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Mothers Sued, Docs go Free
|by Sreelatha Menon|
The Pre-conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act 1994 (PCPNDT Act) has been in existence since 1994. But, in all this time, the Act has never been adequately enforced. Nawanshahar in Punjab is one of the few districts that made a concerted effort to apply the PCPNDT Act. Unfortunately, the district administration's efforts have been entirely misdirected - they have been targeting women who undergo sex-selective abortions rather than the doctors who carry out the procedure.
The District Collector, Krishan Kumar, launched a drive against female feticide in 2005, which led to cases being filed against six women. Not only do these arrests further victimize women - who could well have been compelled to undergo the tests - they also entirely defeat the spirit of the Act.
It is true that Section 23(3) of the Act holds guilty any person seeking use of the PCPNDT on a pregnant woman, "including such woman, unless she was compelled to undergo such diagnostic techniques". However, Section 24 of the PCPNDT Act says that "the court shall presume, unless the contrary is proved, that the pregnant woman has been compelled by her husband or the relative" to undergo PCPNDT. Besides, it is clear from Sections 23(1) and 23(2) that the law primarily addresses doctors and medical practitioners and ultrasound clinics, rather than pregnant women.
Activist Sabu George of the Centre for Women and Development Studies, who has been working on the issue for the past two decades, presses the point: "Under the PCPNDT Act, the primary culprits are doctors. Only they should be arrested."
A visit to the homes of four of the six women booked under the Act revealed that three of them were in hiding - a stark reminder of their precarious position. These women are caught between the law that the State is using against them and their own society, which treats them as a pariah if they give birth to a girl child. Son-preference is a deep-rooted phenomenon in many parts of India and women who do not give birth to sons more often than not face social stigma, familial disapproval (and worse) and even divorce or desertion by their husbands.
Kamal of Musapur in Nawanshahar has been charged with sex-selective abortion. No one in Musapur village, where she lived with her husband's family, is willing to talk about Kamal or her whereabouts. Her in-laws also claim to know nothing of her whereabouts. This mother of two daughters has been in hiding ever since the case was registered against her.
The family is furious about the charge against Kamal. Says Jitta, 20, a relative, "Why is the Collector harassing women for aborting girl children? Does he have any idea of what the girls have to suffer if they cannot get married? I have studied up to Class 12 and have done various courses. What has he done to ensure that I can earn some money? Does he know that Kamal's elder daughter suffers from tuberculosis, and that her husband is only a manual laborer in Dubai? Obviously, they cannot afford three girls."
Kamal's brother-in-law Harcharan Singh says that the State should target doctors, and not the women, who just happen to be the weakest link in the chain.
Manjit of Urapur village has also fled her home. The house is locked up, and her relatives in the neighboring house say that she was married to an alcoholic who never earned a penny and never gave her anything. She has two children and is living with her sister-in-law in Chandigarh after she fled her village. Her husband's parents were abroad and were sending her some money every month, they said. How would she manage with another child, they ask.
In Naura village, Manjit - another mother of two children - has been holed up in a relative's house ever since a case on female feticide was filed against her. Her mother-in-law Bhajan Kaur continues to claim that there has been some terrible misunderstanding.
This writer did manage to meet up with Rekha Rani of Hamirpur village, though. So broken was Rekha, also a mother of two, that she could barely speak. She holds herself responsible for the humiliation that the family had to undergo, and can barely bring herself to face her husband's parents. She says, "God will punish whoever has done this. I had no idea I was pregnant. I went to the hospital because I started bleeding. If we had wanted to have a discreet, illegal abortion, why would we go to the neighboring hospital? After the abortion, I asked the doctors whether the child was a boy or a girl, but they couldn't tell me because it was in bad shape. They charged me Rs 35,000, and my husband and I had to come back home to arrange the money."
Collector Krishan Kumar, however, asserts that the women are not free of guilt and have to face action. He is willing to make concessions, though. "I would let the women go if they turned approvers and told me the names of the doctors who performed sex determination for them," he says. The women, though, are terrified and not willing to come out of hiding to speak to the administration.
But why is Kumar not gunning for the doctors, who perform these tests and abortions for no reason other than sheer greed? "That is futile, because these women have the money to get the tests done outside the district," he says. Besides, not all the culpable doctors are within his area of administration.
While Kumar's campaign has a distinctly anti-woman edge, his earnestness is clear. He has devised an elaborate system to monitor every single pregnancy in the district. He has roped in all the NGOs in the district, and even college students, to act as envoys for the cause. They work to create awareness, and inform him on early pregnancies and possible female feticides. The machinery is impressive - and would work just as well if doctors were targeted instead of the women.
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