Jan 10, 2009

Born to die

“Let a female child be born somewhere else; here, let a male child be born.”
- Atharva Veda v 1.2.3

Lakshmi* already had one daughter, so when she gave birth to a second girl, she killed her. For the three days of her second child's short life, Lakshmi admits, she refused to nurse her. To silence the infant's famished cries, the impoverished village woman squeezed the milky sap from an oleander shrub, mixed it with castor oil, and forced the poisonous potion down the newborn's throat. The baby bled from the nose, then died soon afterward. Female neighbors buried her in a small hole near Lakshmi's square thatched hut of sunbaked mud. They sympathized with Lakshmi, and in the same circumstances, some would probably have done what she did. For despite the risk of execution by hanging and about 16 months of a much-ballyhooed government schemes to assist families with daughters, murdering girls is still sometimes believed to be a wiser course than raising them. "A daughter is always liabilities. How can I bring up a second?" Lakshmi, 28, answered firmly when asked by a visitor how she could have taken her own child's life eight years ago. "Instead of her suffering the way I do, I thought it was better to get rid of her."

A tenant cultivator, Gauri* has two daughters and a son at 24. The baby that she was accused of strangling was the third daughter. She and her husband were jailed along with their youngest child. That three baby girls born around the same time had died in Gauri's village had alerted the police. The father of one of the girls had told his wife, "Why should I have anything to do with the legal proceedings when the baby died in your mother's house? I won't bear the expenses. It is your problem, not mine." Home on bail, the wife solved the problem by taking her own life.

Various brutal methods are adopted by parents to kill the female infant. Usually, midwives are hired to carry out the task, who feed milk laced with the sap of poisonous plants or pesticides to the infant, give paddy (rice with its husk) that slits the tender throats of new-born children, feed salt to increase their blood pressure or even stuff the infants into clay pots. In some cases female infants are starved or dehydrated by parents and are even wrapped in wet towels to help them catch pneumonia.  These techniques have been passed on from generations in our country and continue to be passed down further.

Alligundam, a remote village in Tamil Nadu, is an eye-opener in many ways. The families there are aggressively protective of their right to eliminate their female children. A village elder shouts angrily, "We don't kill female infants in this village? Go and see... you will find at least one girl child in every house." What he conveniently forgets to mention was that the next... and the next... and the next... would all be eliminated. The families believe that one girl is needed to 'light the lamp' in each home; the others are intrusions who just have to go. They want more boys, so family planning is never an option.

What lies at the root of this tragedy for these families? At an awareness camp for school children conducted by an NGO in an infanticide-prone area the children were asked who they preferred for a sibling - boy or girl. 99 percent of them favoured boys; girls, they said, cost more to their parents. A 14-year-old schoolboy ran away from home when his parents refused to kill the twin girls born to them rather late in their life - he did not want to shoulder the responsibility of marrying them off later in life!

Female infanticide is a wicked practice that is common in India. People forget that on the one hand they worship female deities and view young girls as their avatar whereas on the other hand they are busy murdering innocent females. It is true that the birth of a male child is an occasion of celebration while most families see the birth of a female child as a burden. A son is said to carry the family name forward. It hardly matters if the daughter is more capable than the son. It is the son who is more pampered and treasured. Women who are incapable of giving birth to a son are often ridiculed and abused and even thrown out of their husband’s home. Sons are called upon to provide the income; they are the ones who do most of the work in the fields. In this way sons are looked to as a type of insurance. With this perspective, it becomes clearer that the high value given to males decreases the value given to females. In most traditional homes, where a girl child is looked upon as Goddess Lakshmi, she is also said to bring poverty for her parents and riches for her in-laws. This is in reference to the system of dowry where girls take money and presents to their husband’s homes when they get married.

60-year-old Kanchamma*, a midwife in a non-descript village in Tamil Nadu, has witnessed the killing of many female infants. Her job, she says, is only to deliver the baby. What they do with it is a family decision. On rare occasions, though, she is able to persuade the family to give a girl child away for adoption. Kanchamma, with her native wisdom, has a perfect explanation as to why more girl babies were getting killed every year. "The value of a girl goes down every time the value of gold goes up," she says.

This raises several fundamental issues for reflection. Are the women who commit (or are forced to commit) such crime more sinned against than sinning? Are we punishing the victims of patriarchy rather than its perpetrators? Didn't they kill the female babies they had been taught to devalue from childhood, mainly to ensure their own survival in their marital homes? "If the baby is a girl, don't come back" is an injunction not to be taken lightly. Should not the state have launched a massive education campaign to publicise the basic biological reality that it is the chromosomes of the father, not the mother, that determine the sex of the baby? Given the reality that vast stretches of rural India still reel under patriarchy in its crudest forms, is it realistic to penalise its victims for not standing up to it? Whose fault is it that the woman, who labours equal to (and sometimes more than) the man, yet subsists on much less, has come to be perceived as a liability?

The disastrous impact of the consumerist culture spawned by globalisation that has been a driving force in pushing up dowry rates and consuming brides in flames has been widely held to account by social scientists for the spread of infanticide to new areas and communities. They perceive the spread not as a relic of an atavistic past, but as consequence of a narrowly based, consumerist path of capitalist development within a framework of strong patriarchy and son preference, and an environment of universalisation of the small family norm. They also suggest that policy intervention and social mobilisation are urgently needed on this issue.

A perception held by a section of social activists is that as one strives to change state policy as a long-term goal, punishing those who kill their offsprings with a proprietorial right, could work as an effective deterrent in the short term. This has, in effect, opened the floodgates to foeticide, aided by modern scanning technologies. Another point of view that it is the father who should be arrested instead of the mother, as infanticide could not happen against his wish, was tested in a gathering of women in an affected area; some thought that it would ruin the marriage and would split the family. Many, including a large number of NGOs working in these areas are against any punitive action, and stress instead basic policy changes that would expedite attitudinal changes.

It would be naive to perceive female infanticide and foeticide solely as expressions of violence of the families concerned, ignoring the deceptively invisible violence that is inherent in the path of market-driven economic development and an acquisitive culture that creates and strengthens inequalities and inhumanities. Compassion, humaneness and the worth of the individual are totally alien values in an economic dispensation where greed is assiduously cultivated and individual profit is celebrated as the crowning civilisational goal and glory. It is about time we exerted ourselves to reflect and debate on who the major and minor players are in these killing fields and whether the women in distress should be penalised and made to bear a cross that belongs elsewhere.

* All names changed to protect privacy


Goofy Mumma said...

My God! This is unfathomable. I speak as a mother, being one, when I say, that a new born brings out the strongest protective instincts in a woman. A mother would fight everything and everybody to protect her baby, so it is quite unbelievable to me that a mother would kill her own child. I can't explain to you in word the horror, this post generated in my heart and mind. It is the making of an emotionless, monstrous mankind, if a mother can kill her own baby.
I think I have just bid good bye to a few nights of peaceful sleep.

Indian Home Maker said...

I think female infanticide and foeticide is the culmination of all the bias that goes on in our society in the name of culture and tradition. It starts from the blessing, "Doodho nahao, pooto phalo" Meaning, (be wealthy enough to) 'bathe in milk, and have many sons'. This continues with special functions to celebrate the birth of a male child.
Sometimes they don't kill the girl child, she is fed a bit, looked after once in a while, grows in neglect, cold, sores, malnutrition, abuse, beating, lots of work, treated the way you won't treat a maid (ever), they are cursed angrily and even affectionately called,Mar-jaani (why don't you die)and then if she still doesn't die - married off to anybody who doesn't ask for too much money.
They do the same to their baby girls. this is the culture we are so proud of!

Surbhi said...

Goofy Mumma:
Its just the reaction I hope for when I write these posts. Its also just the reaction any sensible person would have. Sad, I know. Frustrating, I know. So what we all can do is to spread the word. We MUST stand up against it when we come across it anywhere in life.

Surbhi said...

And yet they have the gall to celebrate Navratri and Ashtami by washing little girls' feet and worshipping them. That absolutely makes me scream. WHY? WHY? WHY? Why such double standards, such hypocrisy?

Goofy Mumma said...

Have linked up your post.

Mamma mia! Me a mamma? said...

Came here from Goofy Mamma's blog. This is chilling and heartbreaking. I've always longed for a daughter; struck out both times. How anyone can see babies as a liability leaves me speechless. It's incomprehensible. Our education needs tremendous revamping.

Surbhi said...

Goofy Mumma:
A biiiiig thanks fo spreading the word, and a biiiig goofy smile.

Goofy Mumma said...

Don't thank me please. I am greatly shocked and terrified by the gory details you have laid bare. It was just me pouring out my agony.

Seriously, where did you get all the details from? Internet research, or did you actually meet these people?

Surbhi said...

Goofy Mumma:
No, haven't met these women. Quoted from various research articles on the Net and books etc.

Rahul said...

Hello Surbhi,
I feel pity for girl childs in India.
Even if they survice, they never get their life to live.
I absolutely agree your views and wish, some day the women in India will raise to its extent to snatch her rights from the hypocrites and this man dominating society.
The difference what we see, specially in India has been rooted in our genes generations back and this is surely done by the "Dharmas" laid here.
I hope and wish, more and more people get educated and aware on this.
I found your blog from Indiblogger.in and I have a blog at http://rahulshende.com
I have some few readers at my blog, can I republish your articles with your premission and author name to my blog, its a request.
You can email me at email@rahulshende.com
Good wishes!

Monika said...

i am stunned... i know all this happens but still when u read something like this leaves u numb and speechless i wish i could something abt it

rahul said...

have you bothered to read the text you are mentioning as "Atharva Veda v 1.2.3" or is it paki propagandu?

boos, first learn to read and then crib.

Indian Home Maker said...

Surbhi I just came back to say I am so glad we are talking about this, I have a post in my drafts on Manusmriti, and how it leads to baby girl killing. Will publish it.

Thanks for creating this awareness.

Surbhi said...

Rahul Shende:
Do spread the word through your blog. We need as many people as we can. For that, you sure can quote me. Do provide a link to my blog when you do that, so that more people come over.

Surbhi said...

Mamma Mia:
You'll have two daughters later in life, won't you? Your DILs will make all the wait worth it. Besta luckie and cuddlies to the two brats!

Surbhi said...

YES YOU CAN do something about it. Spread the word. Talk, write, scream about it. Stand up against it when it happens, even if it means standing up to those close to you.
And keep dropping in :)

Surbhi said...

Do put up that Manusmriti shit. I read through the whole text for a post on the 'worth' of a woman as perceived by Manu, and was too sick to even puke. I can't help but marvel how lucky we are this hasn't been imposed on us, or we wouldn't have been alive, much less conversing as two sensitive and educated women!

Surbhi said...

Should I even bother replying to you?

Anonymous said...

First of all, I would request the moderator to please allow this comment to be posted.

Female infanticide is a serious crime, so why do people go-ahead and kill their daughters. Is it because they are a liability or is it due to poverty. I think education is the best way to curb this social genocide practiced by scores of Indians.

Please support this online petition to prevent the discrimination of the girl-child by voting here!

Surbhi said...

Moderation is a necessar evil in this day and age. Can't afford to have trolls or spammers polluting my comment space.
While I appreciate and respect your concern for discrimination against the girl child, I don't know whether education is actually going to help.
For all we know, people might switch from infanticide to foeticide, which is already happening in India and abroad amongst the more affluent and educated people.
Do refer to my post Drop Dead, Gorgeous! where I talk about an educated and working woman who went in for multiple abortions because the all were girls.
I have voted on the link you provided, and I can only hope it helps in some way.
Thanks for dropping in. Keep visiting and help spread the word.