstacle that comes in the way is the overwhelming desire for sons. A recent survey by the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) found that a significant number of people wanted a son even if it meant increasing the size of their family. In 2005-06, the NHFS had found that a majority (62.1 per cent) of parents with two daughters were in favor of having more than two children, thus underlining the strong dominance of a son-preference among families in India.
Many women activists fear that the cradle scheme will only increase this desire for having sons. "This step will absolve parents of their responsibility towards their daughters. More girls will be abandoned and my fear is that with so many girls being abandoned, it will lead to their being trafficked. So how will it end discrimination against girls?" asks Gouri Chaudhary of Action India, an NGO fighting against female feticide.
The magnitude of the girl child mortality is reflected in the fact that one-third of the 12 million girls born in India each year die in their first year; and three million, or 25 per cent, do not survive till their 15th birthday. Such is the scale of gender discrimination that dietary deficiencies arising from the son being fed better has led to stunted growth among 45 per cent of girls, as opposed to 20 per cent in boys.
Yet, instead of making a greater investment in children, the current Union Budget sees even more reduced allocation for them. According to the NGO, Haq: Centre for Child Rights, of every Rs 100 in the Union Budget, a paltry Rs 4.80 (US$1=Rs 42) has been promised for children. Even for the cradle scheme, there is no separate budget and money will be channeled from the Rs 950 million that the Ministry for Women and Child Development has sought for ICPS.
By the government's own admission, 10 million girls have killed by their parents in the past 20 years. Interventions like the cradle scheme are unlikely to have a significant impact unless government policies and programmes address gender discrimination - the root cause of female feticide - more seriously and stringently.