Son preference attitude among Indian parents — A silent emergency

By Rameeza A. Rasheed,

First read the following news report of The Times of India (27/12/2010).

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“Many couples in India reach Thailand by spending $8500+ the flight charges on a secret mission. They go there for undergoing PGD i.e. Pre Implantation Genetic Diagnosis which involves producing embryos through IVF and implanting only those of the desired gender into the womb. 100% success is guaranteed. This procedure involves the genetic investigation of the early stage embryos that have been productive in vitro fertilization (IVF) to determine their gender. Those IVF egg cells are fertilized by sperm outside the body. The embryos created then are cultured in the laboratory for three days. They are approximately eight cells. Then one or two are removed for testing under powerful micro scope to identify the gender. Embryos of the desired gender are then planted into the womb.”

Since gender selection is illegal in India many affluent and educated families who are particular to have sons fly to Thailand since it is not illegal there. The doctors who are engaged in this process say majority of the patients are Indians. It seems many of the wives who go there for this treatment are not even informed about the procedure or the purpose of the visit. It means they don’t play any role in the decision making regarding the birth o their own child. This is the fate or condition of majority of the Indian women.

This news set my thought process in motion and urged me to write on this topic since it is emerging as a “silent emergency.” The medical journal The Lancet stated that more than 500,000 female fetuses are being aborted per year in India. It is clear that without sustained action on many fronts, millions more women will go missing in India.

Provisional population totals announced for the India Census 2011 show an alarming decline in the child sex ratio. The number of girls per 1,000 boys (0-6 years) has reduced to 914; down from 927 in 2001.

We know that in Asian countries son preference attitude is the dominant cultural factor. The reasons are: parents think sons alone have the obligation to provide security to the parents in old age; undertake the responsibility of younger sibling’s education and marriage; bear the burden of family debt; perform the last rites for parents; bring in dowry; bring in return on investment made on their education; carry on the family business and protect the ancestral property. But daughters are always considered as liability and “neighbor’s plants” since any investment on them, especially on education will benefit only the husband and the in-laws and heavy dowry has to be paid for them. Moreover, their entire marriage expenses are borne by their parents. The society does not accept the practice of parents living in daughters’ homes in old age. Hence even in the 21st century these reasons prevail and have caused aversion towards girl’s birth. Girl children are not allowed to be born through feticide or abortion and in poor families not allowed to live through infanticide.

While inaugurating the National Meeting on ‘Save the Girl Child’ Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that living with the ‘ignominy’ of an adverse gender balance is a shame and we must face the challenge squarely “…We are an ancient civilisation and we call ourselves a modern nation and yet, we live with the ignominy of an adverse gender balance due to social discrimination against women.”

Why was he made to make that statement? Read the data (as per 2001 Census) given below:

Rural sex ratio——–945-1000
Urban sex ratio——–900-1000
All India sex ratio—–933-1000

The above given data indicates that the sex ratio in India is not balanced. The women missing against every thousand males are described by Nobel laureate and economist Amartya Sen as “missing women.” Where have they gone? They just disappeared from this world before birth, immediately after birth, during childhood due to neglect of girls or during maternity. In other word, higher rate of feticide, infanticide, girl children deaths and maternal mortality are the reasons for skewed sex ratio.

This is the direct impact of son preference attitude prevailing dominantly in the Indian society. We feel proud when other countries and leaders like President Obama describe India as an emerging economy. But as Indians we know that India is a country of contradictions. We have modern appearance and habits and way of living, but have 18th century mindset in several matters. The best example for this contradiction is the attitude towards girl children. It is very strange that in a country like India where women are worshipped as Shakti and where motherhood is glorified in the Indian literature and when every male member owes their birth and existence to their mothers, the number of missing women is allowed to increase. Can we imagine a society without women? If dowry and marriage expense are the dominant factor responsible for this attitude, can we not eradicate it through abolition of dowry and awareness campaign? Can’t we amend the anti dowry laws to impose stringent punishment and remove loopholes?

We are always under the impression that son preference attitude prevailed in the past and not among the modern couples and among rural uneducated families. But the TOI report and facts and figures available regarding the sex ratio tell a different story. It is shocking to know that higher percentage of the elitist and well off sections resort to sex discrimination in births.

India’s affluent states worst affected

A new report by UNICEF finds that child sex ratios have declined in all but three Indian states and union territories. i.e. Kerala, Pondicherry and the Lakshadweep. India’s already abysmal sex ratio figures are getting worse by the day, with 80% of its districts recording declining child sex ratios since 1991, as thousands of girl-children are killed before or at birth. The all-India sex ratio is 927 girls for 1,000 boys, which puts the country right at the bottom of the global charts, worse off than countries like Nigeria (965) and neighbor Pakistan (958).

Surprisingly, the census figures illustrate that it is some of the richer states of the country where the problem is most acute such as Punjab which has only 798 girls, Haryana 819, Delhi 868 and Gujarat 883 girls per 1,000 boys. The state of Punjab is cited as the worst offender, says the UN children’s agency UNICEF’s annual report which was recently released. Haryana, which records a sharp 60-point drop, from 879 girls in 1991 to 819 in 2001, is a close second. These two states are the developed states in every respect and the income and literacy levels are far ahead than other states. Chandigarh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal, all in north India, are other states where girl-children are largely unwanted. Delhi, the nation’s capital, has witnessed a 47-point drop, from 915 girls to 868 in 2001. Even in ‘globalised’ Bangalore, the ratio of girls to boys is just 811 to 1,000.

Mushrooming of ultrasound clinics and the ability to pay for abortions has increased in the developed states of India. There were 23.6 per cent, 30.8 per cent, 52.9 per cent, 66.7 per cent and 50.0 per cent induced abortions in the first, second, third, fourth and fifth order of birth in Delhi, pointing to the fact that the percentage of induced abortions increased with the birth order. The incidence of female feticide seems more prevalent in urban areas — despite higher levels of education and affluence — as compared to villages. In Punjab, the number of girls in rural areas is 799 per 1,000 boys, compared with a grimmer 796 in urban zones. “In prosperous states like Punjab and Haryana, people have both access and money to misuse technology,” says a source.

“Advanced science and technology has had its adverse effects,” says Donna Fernandis of the Vimochana Forum for Women’s Rights, adding that sex selection was one instance of how technology, in a globalised economy, had “dragged even the fetus to the marketplace”. “For instance in Mandya, in Karnataka, where the sex ratio is abysmally low, sex determination tests are done for Rs 10,000,” she explains.

Educated, elite carry the bad practice

It is the educated and the elite who are carrying on the practice, on a large scale. It is also putting a physical pressure on women who are made to give birth to several children in pursuit of a male child. Today, we have a situation which is called the marriage squeeze, adding sexual frustration and even incidents of road rage were manifestations of the inability of men to find wives due to the declining sex ratio.

But we find that parents with only boys as children always grumble that they don’t have daughters and hence they miss the emotional support which daughters are capable of extending to the parents in times of need. It is even quoted that “a daughter is daughter, always a daughter but son is a son until his marriage”. Some vexed and neglected senior citizens describe sons as ‘Sins.” But all the categories of Indian families are not satisfied until they get a son. Even the poorest families do not mind increasing the size of their families until they get a son though they don’t have any property or any business to pass on and do not have dowry problem.

A little reflection on the facts leads one to conclude that the skewed sex ratio would result in bad consequences. Negative dowry (boys giving dowry for girls) as it has happened in Arab world, would take place in India too if sex ratio continues to decline. Marriage cost would become heavy for boys due to dearth of girls, population growth will decline drastically, crime against women would increase and several ethical and moral issues would emerge, such as Polyandry (having more than one husband).

The Way-out

It is time for the Government and the NGOs to counteract this trend. Banning the determination of the sex of a fetus is not an effective solution. One unfortunate consequence of that ban could well be the increase in the number of new-born female infants killed, or worse still, chronic neglect of the unwanted girls. The effective measures would be: enforce a ban on dowry; enforce a strict limit on the number of pregnancies a woman can have; provide information and materials for effective contraception; increase the marriage age so that women will learn not to have children by chance and then abort them and, enforce measures for higher education of girls so that gender equity is achieved in education and employment matters. The last measure would help in treating girls as an asset than a liability. They can meet their expenses without depending on others. Economic independence for women is an effective tool to counteract son preference attitude.

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