“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