Unsafe inside and outside womb

20 Feb
THE 50MM

PUBLISHED IN THE TRIBUNE

The skewed sex ratio may signal the end of romance, says Rajan Kashyap

Despite numerous odds, women in India today are visibly successful in many professions. Today’s art, literature, drama and films highlight the struggle of the Indian woman against traditional male dominance. Both the print and electronic media have created a new image of the Indian woman, especially the liberated, educated female in an urban milieu. Depicted here is a woman who is no longer timid, shy, withdrawn or subservient. For her “Man to command and woman to obey” is no longer an accepted dictum.

In the grind of a rigorous educational system and in a fiercely competitive environment, the working woman emerges as an achiever. She is convinced that “women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition.” She is self-confident, bold and assertive, to the extent of being brash. She knows her mind and excels as a leader of men.

Many Indian women have advanced in life by sustained effort and skill. Be it politics, business, education, medicine or even law and the civil and military services, they shine in comparison with their peers. They are well respected in positions of power. Their performance speaks for itself.

Unfortunately, the instances of individual success and recognition among women are few. The spectacular success of the career women in various fields contrasts starkly with the poor status enjoyed by women as a whole. The majority of women in India still face great handicaps and oppression. From childhood they are subjugated to traditional male dominance at home. After marriage they are sometimes ill-treated by in-laws. Viewed often as mere objects of ownership, they are denied education and a role in selecting their life partner. Women who dare to seek a career or wish to marry by choice are frequently prevented from doing so.

In several states, especially Punjab and Haryana, marriage outside one’s community, or social or income group, is frowned upon. Rigid paternal controls are seen to operate even among Indians settled in foreign lands. In some rural areas, archaic social institutions such as khap panchayats routinely subject young women, and their husbands and lovers, who might infringe the local taboo, to heinous punishment, including death. Strangely, some democratically elected state legislators (MLAs and MPs) seem to have endorsed such extra-legal dictates of their lesser leaders.

Lamenting the discriminatory attitudes prevailing even abroad in the 20th century, the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw had observed, “Home is the girl’s prison, and the woman’s workhouse.” Science now provides ready instruments that prevent the fair sex from even taking birth. Techniques such as amniocentesis (taking amniotic fluid around the embryo by piercing a needle at an early stage of pregnancy), and ultrasonography (the imaging of the foetus by use of an ultra sound machine) enable doctors to predict the sex of an unborn child, encouraging the abortion of the girl child at the stage of foetus.

This grisly practice of female foeticide has now taken root in many parts of India. It is justified by a spurious argument that abortion of a partially developed foetus is more humane than the gruesome act of female infanticide, which, in the past, sometimes visited the birth of unwelcome daughters. Perturbed at the practice, the Government of (then British) India had enacted a specific law to punish infanticide a hundred years ago. For those persons who might be squeamish about resorting to abortion, genetic research now provides a more palatable medical intervention to be carried out at the stage of very conception itself. The technique is called preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), a method that produces embryos through IVF (as for test tube babies) and implanting only those of the preferred gender into the womb.

In India, the enactment, tediously named the Pre-conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, 1994, prohibits all such techniques. Sadly, the law has not been able to prevent desperate couples from establishing a criminal nexus with compliant doctors for testing and abortion, or from travelling abroad (Thailand is a convenient destination!) for undergoing the medical procedures. If technology is becoming sophisticated by the day, transgression of the law is cleverer still.

How ineffective the Act has been can be gauged from the findings of a Report of the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare tabled in Parliament in September 2010. The report notes that during 2009-10 only 139 cases under the Act were registered in the entire country. The same official document shows that the female: male sex ratio in various states varies between 836 (Punjab) and 964(Kerala). An earlier media report (May 2007) had found that of the total number of 416 cases filed under the Act until 2007, only 15 had resulted in conviction. The report estimated that as many as 50 million female foetuses might have been aborted illegally. Numerous other authentic studies reaffirm that the practice of female foeticide is widespread all over India, the worst states being Punjab and Haryana. They also find that the law has been infringed with impunity.

In India’s ancient scriptures, Vedas, the Puranas and the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, the female was well respected, was celebrated as the font of creation (the janani) and as an equal half of her husband (ardhangini). Many Hindu deities are worshipped as proud and powerful goddesses (Durga, Kali etc.) The Sikh Gurus extolled the ideal of equality between the sexes. The Old Testament of the Bible is revered by Christians, Jews and Muslims. It depicts the woman as equal to man, the “flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone.”

By law, oppression exploitation and violence are a crime. By religious belief such acts are regarded as sinful. Why do then these evils continue to pervade society? Answers can be found in the mores accepted by members of various strata of Indian society. A recent news report mentioned certain information on the wealth and property made public by members of the higher judiciary of India. In officially declaring her assets and liabilities, no less a personage than a sitting female Judge of the Supreme Court of India is shown to have included her daughters at the top of the list of her liabilities. The monetary value of gilt-edged securities and bank deposits etc with the Judge, shown in the assets column of her property return, would presumably have offset the burden borne by her in mothering girls.

Some obvious conclusions from this morbid news item: that a daughter is deemed a financial setback, if not a disaster for her parents; that if even a venerated Judge is powerless to stand up to vicious and regressive social attitudes, the middle and lower classes could hardly be expected to do so; and that in regard to gender equality any change in the mindset of the population at large is yet to occur.

It is universally accepted that females, constituting half the total population of a nation, are intrinsically as productive as males. They can contribute significantly to its economic development. If women in India are presently unable to perform productively and deliver to their true potential, it is for want of adequate social support in terms of facilities for education, health etc. It requires no special economic brilliance to understand the premise that the strength of such a huge section of population needs to be harnessed for a strong, vibrant nation.

Despite the government’s lofty announcements for ending gender discrimination and consequential legal enactments, the sex ratio in the country continues to plunge. In a recent publication Empower Women (2010), Leena Chawla Rajan brings out some startling conclusions from an analysis of data of UN studies and the Census of India. Analysing the UN data, the author observes that among the world’s ten most populated countries, India’s sex ratio (at 936) is the second lowest after China (927). The figures for other countries are Russia (1164), Japan (1053) Brazil (1031), USA (1027), Indonesia (1003), Nigeria (995) and Bangladesh (978). Even Pakistan, at 942, ranks above India.

From the Census data, Ms Rajan finds that the child sex ratio (age group 0-6 years) has steadily declined from 976 in 1961 to 927 in 2001. The last Census report of 2001 shows that sex selection is more prevalent in urban areas than in rural areas, that educated families are aborting babies at a faster rate than illiterate families and that sex selection occurs across all religions. If these figures are depressing, the Census 2011, currently under progress, could soon give further cause for alarm.

As the number of females in proportion to males recedes, the physically weaker sex is likely to be treated as a scarce commodity, the physical acquisition of which could be fuelled in future by baser passions and a jungle law. The implications of the trends can be horrendous — for us as individuals today, for our children and their children to come and for the social fabric as a whole. We can foresee gender-related crime growing; the traditional family structure disturbed; the proliferation of homosexuality and prostitution and crimes against women as well as acceleration in the growth of sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS.

In short a decadent society, where respect for the woman begins to vanish. Perhaps the gloomy scenario has already begun to unfold. Nobel-winning novelist William Faulkner feared that a hedonistic world would be led by the glands instead of by the heart.

The vibrancy and strength of a civilisation is often measured by its aesthetic sensibility, which inspires art and literature. Creativity springs from fine human emotion, usually occasioned by romantic love. “At the touch of love, everyone becomes a poet”, wrote philosopher Plato in an age when the Greek civilisation was at its zenith. (It is sometimes thought that the Greek empire declined as its moral fabric degraded). For English poet Wordsworth, the ideal was: “A perfect woman, nobly planned, /To warn, to comfort and command”.

Jai Shankar Prasad, the doyen of Hindi poetry, found woman to be the epitome of devotion. “Nari tum kewal shraddha ho!” he wrote. Our literature abounds in stories of romantic love, a passion that elevates, even as it sometimes ends in tragedy. The playfulness and delicate irony of Ghalib’s poetry presents the woman in many moods .Many ghazals in Urdu are addressed equally to the beloved and the Almighty God. Khayal gayaki in Indian classical music expresses the yearnings of absent lovers. Woman is frequently the inspiration of great art.

A skewed sex ratio could violently disrupt the man-woman relationship, signalling the end of romance. Sentiment could well be replaced by cynicism, leading to a decline of noble cultural traditions. It is not too late to strive to protect the nation’s spirit from dehumanisation.n

The writer is a former Chief Secretary and Chief Information Commissioner, Punjab

 

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