At a south Delhi abortion clinic this week, for example, five of six patients booked for appointments had been accompanied by their mothers-in-law. The clinic director, who did not wish to be quoted by name because of the sensitive nature of the subject, noted the large sign – which must, by law, be posted – saying sex determination was illegal and not offered there. Five of the 200 patients she sees each month are well into their second trimester, when fetal gender can be confirmed, and claim to already have daughters. She turns them away, fearing sex-based termination is their primary motive.
“But others lie, and how can we check? They say they have sons already, and came because of contraceptive failure, and that entitles them to abortion … and there is nothing I can do about that,” she adds.
Abortion has been legal in India since 1971, and safe and cheap terminations are available in government hospitals and private clinics, an accepted part of government's “small families” population-control practice. But the campaign to protect female fetuses presents complicated moral questions for defenders of reproductive rights: It uses language such as “defending the rights of the girl child,” but Indian feminists debate the issue uncomfortably: Is the implication that male fetuses do not have rights? Or have different ones?
Ms. Singh notes an “incoherence” between a woman's right to abortion and the state's restricting her from choosing her child's gender: “We've been struggling with these questions. Choice is individual but the consequences are societal, when the rights of those who survive are also compromised – I'm rendered less wanted and my claims as a citizen are less valid.”
HUMAN TRAFFICKING MEETS THE NEED
The shortage of potential wives is a subject of frequent coverage by the Indian media. And there are alarming stories – particularly from Punjab and Haryana – of human trafficking. Lower-caste women are bought in states such as Jharkhand, where the sex ratio is roughly equal, and then sold for a few hundred dollars in higher-caste communities.
There are also reports of a surge in polyandry – of a single woman “married” to all the brothers, or to brothers and uncles, in a family, and kept, essentially, as a sex slave with the sole function of producing sons. Media coverage of the “feticide” issue here is inevitably accompanied by dire predictions that violence against women and other crimes, even terrorism, will rise as frustrated young men lose outlets for their sexual urges.
But activists say this analysis misses the real problem. “I hate this argument – I don't care if men don't find brides; we're talking here about missing women,” Ms. Singh says. “What matters are the social and political entitlements of the women who survive – those of us who made it. It's a devaluation of women manifest in such violent form: Your very sex is so worthless it's being eliminated.”
India's government seems to be waking up to the idea that sex selection is not only a practice of the poor: “Growing economic prosperity and education levels have not led to a corresponding mitigation in this acute problem,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said last year. Yet currently there are no policy initiatives – other than soap operas with “feticide” plot lines – aimed at middle or upper-class women.
Ms. John of the Centre for Women's Development Studies argues that clinic raids, bursaries and television ads are not going to stop the sex-ratio slide, when the roots of the problem lie in people's rational decision-making. “If we have no social security system or public health care, and health and education are getting more expensive; if you don't query marriage norms in our society as the successful outcome of parenting; if you don't want to enable daughters to be strong – these are the things that have to change.”
Stephanie Nolen is The Globe and Mail's correspondent in New Delhi.