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Why girls in India are being killed

January 4, 2013

Why girls in India are being killed

Traditions and cultural beliefs in India are resulting in the slaughter of girls, often before they’re even born. In the past 20 years, ten million female foetuses have been aborted. Helen Roberts investigates why a nation doesn’t want daughters

Clutching husband Rajesh*’s hand, 20-year-old Nilima* stares at a monitor displaying grainy black and white swirls. She’s 20 weeks pregnant and they’re in a small clinic in Jaipur, the capital of the western Indian state of Rajasthan, about to see an image of their unborn baby for the first time.
Her husband has his eyes glued to the monitor as the doctor examines the foetus’ heart and vital details to check it’s growth and health. But there’s one thing Rajesh, a businessman, wants to know more than anything else – the sex of their child.

When the scan is over, the doctor leads Rajesh and Nilima to his office where he gives them the news – their unborn baby is a girl. The disappointment on both the parents’ faces is evident. While Nilima’s eyes well up because she knows what her fate and that of her unborn child will be, Rajesh quietly takes the doctor to a corner of his office.

Seeing both of them speak in hushed tones, Nilima knows what is being discussed: an abortion. She is reluctant to undergo one, but she knows she will be forced to by her husband and his parents.

They all want a boy. If she protests, she will be tortured until she agrees, or forced by other means to get rid of the child growing inside her. And if, by some luck, she does have the child, the chances of it being allowed to live would be thin – it would very likely be killed.

Sadly Nilima is not alone. Thousands of pregnant women in India are reportedly forced by their husbands and in-laws to undergo sex-determination tests, and if the foetus is found to be female, get it aborted.

Outside the law

While determining a foetus’ sex is illegal in India, several clinics across the country surreptitiously agree to conduct tests and reveal the sex of the foetus for a price. Depending on the kind of clinic and the location, the cost for determining the sex varies from Rs3,000 to Rs8,000 (Dh201 to Dh537), say campaigners.

According to some reports, there are as many as 40,000 registered ultrasound clinics in India and very likely as many, or more, that are unregistered. Apart from determining the sex, several of these clinics also offer to terminate the pregnancy, again an act that is illegal.

The law has been tough on occasion. In July last year, 12 doctors were suspended for reportedly conducting prenatal sex tests in Jaipur, while in August three in-laws of a pregnant women were arrested for allegedly torturing her in an attempt to convince her to go for a sex-determination test in Kolkata.

Of course, there have been instances when women have refused to be cowed down and have gone ahead and had girl children. Dr Mitu Khurana is one of them. A New Delhi-based paediatrician, she looks at her twin daughters Guddu and Pari, who are now seven, and embraces their happy, smiling faces.

She can’t remember a minute of her life before they were born; they now complete her. She claims she was forced by her husband and his family to undergo a scan while she was pregnant, and when it was found she was carrying girls, they told her to get rid of them.

But she refused to give in and went ahead and had the children. When relations soured, she decided to return to her parents’ home, keen to bring up her children in a safe and secure environment.

But such cases are more an exception than the rule if the most recent – 2011 – census figures are any indication. Sex ratios have declined in 17 states in the past decade, with the biggest falls registered in Jammu and Kashmir.

In 1961, for every 1,000 boys under the age of seven, there were 976 girls in India. Today, the figure has dropped to 914 girls per 1,000 boys. According to reports, India’s ratio of young girls to boys is one of the lowest in the world after China. Social activists say the decline is largely due to the increased availability of sex screening.

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