It's National Girl Child Day in India, which is a lame way of saying it's the day we're supposed to think about the epidemic of abortions for sex selection – a practice that has resulted in 6 million missing girls. But as at least two thoughtful editorials suggest, the issue is more complicated than the latest government propaganda campaign or most news reports.
It's illegal for doctors to tell mothers the sex of their unborn children. It's illegal to then kill them if they are female. There has been a law in place to check this since 1996. But 14 years later, despite six million missing girls, there have been a sum total of 55 convictions.
If this is a law that the State doesn't bother to implement, then part of the blame must lie in the gap between legislation and social reality. Where honour killings prevail, where women suffer chronic hunger and deprivation, where dowry (like sex selective abortion) is banned by law but persists all the same, how much control can women really have over their fertility? When to give birth, how many to give birth to, and ensuring that they continue to give birth until they produce that much coveted male heir is often determined by larger family and social pressure. Complicit in all this is the medical profession that diagnoses and aborts unwanted babies.
At the same time, the government has been focusing on fighting the symptoms of the disease without addressing its cause, according to Farah Naqvi and A.K. Shiva Kumar, writing in the Hindu:
So what are we doing wrong — both in the discourse we have created and in the policy route we have chosen to walk? To start with, we have chosen to target one symptom (practice of sex selection), instead of evolving a comprehensive national policy response to a deeply resistant ailment (son preference/daughter aversion and low status of women in India).
Meanwhile, the media's gruesome hunt for fetuses to dramatize the epidemic has come at a cost:
While national attention on this issue is welcome, this is complex terrain. On the one hand is the right of females to be born, and of society to protect and preserve a gender balance. On the other hand lies a woman's right under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act (enacted in 1971, revised in 1975) to have a safe and legal abortion as part of a whole gamut of reproductive rights. In our zeal to create an environment against one type of abortion (of a foetus only because it is female), we end up stigmatising all abortions. Access to safe and legal abortion for Indian women is already severely limited, and this environment will not improve things. Indeed the very word ‘foeticide' i.e. ‘killing' of the foetus (used often without the qualifying ‘female foeticide') dents abortion rights.
As the authors point out, meanwhile, the government's policies are strikingly unsuited to the problem. For example, 15 cash transfer schemes offer small payments to families who have daughters and raise them to maturity – but the phenomenon of sex selective abortion is not an issue for the poor who cannot afford illegal ultrasound to begin with.
Similarly, the propaganda campaigns focusing on “love the girl child” -- which are in strong evidence today, ignore one essential fact: The girl child eventually grows up to become a woman. And, unlike South Korea and China, India has yet to develop effective programs to make them desirable – such as laws to promote gender equality, increase female workforce participation, ensure old age social security – along with banning the use of sex selective diagnostics.