Writing for College
16 December 2001
Abuse of Females in Today's Indian Society
India--known as the land of people, of the Taj Mahal, of beauty. India--also the land of female foeticide, infanticide, and bride burning.
"Even today, in some villages, on the birth of a girl her throat is strangled and she is killed…After marriage, some [women] are burned." (Lajja). Most people do not know about this cruel, hideous side of Indian society. Yet the numbers are too great to ignore. In India, four million female babies are aborted per year (Statistical Data). The national female to male sex ratio for ages zero to five years is 927 to one thousand (Aravamudan). Five thousand one hundred and ninety-nine incidents of bride burning were reported in 1994 alone (Thakur).
These events take place all over India--from Jammu-Kashmir in the north to Tamil Nadu in the south. They are happening every single day, at any given moment. Be it in a Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, or any other family. It is seen in a poor village home, wealthy mansion in a major city, or any place of economic status between these extremes. It is being done by both those with no formal education whatsoever and by those who have come out of the finest graduate schools with honors. There is no boundary to the abuse of the human female in Indian society.
Though there are countless forms of abuse against females, this paper will focus on the three most alarming. Female foeticide is the abortion of a fetus on the sole basis that it is female. Female infanticide is the killing of a newborn girl for the same reason. Bride burning is the act of killing a bride by dousing her with kerosene and setting her on fire for various reasons. This paper will attempt to explore the epidemic of these three atrocities: what is happening, why it is happening, what is being done to combat these repulsive acts, and what else could be done.
The abuse of females begins even before a girl is born. Female foeticide is one of the newer forms of female abuse, as the technology to determine the sex of a fetus is a relatively modern one. It is used by the upper-class families, since scanning (as ultrasound is popularly called) and abortion are expensive procedures. The cost of scanning and abortion can run from fifty to five hundred U. S. dollars, which in rupees (Rs.) is around Rs. 2,395/-- to 2,39,500/--. To compare, a can of soft drink costs around Rs. 11/--, or twenty-three cents in U. S. currency. A woman may go along with the abortion because her husband or in-laws are pressuring her. Then, she will have to keep trying until she gives birth to a male (Verma, Sangeeta).
Why do people want to kill unborn girls? The reasons are much the same as those for infanticide, which will be introduced later. First, in Hindu society, only a male can perform the funeral rights and light the funeral pyre for his parents' cremation (Kolanad, 51). More importantly, only the son can continue the family line. This is because a girl must go to the family of her husband after marriage. It is a popular saying in India that the ones who give birth to a girl only borrow her for a short time; after marriage, the young woman goes to her real home.
But the most obvious reason for killing the unborn child is that if it is a girl, she will probably need a dowry in marriage (Kolanad, 51). Dowry is the payment or "gifts" that the bride's family gives the groom's family on the occasion of the couple's marriage. This is the linking factor in all three of the forms of female abuse discussed here, and will be further explained in the bride burning section of this paper. Many families have to work their whole lives to earn the dowry of a daughter, and are afraid she may not be accepted into her future in-law's family without a sufficient one.
Despite these financial and societal pressures, there are many steps being taken to combat female foeticide. In 1994, the Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act was introduced to ban the use of sex determination tests (Menon). This includes registering all ultrasound clinics and prosecution of those who provide the illegal tests (Sex Determination). The Indian Medical Association has called scanning tests unethical and has appealed to its members to not administer them (Menon). Now, religious leaders are joining the fight as well. Muslim imams, Hindu swamis, and Parsi priests are calling foeticide a sin and a "crime against humanity and God" (Menon). In May of 2001, Sikh clergy issued a decree that female foeticide will be punished by excommunication--removal from the religious community (Indian Religious Leaders). Some girls are also becoming bold and refusing the tests, and some actually want to have daughters (Verma, Sangeeta).
But the problem is still rampant. It can be seen everyday in newspapers and on the evening news and heard on the radio. The problem has touched many people. One person interviewed for this report knew a relative's friend whose wife had an abortion three or four times, each time because the fetus was female (Verma, Asha). Even in some areas of the south, where the prevalent worship of a Mother Goddess has given rise to a matrilineal society, female foeticide is beginning to show its power. Furthermore, the Supreme Court of India has recently summoned health secretaries of eleven states that have been accused of not complying with the Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques Act (Sex Determination). The issue of female foeticide is still very much alive, and will probably continue to grow if scanning and abortion costs go down.
However, as long as most do not have the money for scanning, many poor will turn to female infanticide. Still, killing of newborn girls has no caste, economic, or community barriers (Aravamudan). The female infant mortality rate is forty percent higher for females than for males, and the risk of dying between ages zero and five is forty three percent higher for girls than boys (Should India Do More?).
There are many methods known for killing the newborn. Gita Aravamudan described some of these: suffocating the baby with a pillow, or with a wet towel so "pneumonia" will be listed as the cause of death on the death certificate. In Gujarat, a newborn could be drowned in milk. The female child could also be fed drops of alcohol to bring about diarrhea and die by dehydration, while more "modern" families use pesticides or sleeping pills. The newborn's milk is also laced with the juice of a poisonous plant, or even with paddy husk, which slits the baby's throat from the inside. Another method used is putting rice grains in the infant's mouth so that she chokes and dies (Shaikh).
There are countless reasons female infanticides are performed. Some families are so poor, they would rather kill the baby themselves than have her grow up in the same poverty (Aravamudan) or be raped or go into prostitution (Verma, Sangeeta). The same belief as in foeticide is also present, that the girl will have to go to another family anyway and others will get the benefit of the parents' efforts (Shaikh). Another issue is to prevent the shame the mother may go through if it is found out that she gave birth to a girl. She may be taunted if her first or second child is a female. The uneducated think there is something wrong with her, not her husband, because she cannot conceive a male (Verma, Sangeeta). According to Mahamudha Shaikh, from the southern state of Tamil Nadu, giving birth to a girl can be "considered a shame act."
Of course, as is the case in foeticide, the major reason for the killing of female newborns is dowry. Aravamudan interviewed Kanchama, a village midwife from Aligurudam village in Tamil Nadu. She explained this reason in the simplest terms: "The value of a girl goes down every time the value of gold goes up." The dowry factor plays a very big part in infanticide for some poor, uneducated families (Shaikh). Once a girl is born, dowry is the biggest worry for the parents, according to Simi Sondhi from Punjab, in the northern part of India.
Many girls do survive long enough to reach a marriageable age. This is the time when parents worry if she will be accepted into her in-law's family, and will be happy for the rest of her life. If the groom's family demands a hefty dowry, the parents have even more to worry about. The danger of bride burning is a real one, and has many factors contributing to it. But it is most related to the issue of dowry.
The origin of dowry (also known as dahej or hunda) goes back to many thousands of years and into Hindu mythology. In the epic Ramayan, Sita's father gave the god Ram a dowry. The tradition of dowry also stems from the ancient rituals of Kanyadan, Varadakshina, and Stridhan. Kanyadan is when the bride's father gives the groom's father money or property. A variation of this is Varadakshina, in which the bride's father gives the groom gifts and money. Stridhan concerns the gifting of clothes and jewelry to the bride herself by her friends and relatives (Banerjee). At first, these traditions made sense. A new family member, who did not contribute to the income of the household, was being added. To lessen this burden on the groom's family, dowry was collected.