Murder most everyday: The missing girls of southern India

The southern states had a place of pride in maintaining a healthy sex ratio, even as some of the north Indian states were faring abjectly. So, how did the tables turn?

 |  6-minute read |   04-02-2019
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Are girls going missing from the southern states of India?

They are, according to data collated by the office of the Registrar General of India from the Civil Registration System (CRS) in 2016. And sadly, this news comes as no great surprise to those who have been watching this trend with helplessness and alarm over the last couple of years.

Andhra Pradesh now competes with Rajasthan and has one of the worst sex ratios at birth (SRB) of 806.

Tamil Nadu is sixth from the bottom, with its ratio falling from 935 in 2007 to 840 in 2016.

Karnataka is one of the worst hit, falling from 1,004 to 896.

In Telangana, it fell from 954 in 2013, when the state was formed, to 881 in 2016.

The only southern state which showed some slight improvement was Kerala, where there was a marginal increase in SRB, from 944 in 2007 to 954 in 2016.

Meanwhile, some states like Punjab, Haryana and Maharashtra, which are notorious for their low sex ratios have improved — partly because of the money and schemes which were pumped in under schemes like Beti Bachao. Figures are not available for Gujarat, another state which also always came somewhere at the bottom of this pile.

However, overall, these improvements are still only marginal.

main_save_girl201205_013119070923.jpgNo more mum: Social activists highlight the plight of female infants as part of a 'Save the Girl Child' campaign in Delhi. (Source: AP)

The SRB data is considered to be quite accurate because registration of births is now compulsory. The southern states under consideration here say they have achieved 100 per cent birth registration. However, experts argue there could still be some errors in capturing the data and discrepancies could have crept in. Also, SRB — while it is a very essential figure for understanding the gravity of the problem — by itself it may not reveal the final picture. It would be necessary to correlate it with the CSR (Child Sex Ratio) to understand how many girl children survived to cross the age of five years.

Why are states which once had healthy sex ratios in the red?

The craving to have sons was always a pan-Indian phenomenon which knew no caste or creed. Parts of Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat and Rajasthan have had a past history of female infanticide when newly born female children were killed in a gruesome manner by their own parents.

In the early 1990s, female infanticide was still prevalent in the Madurai and Salem districts of Tamil Nadu.

However, by the 1990s, medical technology was already changing the way in which girl children were being eliminated — diagnostic techniques like amniocentesis and scanning were being misused both by medical practitioners and son-hungry parents to ensure that the sex of the unborn child was identified. It could be aborted if it was a girl.

Eliminating girl children before they were born was easier and less gruesome.

 In 1994, the first Pre Conception, Pre Natal Diagnostic Technique (PCPNDT) Act was passed. Since then, it has been tweaked many times to take into account newer and more advanced methods of fetal sex determination.

Are we fighting a losing battle?

However, 25 years hence, nothing much has changed.

Families continue to eliminate girl children using the thriving underground network which does illegal sex selection and abortion.

Besides more advanced techniques, like DNA testing and sperm or embryo selection, are also in the picture now.

In the early years, the doctors, scan technicians and others involved in the process were quite brazen about breaking the law — in fact, earlier on, many gynaecologists advocated sex selection as a method of family planning as parents would then not be “forced” to have large families and could get rid of “unwanted” babies.

main_female-infantic_013119070122.jpgShe was not welcome or safe even in her mother's womb — even to this date. (Source: Reuters)

To those in the “business” of sex selection, it was almost like a game. When they were caught and punished for putting an ‘F’ (for female) or ‘M’ (for male) on the scan report, they started using sign language and code words. Sting operations did not help because for every erring doctor or technician caught, there were many more who escaped.

The PCPNDT Act, though well-intentioned, has not really been able to stem the tide for several reasons — the primary one being persons who go in for sex-selective abortions are doing it with their eyes wide open and sincerely believe they are not doing anything criminal and have every right to choose the sex of their child.

In order to plug the leaks, several laws, which have been dubbed “draconian” by the medical community, have been introduced — as a result, a lot of paperwork has to be done by those operating scan machines and even minor mistakes are punishable. But the pushback from the medical community can have consequences because loosening the strings could unleash the old problems once again.

Unlike female infanticide, which was a problem restricted to certain geographical areas, sex-selective abortion is much more widely spread — and has been embraced by the middle class as well as affluent educated families. Ironically, in affluent states, where educational levels are high and family planning is a success, the sex ratios are disturbing.

Kerala so far is the only exception, where despite high literacy rates and availability of medical facilities, the sex ratio has remained stable.

Labyrinths of the law

Scan-based sex-selective abortions continue to thrive as an underground industry. DNA testing can be done by any lab which has a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) Machine. The test itself is fairly inexpensive and the gender of the foetus in the womb can be identified at a much earlier stage.

However, this needs the expertise of a medical doctor and therefore is a little more inaccessible to most people. The DNA testing is also covered by the PCPNDT Act and while registering their machines, the labs are obliged to not use it for gender selection. Similarly, IVF clinics also come under the Act and IVF practitioners are forbidden from doing any gender selection during conception or implantation of the embryo. However, monitoring these tests to ensure there is no gender selection in almost impossible.

The other issue is that many people who go in for these tests do not know what is illegal and what is not. For instance, scanning is not only legal but essential during pregnancy — revealing the gender is illegal. But, in some cases where there is a chance of hereditary genetic diseases being passed on through the offspring of a certain gender, then identification becomes essential in order to take the right medical decision.

The methods to twist the law are only increasing thus. What is shrinking is the number of India's girl children.

Also read: Cyclone Gaja did not kill a 12-year-old girl in Tamil Nadu. Regressive social systems did


Gita Aravamudan Gita Aravamudan @gitagitadan

Gita Aravamudan is an award-winning author and journalist. She has worked with and written for most of the top publications in the country. Her has authored bestselling books including ‘Disappearing Daughters: The Tragedy of Female Foeticide’, ‘Unbound: Indian Women @ Work’, and ‘Voices in My Blood’.

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