Opinion: The Vanishing Girls of India

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The concept of a woman having autonomy over her body is foreign here. And unlike their American sisters, Indian feminists aren't fighting to maintain the legality of abortion—because there is no movement threatening to take it away. The battle here is to infuse into society a respect for girls and women, and to make the birth of a daughter as joyous an event as the arrival of a son.

The government's 1994 ban on "misuse" of sex-determination tests has done little to curb the practice. The laws simply aren't enforced. Unless there is a hard, committed reappraisal of our laws, education system, and societal attitudes, not much will change.

We need both short-term measures, such as ensuring that the laws actually work, and long-term ones, such as guaranteed education for girls. The state and the family have to work together to bring about this transformation.

The Indian Medical Association recently hosted a meeting in New Delhi of top Hindu, Christian, and Jain priests to speak out against sex-determination tests and to urge people to "shun the atrocious act of female feticide." A laudable idea, but has the IMA ever censured a doctor for indulging in the practice? No.

And these religious heads are often the biggest roadblocks to any real change. Many have glorified the practice of sati, the ancient Hindu practice of widows immolating themselves on their husband's funeral pyres. Like many religious hierarchies around the world, Indian clergy have not allowed women priests.

Meanwhile, such is the onslaught against the girl child that there are villages in the western state of Rajasthan—an exotic tourist attraction of forts and erstwhile maharajahs—where no groom has brought a wedding party for years because there are no brides.

Declines in female populations are also evident in Pakistan and Bangladesh, because of similar traditions and beliefs. China, where strict family-planning policies combined with sex-selection abortions have led to "bachelor villages," fares no better. Kidnapping potential brides is becoming common.

I remember my maternal grandmother joking about women she knew in her younger days who fed their newborn girls poisonous herbs. After all, she would laugh ominously, who wanted girls? She treated her only son like another deity in the large pantheon of gods she worshiped. She bequeathed everything, including the big house my grandfather had left her, to her son—who turned her out a few days after her husband's death.

And in her final years, it was her daughters who looked after her, not her son.

Seema Sirohi is an assistant editor at The Telegraph, Calcutta's leading English-language daily.

Copyright 2001, The Christian Science Monitor

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