Saved, or sacrificed?

Infanticide and abortion of female fetuses remain major problems in India, but some parents believe they're sparing their daughters lives of hardship.

By Carol Lloyd
Published December 15, 2006 1:44AM (EST)

Earlier today, an Indian government minister confirmed what researchers have been suggesting for a while: That in the past 20 years, 10 million Indian girls have been prevented from being born or killed by their parents, by either illegal sex selection or infanticide. From this side of the globe, sex selection through abortion versus slaughtering a newborn may seem like two different worlds of wrong. But the development of sex-selection technology has allowed middle-class families to continue the practice of female extermination with less risk of criminal prosecution, while poorer families resort to murder. Although the government has made it illegal for doctors to tell parents the sex of their fetus, the practice is rampant and coded through all sorts of rituals like passing out pink candy for girl babies and blue for boys.

These numbers paint a deplorable picture of a country that has allowed women to be so radically devalued as to suffer a silent genocide. Though many female fetuses are aborted, Renuka Chowdhury, the country's minister for women and child development, has testified to the fact that killing female babies outright remains common in some regions. She described common methods of murder, from filling the infants' mouths and nostrils with sand or tobacco juice to burying them alive in pots or hanging them up to dry "like a bunch of flowers."

The most sickening development is that the practice is increasing in more educated areas. In Punjab, a relatively affluent and educated region, boys currently outnumber girls 1,000 to 798, compared with a nationwide rate of 1,000 to 933. In a country where men are traditionally regarded as workers and women as dependents, and a common blessing is "May you have sons," Chowdhury argued that despite laws and government education campaigns, the practice will only change with economic empowerment. No doubt she's right, but this fact is dismaying in itself.

What no one ever talks about is the effect of infanticide on the women who do survive, and who sometimes end up participating in the practice. Like female genital mutilation, it's such an extreme form of culturally condoned hatred, it must cast a pall over many more lives than those of its immediate victims. Ironically, sometimes the very people murdering baby girls see it as an act of mercy to spare them from a life of terrible hardship and suffering as women. Back in March, Indian publication Central Chronicle reported that "invariably, the women who killed their infants revealed that the dowry system, grinding poverty and the harassment from inebriated spouses have prompted them to send their female child to the abode of Yama (the God of death in the Hindu mythology)." As one village woman told the paper: "We have lived a miserable life. Why bring more girls in the world to face a similar fate?"

Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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