Pavane for an unborn princess

Each year the statistics improve very slightly, enough to give hope, but not enough to bring comfort. India still bears the ignominious title of world number one country for abortions of a particularly egregious type. I am not referring to foeticide as a desperate act of medical triage to save a mother’s life, nor of the aborted child of an already overburdened mother from the depths of poverty with no other way out. Neither am I directly concerned here with the “child of shame” or the “child of sin” in a culture that still puts the preservation of honour above that of life, nor yet the innocent child of rape, nor even the already addicted child of addiction or the incurably ill, the damaged or the deformed. For all of these categories arguments can be made to terminate pregnancy, although some of them are extremely thin. And yes, India scores lamentably high in all these charts, but above all she is the absolute class leader in female infanticide through medical intervention. Indian citizens kill more unborn girls per hundred live births than any other nation.

The statistics vary from state to state. Those states with a high Muslim population naturally reflect that faith’s legendary and much vaunted respect for women. So of course Kashmir shows particularly badly, but its predominantly Hindu neighbour Jammu fares little better, as the sinking birth-rate there (due to increased standards of wealth and education) is leading to more couples trying to ensure that their modern nuclear families are primarily male. And even New Delhi, home to many of the nation’s most educated citizens and its political elite, stands unfortunately high in the female foeticide charts. Discretely “designing” your family has become one of the many dubious privileges wealth can afford.

There ought to be a law …

… And of course there is. Indeed, there are several. There is a law specifically against abortion for reasons of gender. There is a law against abortion after the twelfth week, coupled with a law that only allows testing for gender after fourteen weeks. There is another law forbidding doctors from divulging gender information during or subsequent to an ultrasound scan. There is yet another law, and not coincidentally, against the payment of marriage dowries, a practise which can bankrupt even quite well-off families with several daughters. Further laws of a positive nature, designed to revalue girl children are in place in different states, most notably in Bihar, where a government-funded “birth bond” invested in the baby girl’s name is set to mature when she reaches age eighteen. Cash grants for education of girls have become quite common in several states. Bihar state even gives a free bicycle once a girl goes to secondary school.

But all these laws and measures, however well intentioned, still seem powerless to prevent the ongoing practice of what many commentators are starting to call “gendercide”. On the basis of statistical samples of children under age 7, the 2011 nationwide census currently estimates that the number of “missing” girls in the population is already close to 8 million.

Apart from the obvious cultural pressure that grants status to boys and almost none to girls, the unborn Indian princess faces that other redoubtable and endemic Indian enemy, corruption. Medical practitioners, yes, the same ones who have sworn an oath to respect and save life, will tap their noses during a third trimester examination to indicate the tiny gold ring commonly worn by girls, rather than actually saying or writing anything down. The message is received loud and clear. Money is passed and the address of a suitable “clinic” is slid into a pocket. Legitimate abortion clinics can be bribed either to record the gender of the foetus as male, or register a stillbirth. Illegal clinics, often legal ones operating off the record and outside practice hours, are beyond such scruples. Doctors are hardly ever sanctioned for performing gender tests or gender-based abortions as the evidence against them is largely circumstantial and the cultural dominance of the male child reaches deep into the courts.

Sex and the single boy

Darwin may yet come to the aid of the unborn Indian girl. A noticeable population imbalance, such as would be sufficient to tarnish the marriage chances of any boy who is not a good deal more than “suitable”, will naturally lead to a social evolution in the value of girl children. Sooner or later, the shoe will be on the other foot and the dowry paid by the groom to the bride’s family will significantly overshadow any purely nominal sum passing in the traditional direction. But how many little ghosts must haunt the streets of the sub-continent before such a change takes place in a country that has always shown stiff resistance to any attempt to alter its paternalistic structure or its culture of corruption?

It is indeed a dark paradox: a nation famed for its significant contributions to the doctrine of non-violence, for being the cradle of a vegetarian ideal that promotes the sacrosanct nature of life, a place where fecundity and vitality are vividly celebrated across a society of quite extraordinary complexity … yet still a people that cannot responsibly deal with a diversity of two, the binary challenge of male and female, the great other.

Edwin Drood

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