Beti Bachao: Government’s Efforts to Eradicate Female Infanticide and Sex-Selective Abortion are Inadequate

India’s sex ratio at birth has worsened considerably since 1951; however, successive governments have not taken urgent and comprehensive measures to address the issues of female infanticide (FI) and sex-selective abortion.

Data released by the government in 2016 revealed that India’s sex ratio at birth (the number of girls born alive for every 1,000 boys) had fallen from 946 in 1949 to 887 in 2014. Sanjukta Nair found that the number of girls below six per 1,000 boys has also fallen and in 2011, the figure stood at 914, “the lowest since Independence.”

The Government has made attempts with varying degrees of concern to address the situation. Laws intended to prevent FI and sex-selective abortion were implemented in 1994, however, their implementation has been inadequate. According to news reports, in two of India’s wealthiest states, Gujarat and Maharashtra, 73% and 55% of sonography centres were found to be uninspected based on 2015 reports by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India. The Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao Yojana (Save the Daughter, Educate the Daughter) campaign, launched by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in 2015, sought to increase information and improve the efficiency of welfare services designed for girls in India. However, it must be noted that 56% of the funds allocated under the scheme were spent on “media-related activities.” Less than 25% of the funds intended for this scheme were disbursed to districts and states.[1] 

According to the World Health Organization, the “natural sex ratio” at birth is about 105 boys to every 100 girls since “men die earlier.” India’s current sex ratio is far from this desired number.

There is an urgent need to revisit the frameworks of gender justice and access to resources. Our reading list provides a historical context to FI and sex-selective abortion, and discusses the various attempts spearheaded by various women’s groups to combat it. 

1) Historical Roots of FI
L S Vishwanath writes about the relationship between FI and caste dominance based on an examination of archival records on FI during British colonial rule. Vishwanath argues that from 1901 to 1921, based on census records of three states, Hindu Rajputs, Jats and Gujjars practised FI and had a significantly lower number of females per 1,000 males relative to castes that did not follow this tradition, such as Muslim Rajputs, Muslim Jats, Chamars, Brahmins, and Lodhas amongst others. 

The classification in the 1921 Census also seems to suggest  that the lower castes which did not own much landed property such as chamars, kumhars, dhobis, telis, lodhas and kurmis had a much higher proportion of females; at that point in time, they did not have ‘a tradition’ of female infanticide perhaps because the problem of status maintenance through dowry avoidance and female infanticide which clearly existed among the hypergamous and propertied upper castes did not exist among them. However, it is difficult to conclude from this that the lower castes will not  or will never practice female infanticide because sanskritisation, acquisition of assets, modern education and dowry adoption can push the lower castes towards female neglect and infanticide. 

2) Contemporary Challenges 
Patricia Jeffery, Roger Jeffery and Shahid Perwez argue that before the publication of the 1991 Census, demographers did not see FI and sex-selective abortion as plausible reasons for the consistently skewed sex ratio. However, the women’s movement challenged the practice of sex-selective abortion. After the technology of amniocentesis was introduced in India in 1978 to ostensibly detect “foetal genetic abnormalities,” it was used almost solely to determine sex and terminate an “unwanted” female foetus. 

Feminists mobilised to pressure the government, leading to the Maharashtra Bill of 1988 banning the use of prenatal diagnostic tests for sex determination. Eventually, the Government of India formulated the  Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act in 1994. This was brought into force in 1996 and has been amended twice since then, first in 1996 and again in 2003. 

The authors note that despite having this law in place, the childhood sex ratio became further skewed in favour of male children. 

3) Alternative Solutions
Venkatesh Athreya and Sheela Rani Chunkath observe that FI is an entrenched social practice that requires different forms of interventions and strategies to eradicate. They argue that an exclusive focus on criminalisation of the practice can push it “underground” (to unregulated practitioners) rather than fulfilling the goal of eradicating the practice of FI. They analysed a programme led by the Tamil Nadu government from 1997–1998 that sought to support theatre groups to create awareness about FI and train activists to focus on sustainably addressing the issue. 

The process of preparing for and conducting the kalaipayanam [itinerant street theatre performances]… helped forge closer ties between the project officials and field functionaries of the  government’s health department, especially the village health nurses, on the one hand, and the panchayat representatives and social activists in the community on the other. While the project funded the production of skits and songs, the training and the  travel of the troupes and other related expenses; the local community in most instances provided hospitality to the troupes, made the necessary on-site arrangements for the performance and mobilised the people to watch the programmes.

A Mangai offers a more embedded account of a play on FI, “Pacha Mannu,” produced by a women’s theatre group called “Voicing Silence” in Tamil Nadu. Mangai, as one of the members of the group herself, said they aimed for a tone that would encourage participation from the audience and not be paternalistic in its approach. 

'Pacha Mannu' consciously tried to avoid the 'us' and 'them' divide by staying within recognisable cultural modes of expression. Nowhere is the viewer 'shocked' but sees everyday realities depicted with a subtle critique of the same juxtaposed. None of the roles tower above the ordinary but retain average fears, doubts, desires and hopes. 'Pacha mannu' "refuses to comment directly, but only through ironic juxtapositions of scenes... The play has no real villains either; when villainy needs to be represented (in the dowry harassment scene, for example) the actors are masked, raising this villainy into a non-gender-specific abstraction, a structural problem of patriarchal societies" [Natarajan 1997, 20] ... Not getting into a didactic tone does not necessarily mean just openness to accommodate everything that is uttered. Most often, the openness was countered by other viewers, challenged by the actors and vice versa by entering into arguments. 

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[1] To read a complete response from the government with regards to fund utilisation and implementation of the scheme, click here

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