Death by Gender

Even as Daughter's Day passed us by recently, Delhi continues to grapple with a demographic crisis due to rampant female feticide and an inequitable sex ratio.

According to a recent Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) survey (August 2007), the Capital's gender ratio - already a disquieting 846 girls against 1,000 boys in 2001 - has, in some affluent pockets of the city, plummeted to even more worrisome levels. In Narela, Punjabi Bagh and Najafgarh, for instance, it is 828, 842 and 841 respectively.

As per Census figures, while the average sex ratio in India in 2001 stood at 927 girls for every 1,000 boys, Delhi's was 846 girls: 1,000 boys - nose-diving from 904 in 1991. Ironically, in the more cosmopolitan areas of south Delhi (Hauz Khas, for one), the male-female ratio hovers around 782, according to the MCD survey. The survey also reports that as compared to Delhi's rural population in south Delhi, its urban populace has a far more skewed sex ratio.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a healthy girl-boy ratio in society should be 952 females for every 1,000 males. But repeated surveys have consistently shown Delhi scoring abysmally on the gender equity front.

In 2005, a survey of Delhi's premier hospitals, including Jaipur Golden, Safdarjung Hospital, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) and Lok Nayak Jai Prakash (LNJP) Hospital, highlighted that sex-selective abortions were carried out in greater numbers amongst Delhi's affluent than its underprivileged. Titled 'Analysis of Trends of Sex Ratio at Birth in Delhi Hospitals', it reviewed the phenomenon of de-escalating sex ratios in the Capital between 1993 and 2003.

Conducted by the Christian Medical Association (CMA) of India, the findings revealed that Delhi's private hospitals had much higher figures for sex selective abortions than government hospitals. According to the CMA, if the first child in a family was a girl, then 50 per cent of female feticide occurred when the mother was pregnant the second time round. This ratcheted up to 70 per cent, when the woman was expecting her third child. It also highlighted that in such cases only 219 girls were born for every 1,000 boys.

While Delhi's sex ratio began sliding with the 1991 Census, the last decade has been especially alarming with figures falling to a crisis level. According to Dr. Ranjana Kumari of Centre For Social Research (CSR), female feticide is the primary reason for a skewed sex ratio in Delhi. And for this, she pins the blame on the doctors and the women who indulge in sex determination tests. "Both need to be targeted to curb this heinous crime," she states.

Apart from erring doctors, experts reiterate that the Indian laws against fetal determination, too, are rather weak. Under pressure from activists, the government outlawed the use of ultrasounds to reveal fetal gender in 1994. The penalties were upped in 2002 - three years in jail and a US $230 fine for the first offence; and five years imprisonment and US $1,160 penalty for the second offence. But despite this, easy accessibility to modern technologies such as ultra-sonography and amniocentesis to determine the gender of fetuses has fuelled the trend of feticide. If the fetus is found to be a girl, families have no qualms about getting it aborted.

Shockingly, punitive action against offenders of female feticide has been so abysmal that in the last 13 years of the existence of the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostics Techniques (PC/PNDT) Act 1994, only 406 cases have been registered against offenders all over the country. Out of these, only two convictions have taken place.

Consequently, in a bid to contain Delhi's gender inequity, CSR and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare recently launched a campaign - 'Meri Beti, Meri Shakti' (My Daughter, My Strength). Besides booking doctors and quacks involved in the crime, CSR is also planning to hold educational programmes in order to reach out to the people. "We need to change people's mindsets," reiterates sociologist Dr Punita Panigrahi. "They need to be told that the systematic and institutionalized practice of sex selection is murder."

The reasons for the persistence of offspring sex selection have been hotly debated since the early 1990s, when Nobel laureate economist Dr Amartya Sen underscored the phenomenon of "the missing women", according to which more than 100 million females are now missing from the populations of India and China. Sen argued that sex selection "both reflects and reinforces women's low social status, which - beyond its intrinsic cruelty - impedes the development of democracy and prosperity in male-skewed nations."

Damning evidence in the British medical journal 'The Lancet', too, suggests that illegal sex selective abortions in India are responsible for over 10 million "missing" girls over the last two decades. 'The Lancet' (2001) study by two doctors - Prabhat Jha from the University of Toronto, Canada, and Rajesh Kumar from the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research, Chandigarh, India, - established the link between India's low sex ratio and sex selective abortion.

In 1994, the central government had passed the Prenatal Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act (PNDT Act) covering the entire country. Under the PNDT Act, an ultrasound clinic is expected to fill up and submit a form for each fetal scan it performs. This form contains information about the pregnant woman, the address of her referring doctor, the sex of each earlier child and the age of the fetus.

The clinics have to submit these forms each month to the district PNDT authorities. A careful scrutiny of these forms and municipal birth registration data, point out experts, can easily reveal suspicious patterns. For instance, a high rate of abortions after visits to specific ultrasound clinics, or clustering of pregnant women who already have daughters in some clinics, could help nab offenders.

However, ever since the national legislation was enacted in 1994, census trends have found that India's child sex ratio has dropped even further from 962:1,000 in 1981; to 945:1,000 in 1991; to 927:1,000 in 2001. The sharpest declines were in Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat, Uttaranchal, Maharashtra, Chandigarh and Delhi, where sex selection technology was widely and cheaply available.

Health activists have expressed concern that neither the central government nor the states have been able to efficaciously implement the PNDT Act. In 2002, a writ petition was filed by feticide activist Dr Sabu George and two organizations: Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes (CEHAT), Mumbai; and Mahila Sarvangeen Utkarsh Mandal (MASUM), Pune, seeking stricter implementation of the existing law against prenatal sex selection and its amendment to include newer sex selection techniques such as "sex selection through in vitro-fertilization".

Clearly, though all these measures have helped focus media attention on the rampant abuse of female feticide throughout the nation, especially Delhi, they have not been able to correct the Capital's skewed gender ratio. As Dr Panigrahi puts it, "The situation is genocidal. We need to address it on a war footing. Desperate problems need desperate measures."


More by :  Neeta Lal

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