“A woman attended a workshop for rural women in Haryana, with her 6 month old boy and 3 year old daughter. That night, the boy fell seriously ill. The mother wrung her hands, wailing from one person to another, unable to know what to do. Sometime later, the NGO that had organized the workshop made arrangements for a doctor to visit, and the little boy was saved.” Rasheeda Bhagat paused. “When it was all over, the mother said, I wish this had happened to my daughter.”
The words of the veteran journalist, needless to say, caused more than a stir – for it highlighted the terrible fate of women and girl children in the country, particularly in the states of Haryana, Chandigarh and Gujarat. Such was the mortal fear the mother lived in, that her son was the only guarantee of her ever living a halfway normal life in her husband’s home. It served to throw light on the lives most women still led, despite these emancipated times – and directly connected to a disaster that still rocks the country: female foeticide.
On a warm evening at the Oxford Bookstore met a panel of eminent writers, novelists, journalists and activists to launch and discuss senior journalist Gita Aravamudan’s book, Disappearing Daughters. The book focuses on the tragedy of female foeticide in India. Gita Aravamudan has explored different aspects of female foeticide, its beginnings and its backlash, the ways it grows and how it can be stemmed. The panellists were stalwarts of the current literary and activist scene: Andal Damodaran, Vice President of the Indian Council for Child Welfare, Thilakavathi, additional DGP and acclaimed author, and Rasheeda Bhagat, senior journalist and author.
“I welcome the release of this book, but I can’t say it’s a joy to read it,” commented Andal Damodaran, as the book was released, and the panellists moved onto a subsequent discussion on the subject. “It’s a deeply disturbing work, and quite chilling. But one needs to know the realities of the situation, and take necessary steps to route out this practice altogether.”
Gita Aravamudan, the author, went to describe her own experiences as she researched information and wrote the book. Coming across the issue in the early 1990s when she went to Usilampatti, Tamil Nadu, for a feature in The Week, she said that she had had a shocking time, as she discovered the enormity of the catastrophe, when girl children were being killed in hordes within a maximum of 48 hours of birth. More research, however, unearthed a bitter truth. “You couldn’t really blame the mothers. The life of a woman was so worthless, so absolutely horrifying that death was a better choice. The women there say, Better go to heaven than live a life like this.” Small reason then, the sex ratio has fallen to disturbingly low levels as 927:1000, and is even lower in states such as Gujarat.
Andal Damodaran added to the discussion, disclosing the gruesome fact that mothers and relations tended to find newer and newer methods to snuff out the life of a girl child, rather than the traditionally used paddy husks and poison – as the police took these crimes seriously, and took action.
The speakers put forth that despite the popular misconception that it was the economically disadvantaged people who carried out this practice, the rich, empowered middleclass were the worst perpetrators. “A male child is always a blessing from the gods. Every mother-to-be receives a traditional blessing of, May you have many sons – over here, gender itself is a genetic malfunction.”
“I think this book has enough material to make us all angry,” commented Rasheeda Bhagat, to much agreement. “Our women need to have more girls, to drive the point that a girl isn’t a liability, but an invaluable asset.”
“In Tamil Nadu, thankfully, the practice is almost down and out,” added Andal. “The 2001 census show not a single case of female foeticide – but on the other hand, scanning had come in by then, so that changed the circumstances,” she admitted.
Talk veered to the consciousness of the practice, in the press and among the educated class. As always, it was the local press that brought the matter to light first. “Writers like Rajam Krishnan have already thrown light on this,” said Thilakavathi. “The government has taken many steps to abolish the practice by bringing in the Cradle Baby Scheme, and others, in Dharmapuri and Salem.” But the scheme, she said, suffered from several rather confounding aspects. “Parents in these areas often come up with question to defeat the Cradle Baby Scheme, like: what was the guarantee the girl would be adopted and reared by someone of the same caste?” She shook her head. “It was unbelievable.”
The medical community had played it own part in compounding the situation. Doctors needed to be much more aware of the facts, in areas where female foeticide was practiced at a great rate. “It’s easy to talk about bringing in social change – but remarkably difficult to make it happen.” However, the scene was slowly, but surely changing.
Gita Aravamudan’s book, they agreed, was one that threw light on the reality of female foeticide, possible solutions, and the means of achieving them. Despite the seriousness of the theme and the underlying sorrow, it was eminently well written, readable, and gave an instant understanding to its readers. Disappearing Daughters combined interviews, case studies, analysis of statistics ad history to present a comprehensive and very human face to this ‘holocaust.’ The book also busted myths and suggested ways forward that may save future generations of daughters; even if it was too late for the present.
“I hope things will change with respect to this issue, with the increase of knowledge and awareness; that one day, we will live in a world that is free from such prejudices,” hoped Gita – and the wish was echoed by everyone present.
When I first dropped in, I’d expected the discussion to follow traditional routes, and perhaps be yawn-inducing – but fortunately it did neither.