Some stories find you. This one began with bags—1,000 unbleached cotton bags, to be specific. My sister-in-law in the US needed them to hand out to guests at a new Hindu temple in Southwest Florida. I started trawling online sites and spamming friends for recommendations. Days later, a stranger named Namrata Vora emailed me. There was an orphanage for girls named Aarti Home in Kadapa, Andhra Pradesh, she said, with a tailoring unit that could make the bags. After discussing shape, size, price and design, we ordered 1,000 bags.
A 2007 BBC documentary titled India’s Missing Girls, which can be found on YouTube, features Aarti Home. Its remarkable founder, Puchalapalli Sandhya, speaks about India’s gender bias with understanding and compassion. She cradles a beautiful two-year-old girl whom they have named Harshita—abandoned at birth in a basket with a feeding bottle. “We don’t know who her parents are, or her name or her birthday. But since today is an auspicious day, we are celebrating her birthday,” says a smiling Sandhya in the documentary.
There are many poignant moments. A grandmother walks into Aarti Home and hands a day-old girl to Sandhya. The baby’s mother, her daughter, is missing, she says, and walks out. Thirty-six hours later, the premature baby dies. Sandhya speculates as to whether the mother tried to abort the baby using crude methods or eating poisonous herbs. The foetus survived the womb to die just after birth.
The case that spears your heart is of a pregnant woman who once worked at Aarti Home. She knows she is pregnant with a girl and wants to abort her baby. “I’ve had such a tough life,” says the woman. “Why should I subject my daughter to it also? Maybe I will give up my baby to Aarti Home.”
She eventually doesn’t abort her daughter or give her away to Aarti. “Once I saw my daughter’s face, all my love came pouring out,” says the woman in Telugu. “How can I give her away?”
Skewed future: (top) In Jhajjar, Haryana, that has the lowest sex ratio in the country, the number of girls per 1,000 boys is 774, while the state average is 830, in the 0-6 age group; and many girls at the Aarti Home orphanage have been abandoned at birth. Pradeep Gaur/Mint
The 100 girls at Aarti Home range in age from a few months to more than 18 years. Many have been abandoned at birth; some have been rescued from brothels when they were seven or eight years old; some of the older girls have found jobs and moved out. They return occasionally and are received with joyous cries of “akka” or elder sister. The Home invites young men to become elder rakhi-brothers to the girls. Sandhya posts advertisements on Telugumatrimony.com, trying to marry off the older girls on the condition that no dowry shall be asked for or given. The Home has three grandchildren, says the website proudly, and it will remain the “maternal home” for every girl who passes through it.
The 2011 census has brought forth India’s abysmal sex ratio, something that even our vaunted economic growth has been unable to stem. The number of girls per 1,000 boys has fallen 13 points, to 914, in the 0-6 age group in the past decade. Authorities admit that the programmes they had initiated to stem female foeticide and infanticide are not working.
It’s not just among the poor. The latest census figures show cities don’t fare too well either—in Delhi, for instance, the ratio is down 2 points, to 866. In the BBC documentary, a rich woman in Ahmedabad left her husband because he forced her to abort her five-month-old foetus when they discovered it was another girl. In 2007, more than 90 female foetuses were found stuffed in polythene bags and dumped into a well near an ultrasound-scanning clinic in Odisha, even though sex determination is illegal.
Why do we kill our daughters?
Economists have long tried to explain the “missing women of Asia”, first noted by the Nobel prize-winning Amartya Sen as early as 1990 in a seminal paper he wrote for The New York Review of Books. In it, he tried to wrap economics around biology and explain why 50 million women in China and 100 million women in India were “missing”. At birth, he said, boys outnumber girls everywhere. But women are hardier than men. They live longer and have a higher survival rate. Women outnumber men in much of the developed world. Even in sub-Saharan Africa, ravaged as it is by calamities and enervating poverty, women outnumber men. In Asia, however, particularly in India and China, the opposite is true. Even within the countries, there is a difference in sex ratios. Punjab and Haryana have a lower sex ratio relative to Kerala. “These numbers tell us, quietly, a terrible story of inequality and neglect leading to the excess mortality of women,” writes Sen in an oft-quoted line. Two explanations, one cultural (the East is more sexist than the West) and the other economic (women fare better in developed economies) have been “implicitly assumed”, as Sen says, to account for the lower number of women. Sen dismisses both explanations—read his paper for reasons—and lays the blame squarely on gender discrimination, suggesting that employment, literacy and economic rights, including property rights, are factors that would help right the wrong.
Later, economist Emily Oster questioned Sen’s view and suggested that the prevalence of the Hepatitis B virus in Asia would account for the higher survival rates of boys. Oster later publicly admitted that her hypothesis was wrong. Hepatitis B, as it turned out, had nothing to do with the survival rates of girl babies.
The most hopeful research, and the one that interests me the most, is by Monica Das Gupta, a senior demographer at the World Bank’s Development Research Group. In her paper Is There an Incipient Turnaround in Asia’s “Missing Girls” Phenomenon?, Das Gupta and her colleagues use data from South Korea to show that the son-preference reduces as societies develop, not simply because of economic improvement but because of “normative changes across the whole society”. Normative—I looked up the term—means a complex conglomeration of values, standards and judgement. It is what society thinks of as “normal”. Son-preference is strongest in patrilineal societies such as China, India and, until recently, South Korea. They viewed having sons as superior and normal. As patrilineal societies modernize, they develop political, legal and social tools that recognize “patrilineages as a threat rather than an asset to society”. This is slowly happening in India. Second, urbanization and industrialization will render women as valuable as men, both in their own minds and in society at large. The norms, in other words, are changing, even in India (I’d like to think). The modern state, says Das Gupta, has “unravelled” the underpinnings of a society’s son-preference.
Unlike Das Gupta, who views the world in wide swathes, I am not a demographer. I am a storyteller. I am interested in the psychology of India’s son-preference; about why we value sons more than daughters; and how we can change this.
The home front
Aloma Lobo and I are sitting in Bangalore’s Caperberry restaurant sipping wine and nibbling on canapés. Lobo is a medical doctor who used to be the chairperson of Cara, or Central Adoption Resource Agency. She continues to work with the Karnataka chapter of Cara and has six children—three boys and three girls. “Must you say that my girls are adopted?” she asks before giving permission.
I meet Lobo once a month at foodie events in Bangalore. With her slim frame, short hair and Herve Leger-type bandage dresses, she cuts an elegant figure. Her youngest daughter, Nisha, is visually impaired and has ichthyosis, a genetic condition that causes the skin to become scaly and flake away. Adoption specialists say that girl-babies with special needs are the hardest to place, something Lobo knows first-hand. “You know, our daughter didn’t come from a poor family,” she says. “Nisha’s parents were well-off but they still gave her away because she was challenged. The other day, she asked me, ‘Mama, what will you say if you meet the people who gave birth to me?’ I said, I would thank them because they gave you to us. I asked her: ‘What would you say?’ My Nisha said, ‘I would ask them why they weren’t there for me when I needed them most.’”
When my second daughter was born, I have to admit that I felt a pinch of disquiet. It would have been nice to have one child of each sex. I’d like to think that I would have felt that same disquiet had I given birth to two sons. But now, it is hard to fathom life without my little Malini. Could I adopt? I didn’t think so. When we contemplated adopting before my second child was born, I told my husband that I was worried I would treat the adopted child different from my own. Worse, I would treat the adopted child as more special, just to overcompensate. My husband was more sanguine. He had no qualms that “after the first few hours, your heart will embrace the newborn—any newborn—like it was your own”. Then I got pregnant and we didn’t do it. But I think to myself, why don’t we place adoption centres and orphanages beside IVF clinics so that people who try so hard to have a child know there are other options? Why don’t we build orphanages in districts such as Jhajjar, with India’s lowest sex ratio? The irony is that there is a waiting list for people who want to adopt girls and across the psychological border, there are parents who abandon or kill their daughters.
The oft-quoted, and very real reason why daughters are not desired is dowry; but it goes much deeper than that. To even begin to address India’s skewed sex ratio requires vision, extraordinary empathy, and a leap of imagination. Simply quoting numbers, getting on the moral high ground and condemning the parents who kill their daughters is not enough. “Indian women have been raised to devalue themselves and we perpetrate this on our daughters,” says Lobo. “I get very irritated when women tell me that they won’t eat before their husbands. Do it if it’s important that you have a family dinner. But don’t do it because he is the man. Till we learn to value ourselves, we won’t value our daughters.”
Valuing ourselves has to do with self-esteem, but it also has to do with the psychological burdens that women bear. Before you condemn the woman who kills her daughter, think about the sleep-deprived despair and fury that you have felt at whiny, cranky babies night after night. Were there moments when you wished the child would keep quiet; wished the child away? Now transpose that quiet rage to a different self. You are dispossessed; live in a hut in arid interior Rajasthan; work like a farm-horse; are malnourished and barely literate. You have never experienced maternal love (your father killed your mother in a drunken fit when you were a child), let alone the milk of human kindness, and civilization’s little courtesies that we city dwellers take for granted. In this morphed form, your body and mind have hardened like the land around you. You are already on edge and you know that you are carrying a girl. You dread the eyes that will view you with pity and censure when your daughter is born. You have no food for yourself or your first daughter. And now another? What are you going to do?
In Usilampatti taluk in Tamil Nadu, women give the newborn milk laced with erukkam paal (sap of Calotropis gigantea). The infant sucks the milk greedily and dies within an hour. Penn-sisu-kolai (girl-baby murder), it’s called. Mothers did this, but more often, mothers-in-law, by mixing pesticides, sleeping pills, rat poison or saps with mother’s milk and feeding it to the newborn girl.
It is not true, what they say, about maternal instinct gushing forth when you see your newborn. That happens in movies where the heroine sheds tears of joy and violins pierce the high note. In parts of India, the fierce, protective maternal instinct that those of us sitting in comfort feel for our children, is submerged, staunched and often runs dry—especially when the newborn happens to be a daughter. Maternal love is a luxury for poor, despairing women in Usilampatti, Jhajjar and other areas. They have no control over their lives or destiny; they lack individual identity, let alone self-esteem, education or financial independence. Most important, they believe they have no choice but to kill their daughters. If there were street plays or television campaigns in these villages with images of smiling, well-off parents who look these desperate mothers in the eye and say, “I will take care of your daughter,” they wouldn’t kill her. They’d give her up instead.
Many state governments, including Tamil Nadu, have attempted solutions for women teetering on the edge. They leave cradles outside orphanages for mothers who are ready to dump their daughters; have caseworkers monitor pregnant women.
While easier access to adoption agencies and orphanages might address the problem of female infanticide, it doesn’t prevent female foeticide, which requires step-by-step checklists and engineering solutions, along with a good dose of female psychology. Make sex determination illegal? Done. Shutter ultrasound clinics that violate the law? No. Slap fines on ultrasound technicians who reveal the sex? No. The PNDT (Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques) Act needs to be enforced because seeing an infant daughter’s face can change a mother’s mind.
Psychological issues are more complicated. Women feel like failures when they give birth to daughters; they feel victorious when they bear sons. The son is the carrier of the family name and business; the daughter takes away the family wealth. Sons take care of you in your old age; and they can light your funeral pyre. But all that is no longer true; not even in traditional or rural homes. As numerous microfinance institutions that lend mostly to women have figured out, it is the women who earn and save money. If you’ve ever employed a maid with a drunkard husband, you know that he is the burden and she is the financial provider. The problem is that this anecdotal evidence doesn’t apply to large swathes of India where women are painfully dependent upon and dominated by their fathers, husbands, and then sons. Among middle-class or wealthy families, the son-preference has to do with passing on businesses. Even here, daughters like the Paul and Reddy sisters have shown that girls can run and elevate a father’s businesses just as well as any son and they too keep their family name, even after marriage. You can make logical arguments like these to convince women to keep their daughters, but at the end of the day, they just aren’t enough. India needs to convert minds subliminally to displace centuries of cultural conditioning.
The problem is that this bias is so culturally ingrained and so complex that it is hard to know where to start. People say the oddest things. When my second daughter was born, an educated feminist sympathized with me because she came from a family of girls. My conservative mother, on the other hand, rejoiced over my daughters because she comes from a family of four brothers and one sister (my mom). She didn’t have the baggage associated with being a girl. A close friend in New York told me to try for a son who could light my funeral pyre. I expected this statement from a Brahmin priest, not from an investment banker. It is moments like these that make you a revolutionary.
Bollywood can help; as can our cricket heroes. If Sachin Tendulkar or M.S. Dhoni urge fathers to cherish their daughters, would it change minds? I love masala movies, but I cannot think of a single one, either here or in Hollywood, where a woman does Mission Impossible or is a Don. Why can’t Farah Khan or Kathryn Bigelow make women-centric movies? For that matter, why can’t Vishal Bhardwaj or Rajkumar Hirani change the paradigm, by using heroines as the “3 Idiots”? Easy to say, but in order for successful directors to embrace this concept, you need one runaway women-centric hit. Would that J.K. Rowling had written her series using her own daughter as heroine, instead of Harry Potter. That would have changed the minds of countless young girls, who currently have fairy tales in which the prince “saves” them as opposed to stories where they take charge of their destinies and save others in the process.
Reimagining realities is a central component in the fight against female foeticide. If I were Sonia Gandhi and I were serious about rebalancing the sex ratio of our country, I wouldn’t just hire a politician or an IAS officer to head this effort; I would hire a crackerjack team of demographers, caseworkers, implementers, ad men (or women) and media people. Lest I sound self-serving, let me add that in her paper, Family Systems, Political Systems, and Asia’s “Missing Girls”: The Construction of Son Preference and its Unravelling, Das Gupta concurs. “Studies of the impact of the media suggest that states can accelerate the resultant decline in son preference through media efforts to help parents perceive that daughters can now be as valuable as sons,” she says.
We are all stakeholders in this battle to save the girl child. Census 2011 is the tipping point beyond which the pendulum should not swing. If Indian society doesn’t save our girls, we will spiral downwards into the realm of science fiction decades later in ways that boggle the mind: inflicting sex-change operations on effeminate-looking boys in Nayagarh, Odisha, for instance, simply to provide a bride for a family of brothers. Holding Mahabharat-like swayamvars in families who have the daughters that society suddenly finds valuable; and killing off those boys—Greek-mythology style—who don’t qualify. You think this is impossible? As the country prospers and birth rates drop, who will be wives and mothers if there are no girls?
India needs to save our girls. The future of our boys, and indeed our civilization, depends on it.
Till we change our minds, we cannot change our world.
Shoba Narayan writes a popular weekly column The Good Life for Lounge.
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