Sex Selective Abortions
By Devendra Sharma
In Indian context, sex selective abortion (female foeticide) means aborting a foetus for no other reason than its being a female. This practice is in itself it not much old, having become prevalent only after the use of advanced medical techniques for determining the sex of a foetus. However, it has its roots in the grim and brutal practice of female infanticide in which the girl child was killed immediately after birth.
Economic factors and poverty
Social practices are usually influenced by economics and this is no exception. The traditional Indian society attaches more importance to a son as he is the source of income for the family. On the other hand, a daughter is a liability as she has to be married off and given dowry which puts substantial financial burden on the family. Apart from this, any investment made on a girl is not likely to benefit the family as after marriage, she lives with her parent-in-laws and no financial benefit is accrued to the parents. As a sizeable percentage of our population lives in poverty, birth of a girl child brings extra financial burden which the family tries to avoid.
However, paradoxically in present context the most performing states in India in terms of macroeconomic indicators have registered the worst sex ratio. In contrast to this the sex ratio is relatively better in the Tribal population which has no or limited access to the medical facilities.
Patriarchal and Feudal Society
In a patriarchal and feudal society like ours, more value is attached to a son, who is supposed to continue family lineage. Only he can conduct the last rites of parents and only he can offer prayers to ancestors. On the other hand, a girl has no such religious or social utility. When the girl grows up, she has to be given in marriage. As per social norms, the groom’s family was considered superior and the girl’s family had to unwillingly accept their superiority. This hurt the pride of many people, including many tribes in Punjab and led them to consider girls as a potential source of their indignation which they wanted to avoid at any cost.
Female infanticide, a forerunner to female foeticide
As the people in India did not have access to pre natal sex determination technologies prior to 1980s, unwanted girl child was immediately killed either by feeding some poisonous things or by not feeding at all. This practice of killing a girl child immediately after birth is called female infanticide. The problem has been amply documented during the colonial rule. The British detected the problem in 1789 when one of their officers, Jonathan Duncan, Resident of Benares, discovered that some families were practicing female infanticide. Soon it was noticed that the practice was prevalent in many areas of North and West India. Initially the British tried to solve the problem through social and religious manifestations, but when these methods failed to control the situation, “Female Infanticide Prevention Act” was brought in 1870 to prevent such killings. However, the evil practice could not be eradicated and the bias against the girl child has continued up to this day.
In the later decades of the 20th century, Aminocentesis test, which was supposed to be used for detecting genetic disorders, came to be used to determining foetal sex. This was further facilitated by the increase in use of sonography by which sex of the foetus could be determined more easily and then the unwanted child could be killed even before it was born. Easy availability of these facilities coupled with unethical attitude of a number of professionals from the medical fraternity resulted in large number of sex selective abortion. Many of those people, who were earlier not resorting to female infanticide due to not being able to kill their own children or out of the fear of punishment for doing a murder, were now indulging in female foeticide. Lack of appropriate legal provisions as well as poor implementation of existing laws has further compounded the problem.
Declining Sex Ratio
Most important impact of this practice has been witnessed in the decline in sex ratio which is the number of females per thousand males. Sex ratio in India has steadily declined since the beginning of 20th century. As per census of 1901 the sex ratio was 972 which declined to 933 in the year 2001. As per 2011 census the ratio is 940 females per thousand males which though shows a marginal improvement from 2001; is still much lower than the global average of 984. It is all the more alarming as some of the most populous states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have sex ratios much lower than the national average, the figures being 908 and 916 respectively. Surprisingly, Delhi which is the national capital and has better facilities in terms of education and medical infrastructure has a very low sex ratio of 866, less than even that of Haryana, which is notorious for gender inequality and has a sex ratio of 877.
This is an alarming situation. In the long run, low sex ratio would lead to changes in the marriage patterns and family systems. Men are likely to suffer as there will be fewer brides to marry which would mean that men will have to delay their marriage and some of them will have to forego their marriage altogether. The families of those who marry late will have higher requirements as they will have less number of years to fulfill their responsibilities. Those who do not marry at all will have to be adjusted in their parental families which will affect the family pattern.
Women also do not stand to gain in this scenario, as they will face greater pressure for marrying and having a family at an early age which will affect their career prospects. This may also lead to trafficking of women as some of the men may resort to marriage by paying money to the families of poor girls. Thus the situation will not benefit anyone but will result in loss for all.
Steps for prevention
Female foeticide is a discrimination based on gender and is also the denial of Right to Life to the girl child. Section 312 to 315 of the Indian Penal Code relate to such kind of offences and provide for imprisonment and penalty for the offenders. However, the magnitude of the problem led the Government to enact the Pre Conception and Pre Natal Diagnostics Technology (PCPNDT) Act, 1994, which lays elaborate guidelines for doctors running ultrasound or other diagnostic centres capable of pre-natal sex determination. The Act also provides for imprisonment and fines for persons involved in sex determination. The Act is implemented by the Appropriate Authorities and Advisory Committees and Boards constituted under the Act. The Act was made stringent by the amendments in the year 2002.
However, punishments under the Act are few and rare, primary reason being the poor implementation of the Act. Although the Act was made in the year 1994, the corresponding rules were notified in the year 1996, after a delay of about two years. Even after this, the Act was not implemented properly. The Appropriate Authorities, Advisory Committees and Boards were not timely constituted in all the states due to which no action could be taken. This was noted by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in its judgment passed in the year 2003 in the case of Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes (CEHAT) & Others Vs Union of India. In the judgment, the Hon’ble Court directed the Government to implement the Act with zeal and vigour.
Present situation is that requisite authorities have been notified in the states; this has no doubt provided a legal framework for implementation of the Act. However, the punishments under the Act are few and rare, although, one of the reasons could be that the act of sex selection is done with the consent of all concerned leaving no quarter for complaint from any side. As such, the legal provisions do not appear to be have made a dent in the problem.
Simultaneously, it has also been realized that the problem is essentially a social and cultural one and only legal provisions may not suffice. Considering this aspect, the government as well as some non government organizations, have been creating awareness on this subject through media and other campaigns. Some specific schemes like the “Laadli Scheme” are also being run by the Government in which various incentives are given to the girl child and her parents. The objective of these campaigns and schemes is to make people aware that girls do not bring a higher liability than boys and if given a chance, can rise to same heights as the boys.
Sex ratio as per census of 2011 is 940 which is a slight improvement from 932 as per census of 2001. However, this should not be a cause for happiness or complacency as sex ratio in the child population in age group of 0-6 years has declined from 927 in the year 2001 to 914 in the year 2011. This would mean that despite all the aforesaid efforts, problem has persisted and needs much stricter measures. One such measure could be enacting laws for putting this crime in the category of “murder” and dealt accordingly. Apart from this, we also need to remove gender bias from the society as only this will encourage parents to desist from this practice.