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Killing Girls, Buying Brides

Oct 19, 2014

The women from the village don’t quite open up. They have a lot to say but something holds them back. I try to tell them that the more they talk, the more the world will know of the truth, but the fear of reprisal is too overwhelming. With time and a lot of probing, however, the stories on female foeticide come forth quietly. Even as the women share this horrific reality that challenges the very existence of girls within their community, what is quite apparent is that no one admits to having gone through with it; it’s always a friend or a relative that they use as a reference.

Then, out of nowhere, Amuda (name changed), a young woman from Nagapattinam, a village close to Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu, looks me in the eye and tells me something that I have not been able to erase from my memory, “A girl is a burden. We are already poor, we cannot afford daughters. When she gets married we will be left with nothing. A son, on the other hand, will always bring in money, even when he gets married.” The irony in her matter-of-fact statement doesn’t escape me, and so I ask her, “How does she hope to get her son married if, like her, others also see a girl as a burden and don’t allow her to be born.” A cloud passes over her eyes before she regains her composure and stoutly remarks, “Girls can be brought from anywhere. Here, that’s how they come anyway.”

In her ignorance, Amuda brings forth another terrible truth: female foeticide gives rise to another grave gender crime, trafficking of women. While women are mostly trafficked for marriage, those who remain unmarried get pushed into the flesh trade.

Being born a girl in India is nothing short of a miracle, as a heady mix of culture, tradition and empty belief culminate in an increased demand for the male child. Simply put, a boy is seen as an asset and a girl, a dreadful liability. In fact, to families living in crushing poverty and schooled in a warped cultural ideology, a girl is only a lifelong drain on their resources. Where food is meagre, she is an extra mouth to feed and she definitely cannot do physical labour like a male child can to augment the family income. If anything, paying for her marriage and dowry most definitely results in a lifetime of debt for her parents.

These are the fundamental factors that have encouraged female foeticide across India and what also lead to the enactment of a legislation that makes sex determination a punishable offense. Prenatal sex determination was banned in India in 1994, recognising that sex selective abortion has its roots in our long history of strong patriarchal influence in all spheres of life. The Pre-conception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, 1994, prohibits sex selection, both before or after conception and regulates the use of pre-natal diagnostic techniques like ultrasound and amniocentesis.

Two decades on and one look at the latest Census 2011 figures reveals that efforts to reign in the threat of female feoticide need to be strengthened exponentially. India’s overall sex ratio has only shown a marginal improvement since the last Census in 2001. From 933 it has come up to 940 per 1000 males. The Child Sex Ratio (0-6 years) is even more skewed at 914 girls for every 1000 boys. This figure is not only a vast decline from 962 recorded in 1981 but also the lowest since Independence. Incidentally, in May 2011, British Medical Journal, ‘The Lancet’, had reported that over 12 million Indian girls were aborted in the womb over the last three decades in the country.

The worst state in India, in terms of child sex ratio, is Haryana, which has recorded 830 girls per 1000 boys. And, quite obviously, it is also the state that is infamous now for importing brides to keep families going. Clearly, female foeticide gives rise to trafficking of women and nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in Haryana.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) 2013 report exposes the rampant trafficking of girls to Haryana from other parts of India for forced marriages. Most victims come from states such as Assam, West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh and they are lured on the pretext of marriage and a better life. These women find themselves in places like Mewat or Sonepat where the middlemen sell them – sometimes repeatedly – to men who cannot find local women.

Unfortunately, not just Haryana, but this is true for most north Indian states with a low sex ratio. According to another report by Shakti Vahini, a non-government organisation, literally thousands of girls and young women are sold into forced marriages across north India. It states: “They are bartered at prices that vary depending upon their age, beauty and virginity, and exploited under conditions that account to modern day slavery.” Again, the statistics tell their own story: while in 2011, 15,000 Indian women were bought and sold as brides in areas where foeticide has led to a ‘paucity’ of women, the 2013 National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data reveals that 24,749 children and women between the ages of 15 and 30 were sold in marriages across the country.

Large scale bride trafficking has been happening in Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and other states. So much so that demographers believe that even if these states undertake efforts to protect the survival of the girl child on a war footing it will not take less than 50 years to restore the balance. Recently, a well-known national daily highlighted the case of one Rekha who had come from north Bengal to Sonepat in 2007 and was sold off for Rs 50,000. Though she seemed to be okay with her new home, not many can escape abuse and ill treatment.

Of course, it’s not a reality exclusive to the North, as Amuda’s statement reveals, “Many times, the girls are brought into the village by their own families. They know we are willing to marry our sons to them at low dowries. At first, it was strange because we have some customary needs for endogamy. With time, however, we have understood that it is necessary to keep the community line alive.”

Female foeticide results in a sex ratio that is skewed towards men. A lack of women has led to increased trafficking – particularly in the rural areas – where they are subjected to forced marriages. As the UNICEF puts it, “Decades of sex determination tests and female foeticide that has acquired genocide proportions are finally catching up with states in India.” After all, the scarcity of women can put a question mark on the very existence of the family, community, society that can’t seem to do without a male child right now…

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