Little Girls Vanishing in India

When her daughter-in-law delivered a second baby girl, Appamma picked up the little one, wrapped her in a wet towel and threw her on the ground. “Who wants that?” she said. Nobody dared to pick the little girl up and she soon died. In another village in southern India, a mother refused to feed her baby because it was a girl. Finally, her husband came and fed her yerakkam paal (the poisonous sap of the oleander plant). The baby soon turned blue and died. Village after village in India, the horrific story repeats itself.

UNICEF believes that, over the years, about 50 million women and girls have disappeared across India. Experts, who have analyzed the National Family Health Survey of India, estimate that about 300,000 girls go “missing” in India each year. Other surveys have put the number between 150,000 and 500,000. The 2001 Census shows there are only 927 girls per 1,000 boys, representing a sharp decline from 1961 when that number was 976. In certain parts of the country there are now fewer than 800 girls for every 1,000 boys. This is creating a major imbalance for the future.

Penn sisu kolai, as female infanticide is known in some parts of south India, is a widespread and socially accepted phenomenon. Traditionally, oleander sap or paddy husk have been used to kill unwanted infant girls. The more ‘modern’ families use pesticides or sleeping pills. According to UNICEF, the problem is getting worse as scientific methods for detecting the sex of a baby and performing abortions are improving. About 11.2 million illegal abortions are performed each year in India. In Southern Indian town of Salem, for instance, there are signs that reinforce the societal message: “Pay 500 rupees now and save 50,000 rupees later,” a suggestion that aborting a female fetus now could save a fortune in wedding expenses in the future.

The bias against females in India is related to the fact that sons are considered breadwinners and it is believed that they’ll support the family once they are older. Girls, on the other hand, have to be married off by paying large sums of money(dowry). Dowries, though long prohibited by law, along with wedding expenses and jewellry regularly run to thousands of rupees. Some families hence, borrow heavily to pay for the rituals prescribed for a girl. “The value of a girl goes down every time the value of gold goes up.” says Kanchamma, a mid-wife in a remote village in southern India. Richer the families, greater the expenses. The anti-female bias is thus, not limited to poor families. Much of the discrimination is to do with cultural beliefs and social norms and pressure to conform can be intense in some areas.

Infanticide is illegal in India (though rarely prosecuted), and laws are in place to stop sex-selective abortions. Governments have also introduced several schemes like those which offer financial assistance to parents of a girl child or encourage parents to bring them to government-run orphanages if they cannot look after the girl. But implementing these policies is difficult in a society with inherent bias against women and India’s gender imbalance has worsened in recent years. The progress has been offset by medical technology, unethical doctors, and strong social norms.

The only way to wipe out this evil is by an attitudinal shift. Educating women is one of the best tools that can break this inter-generational cycle of abuse, torture and poverty of women. It is also essential to prosecute the families that practice female feticide and infanticide as well as the doctors and technicians who support them. It is important to raise awareness about the consequences of low gender ratio. People and governments need to come together and spearhead the action for change. We have to protect millions of little girls from this ‘silent genocide’ and as always, you can play an important part.

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