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The missing women

Rasheeda Bhagat

There is indication that where the sex ratios are low more prenatal scans are being done.

Technology has helped in the upgrade from female infanticide to female foeticide in getting rid of unwanted daughters. The missing women in the Census 2001 figures point an accusing finger more at urban, educated, prosperous India rather than rural, illiterate poor India. So why does urban, affluent India hate its daughters? An expert on the subject, Sabu George of CWDS, says the dwindling sex ratio is "reflective of the lower status and low esteem in which women are held in our society. What is happening is a reassertion of patriarchy. Over the last few decades, women are getting educated, employed and aware of their rights. This is one way of reasserting male supremacy and keeping women under control."

He is alarmed by the rising level of violence against "not only women, but also Dalits and other underprivileged groups. In an increasingly violent world, women's wellbeing and security becomes a casualty."

There are over 25,000 ultrasound clinics registered in India, but "what we have is registration and not regulation of these clinics. Over the last 10 years, the State health care system has crumbled and more private players are entering the medical profession without virtually any regulation. All over the world there is regulation of medical practice but not here and there is hardly any pressure from civil society either."

He says there is no estimate on how many prenatal scans are done and what percentage goes for female foeticide. But in the national family health survey, "there is indication that where the sex ratios are low more scans are being done." Blaming the manufacturers of scan machines for having no ethics or conscience in pushing their product on a society that hates women he says, "In the US they can sell these machines only to an MD, but here and after we went to the Supreme Court, the PNDT Act was amended saying the machines can be sold only to registered clinics."

But the regulation in the sale of machines does not extend to their usage. "Merely registering the machine without regulating the usage is like giving license to do sex determination tests," says George, pointing out that in the US, insurance companies pay for diagnostic tests and hence keep a hawk's eye on the number of scans being done, but in India, "with civil society failing to ensure that doctors do not misuse such technology, many doctors, and their commission agents, feel they can make money without being caught."

To advocate Varsha Deshpande's suggestion that a few erring doctors should be jailed to teach the unscrupulous doctors a lesson, George says, "We don't have to put them in jails, we just have to file a few cases. Even the best cases might not get conviction because there is corruption in our lower judiciary; but filing a case will have a tremendous impact because court cases can go on forever and you have to keep appearing in the court. The majority of the practitioners are amenable to pressure; the crooks will of course continue." He recalls how for years he tried to engage doctors on this debate, without much success, till he went to the Supreme Court.

"Now we have very strong directives from the SC and the amended law says they have to keep records; if they don't, it can be presumed they are doing sex determination."

Returning to the link between prosperity and the missing girls, he says that even in rural areas like Belgaum, "where irrigation came in a big way in the late 1960s, and there was sudden economic transformation without much social change, things like dowry and sex determination became rampant." In Rajasthan too, "where there is more water, girls' lives are precarious" as also in the sugar belt in Maharashtra.

George concludes that foeticide is easier than infanticide and is gaining ground because "in infanticide the bonding is already established. But foeticide is more rampant because you have a profession which is promoting it to make money"

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