A daughter lives, not by law alone

Lavanya Shanbhogue Arvind | Updated on January 15, 2018

Daddy’s girl in a nation that prefers sons for both religious and economic reasons Photo: KK Mustafah

Don’t ask, don’t tell The 1994 law that makes foetal sex determination a criminal offence, puts the onus on the pre-natal diagnostic service providers Photo: Manoj Kumar

Same-same A skewed sex ratio not only disempowers women but also violates the principles of equality Photo: PTI

We’ve had laws against female infanticide since colonial times, but not the protection. Where are we going wrong?

In the latter part of the 19th century, the colonial government conducted an enumerative study of the population of the North Western Provinces of undivided British India. The North Western Provinces (not to be confused with the North Western Frontier Provinces) was an administrative region that included parts of present-day Uttar Pradesh, Delhi (between 1838 and 1856), Ajmer and Meerut. In certain districts like Basti (UP), in a certain year the British Raj recorded only one girl for 104 boys. Further studies based on birth and death registries as well as census studies showed abnormal sex ratios; young girls made up less than 25 per cent of the total minor population.

Back then, as there was no way of knowing the sex of an unborn baby, daughter-killings were carried out through a variety of violent means; asphyxiation, abandonment of newborn girls on anthills, in snake pits and forests, as well as systematic neglect of the baby until she died of malnutrition.

The issue of female infanticide was identified by the colonial State as far back as 1789, but owing to a lack of detailed studies the authorities could only prosecute the rare case by charging the parents with murder.

After much lobbying by both Hindu social reformers and Christian missionaries, the Infanticide Regulation Act of 1870 was passed to eradicate this social menace. The punishment under the Act was six months’ prison or a fine. Further, Section 6 of the Act empowered a police officer to seize a child from any person suspected of abandoning, neglecting, or intending to murder the child.

The law brought about the creation of a special administrative force known as The Infanticide Committee. It was authorised to maintain birth, marriage and death registers and conduct gender census in districts. In 1873, a young grandmother in Azamgarh district was convicted for suffocating to death a baby girl, minutes after she was born, by placing the placenta over the infant’s mouth.

According to administrative reports (‘Working of the Infanticide Act in the North Western Provinces between 1871 and 1886’), the Infanticide Committee had put in place several measures to curb the crime. These included increased surveillance and monitoring of “suspected villages” — regions and communities that were identified as potential sites for daughter-killing.

Certain tribes, localities and entire clans were declared “suspect” based on the existing female-to-male sex ratios. They were closely monitored, their living area was “demarcated”, and they were classified on the basis of caste. Among the higher caste groups identified were the Rajputs, Chauhans, Surajbansis and Bhadauriyas. Under the “suspected villages” were those dominated by Gujars, Jats, and Ahirs from districts such as Bijnor, Moradabad, Mainpuri, Saharanpur and Meerut.

The enforcement measures included compulsory registration of births and deaths by designated village watchmen or chowkidars. The Infanticide Committee also obtained detailed information from midwives, heads of household and the local imperial police. Pregnant women were monitored. The corpses of female children who had died in suspicious circumstances were to be examined by a state-appointed civil surgeon.

In 1874, midwives were even asked to report instances where they were not called to assist in a delivery. However, despite these steps, female infanticide could not be eradicated in the manner in which, say, the practice of Sati was abolished.

Long after the colonial Infanticide Regulation Act and newer laws such as the Pre-conception Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act (PCPNDT Act) 1994 in contemporary times, the heinous crime continues unabated. Even after nearly 150 years of legislation, sex ratios continue to decline.

According to the 2011 census, the sex ratio in the 0-6 age group was 914 females per 1,000 males — a drop from the 927 females recorded in 2001 and 945 in 1991.

So, where did the 1870 law fail? According to the administrative report of the North Western Provinces (1871-72), 3,707 villages were brought under this law. However, by 1888, the Act was in force only in 1,381 villages; and by 1900, the coverage dropped to 264 villages.

According to the feminist historian Malavika Kasturi, who has done extensive work on infanticide issues in the colonial era, the measures against female infanticide were gradually withdrawn from all regions, as the menace was “considered more or less extinct”.

One of her reports quotes the officiating commissioner of the Allahabad Division as saying in 1872 that “the gross inaccuracies ensconced within the registers often led to the idea that female infanticide had been eradicated, a fact contrary to the grim reality”.

More and more villages became excluded from the ambit of the Act for a variety of reasons, which included the complacency of the state as well as its self-laudatory attitude. The colonial government began believing that the sex ratio had begun to correct itself and therefore terminated all surveillance.

Secondly, the inhabitants of the demarcated villages began finding loopholes in the surveillance mechanisms that helped them conceal the birth and death of girl children. Pregnant women were sent to non-demarcated settlements and dead girls were reported as boys. During census, families that had previously reported the birth of a girl child and subsequently did not report the child’s death, “borrowed” girls from their neighbours to pass off as their own. Between 1901 and 1971, the sex ratio dropped from 972 females to 930 (Historical Reports of Census of India, 2011).

Over the years, the skewed sex ratio only worsened. In the post-Independence era, as the task of government formation and nation building took over, social issues lost urgency. A status quo persisted until lobbying by feminist groups began in the 1980s. In 1974, in order to help detect foetal abnormalities, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences started amniocentesis.

This test, in which the amniotic fluid is primarily used to detect chromosomal abnormalities in the foetus, can also aid pre-natal sex determination. By 1979 this test was commercialised and many diagnostic centres, manned by qualified radiologists and other support staff, saw an opportunity to turn it into a money-spinner.

In 1979, the New Bhandaris Ante Natal Sex Determination Clinic was set up in Amritsar, Punjab, to provide sex determination services. The high-decibel advertising, targeting would-be parents, referred to daughters as a “liability” to the family. As the feminist scholar Vina Mazumdar recalls, the ads were replete with slogans such as “Pay 5,000 rupees today and save 50,000 rupees tomorrow”, clearly alluding to future dowry payments. In November 1985, activists from women’s groups as well as ethical sciences groups came together as the Forum Against Sex Pre-Determination and Sex Pre-Selection (FASDSP) to launch a campaign for a new law to end the menace.

Lobbying groups under the aegis of FASDSP decided not to complicate the existing Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act in the belief that women’s right to abortion should remain intact. Therefore, the PCPNDT Act made sex-determination a criminal offence and put the onus on the service providers.

Skewed sex ratios in favour of males is not only disempowering to women but also gender discriminatory and, therefore, violates the principles of equality. All the laws enacted so far have tried to “treat” the symptoms but have left the root cause unaddressed. It is no secret that this is a nation that prefers sons. For religious and economic reasons this preference has shaped societal attitudes for centuries.

It is the son who will bring the dowry (rather than the daughter who will take away her parents’ life savings), protect and provide for parents in their old age, inherit lands, property and titles, perform the last rites of their dead and, in a patrilineal world, bring about the continuity of the bloodline.

This brings us to the moot question: is legislation alone enough for social reform? In the words of the political scientist Aedanus Burke, “There is no method found for punishing the multitude. Law can punish a single solitary recalcitrant criminal. It can never operate against the whole body of people who choose to defy it.”

Further, BR Ambedkar writes, “The prevalent view is that once the rights are enacted in law then they are safeguarded. As experience proves, rights are protected not by law but by social and moral conscience of the society. But if the fundamental rights are opposed by the community, no Law, no Parliament, no Judiciary can guarantee them in the real sense of the world.”

Until such social conscience is achieved India’s girls will suffer.

Lavanya Shanbhogue-Arvind is the author of the historical fiction novel The Heavens We Chase

Published on November 25, 2016

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