As the International Day of the Girl Child approaches on October 11, we are reminded of the lack of opportunity meted out to half of India’s population, simply for being born–-or unborn–-as the ‘wrong’ sex. There has been no shortage of debate and discussion on the topic of female foeticide in the country, with Bollywood star Aamir Khan weighed on the discussion in 2012 on his talk show, Satyamev Jayate. While we have a wait until 2021 for India’s next census to be conducted, the previous census shows an imbalance of 927 girls to 1000 boys. While there are many causes of this sex imbalance (for example, greater malnutrition of girls), the issue of sex-selective abortions, despite legal prohibitions, is well documented.
Respected Indian Economist and Philosopher Amartya Sen has argued the importance of analysing social and cultural influence in India’s female foeticide problem, beyond a simplistic economic analysis. This is especially true considering that there is some suggestion that India’s middle class has a greater gender bias in favour of boys, and that one in 10 girls conceived by Indian-born women in Britain as their third or fourth baby is missing. While this could still have an economic component, the middle class has more money and hence more to lose (and heftier dowries), an honest look at the social attitudes that lead to girls becoming an economic drain must also be assessed as part of the problem.
A study conducted by Bhagat, Laskar and Sharma in 2012 in Delhi slums found anincreasing son-preference with increasing age among women, with adult women revealing such pressure primarily comes from their mother-in-law to carry out female foeticide. Another study in 2013 by Vedpathak et al. in Maharashtra, discovering that 37.85% of women justified female foeticide, with mothers-in-law being the greatest pressurising family member. Both studies confirm the primary reason for this being propagation of the family name and dependence in old age, which is already well-known. Study of family structure in affecting sex-ratios, particularly in relation to women’s treatment towards other women, is clearly a topic which requires closer investigation.
India’s Human Development Survey-II (IHDS-II) demonstrated that only 1.8% senior women in households surveyed play a role in deciding the number of children. This may indicate that women are simply carriers of female-sensitive topics within a family unit rather than decision makers behind the decision to abort the girl child. The lack of focus on the family structure, however, means that the identity imposed on the unborn child is not fully realised in current debates. After all, these decisions are familiar, whether they come from a male or female figure in the family.
Professionals from all fields rightly acknowledge the feminine identity imposed on the foetus which perpetuates the imbalanced sex-ratio outcome, but there is little acknowledgement of the other identities imposed on the fetus–particularly of the family. The call for further research in this area, therefore, may warrant us to reconsider the language we use, moving from ‘female feticide’ to ‘granddaughter and daughter feticide’, especially in academic and policy discussions around the issue. Acknowledging all identities imposed on the foetus and its perceived threat to the family, and possibly mothers-in-law particularly may be powerful in bolstering and personalising existing campaign efforts. Let’s hope we soon also begin to hear ‘poti bachao, poti padhao’ (save the granddaughter, educate the granddaughter).