Indian P.M. calls sex selection a "national shame"

But critics say his speech doesn't go far enough to address the root causes of bias against girls.

By Lynn Harris

Published April 30, 2008 1:00PM (EDT)

In case you missed it: Yesterday's New York Times reported that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh -- in his first-ever speech on the topic -- "described the widespread practice of aborting female fetuses as a 'national shame' on Monday and called for stricter enforcement of laws devised to prevent doctors from helping parents to avoid the birth of unwanted daughters." His was the inaugural speech at a none-too-soon national conference on girls' welfare.

Singh's speech cited an "alarming" decline in the number of girls for every 1,000 boys in India: down from 962 in 1981 to 927 in 2001, adding up to millions of females aborted, or outright murdered. Really, it should be going the other way. "This indicates that growing economic prosperity and education levels have not led to a corresponding mitigation in this acute problem," he said. "No nation, no society, no community can hold its head high and claim to be part of the civilized world if it condones the practice of discriminating against one half of humanity represented by women."

Singh called for a government crackdown on doctors -- often at ultrasound clinics that have popped up like check-cashing joints in impoverished areas -- who illegally disclose the fetus' sex to the parents, and then go on to arrange abortions. Yes, illegally. "Ooh, do you know if it's a boy or a girl?" is likely not a question pregnant Indian women get asked by chatty strangers on the subway. (Apparently, the more common comment/blessing is "May you have sons.") Indian law, in fact, requires pregnant women to sign a form agreeing not to inquire about the sex of the fetus. In reality, however doctors are known to give winking hints such as, "Your child will be a fighter," or offering pink or blue sweets, depending, as the woman leaves.

Why the black market in bias? For one thing, girls -- whose parents are expected to pony up giant dowries -- are "widely regarded as financial liabilities." (Yet the imblance has become pronounced even in wealthier regions, where would-be parents can easily afford ultrasound.) Even among the better off, it seems, men are seen as providers, women as dependents.

Interestingly, Singh's speech -- though the subject matter was welcome -- was not widely regarded as a slam-dunk. "It is not enough for him to preach to us about the problem," Dr. Puneet Bedi, a campaigner against sex selection, told the Times. "The current laws are not being enforced. It is the government's responsibility to take action." Seems to me that he (or the Times, if it was it that left it out) could have stood to call not just for more law and order but also for more fundamental change, like, oh, an end to the dowry system? To grinding poverty? As Carol Lloyd reported here, the government's minister for women and child development has already made clear that devaluing of girls will change only with economic empowerment for all. ("We have lived a miserable life," one woman told an Indian paper. "Why bring more girls in the world to face a similar fate?") For now, it seems, it's really the girls who've got to be fighters.

Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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