Why you should care
Because, really? It’s 2016.
Svati Chakravarty Bhatkal is a field researcher and writer based in Mumbai.
“The day I was born, my father tried to bury me alive,” Manju Singh tells me. “The moment he knew he’d had a daughter, he charged into the windowless room in which my mother had delivered me and started digging a hole in the mud floor. The umbilical cord had just been cut. My maternal grandmother scooped me up and fled.”
Seated on her haunches before a wood stove in her outdoor kitchen in the North Indian state of Haryana, Singh is cooking breakfast. It’s winter, around dawn, and the 35-year-old mother of two speaks matter-of-factly, not allowing her narrative to interrupt the rapid motion of her rolling pin.
“That I lived is nothing short of a miracle,” she continues. “My mother had to fight real hard to keep me alive. Even while I was growing up, my father tried several times to kill me. He’d beat me to pulp. But somehow, I lived through it all. I was just that stubborn.” She laughs.
For generations, no girl child in Singh’s family had been allowed to live. When she was 10, her father told her that he had watched his own sister get buried alive by his father. Killing newborn female progeny was family tradition. There was a strict “sons only” policy, implemented ruthlessly. What happened in Singh’s family over generations was neither isolated instance nor aberration. Female infanticide, though now rare, was actively practiced in India for centuries. The methods varied from region to region, but all were equally macabre — feeding the baby grain husk to cut her windpipe, a morsel of rice to choke her, tobacco juice to poison her. Also strangulation, starvation, overfeeding and the fate Singh escaped — being buried alive.
Women were under immense pressure to do it. Many of them were undergoing five, six, even ten abortions in the quest for a son.
Breakfast cooked, Singh is now vigorously working the hand pump in the courtyard to fill water for her family’s needs for the day. She tells me about traditional rituals that accompanied infanticide in different parts of the country. “In the state of Rajasthan there’s a popular song that urges the daughter not to return to this land. They used to sing that after they killed the infant. And in Punjab they would place the girl alive in an earthen pot with a lump of jaggery, some gram and raw cotton yarn. Then they buried the pot while chanting — ‘Eat this jaggery, spin this cotton. Don’t come back. The next time, send your brother instead.’ ”
“Why gram, jaggery and yarn?” I ask. She explains, “Gram and jaggery are symbols of celebrating a boy child. And the cotton yarn is what a sister ties on her brother’s wrist to ask for his protection. These male symbols are meant to invoke a son.”
In the late 1980s, a technology came to India that practically eradicated infanticide. Ultrasound imaging techniques made it possible to identify the gender of an unborn child in the womb. Gender-identification services combined with sex-selective abortions at affordable prices mushroomed all over India. Singh’s experiences speak to this reality from the ground up. “When I got married, I learned about sex-selective abortions. It was all around me. It was so easy that it became far far more common than infanticide ever was. It was happening in practically every home. Women were under immense pressure to do it. Many of them were undergoing five, six, even ten abortions in the quest for a son. It’s physical and mental torture. I felt very strongly that I should work with women to try and stop the killing of the girl child. It was a calling from deep within.”
Household chores done, Singh sets off to work. Her job as health and gender-rights advocate with an organization called Voluntary Health Association of India is to focus primarily on women’s health and prevent sex-selective abortions in her community in Ambala District, Haryana.
A middle-aged woman in the back pipes up, ‘All of you who want only sons, can you tell me who will make the babies? Can men give birth to children?’
Our first stop is a village meeting. A crowd of women has gathered and a raucous debate is under way. The topic of discussion is the relative merits of sons versus daughters. Many women provide a rationale for wanting male children: “Daughters are expensive to bring up. We need to spend on their dowries.” “Sons earn money — they bring dowries. Daughters only take from their families.” “A daughter gets married and goes away, but a son is always there to look after you.” “Raising a daughter is like watering a tree in your neighbor’s garden.” “If I don’t have a son to light my funeral pyre, my soul will never reach heaven.” These arguments, Singh tells me are ubiquitous and deeply rooted in culture, economics and plain misogyny.
Suddenly, a middle-aged woman at the back of the crowd pipes up, “All of you who want only sons, can you tell me who will make the babies? Can men give birth to children? We need girls too. Girls are great! Ask me — I have two daughters!” The air is thick with cheering. But the truth is, there is very little to cheer. Thanks to a few decades of sex-selective abortions, there aren’t enough girls in Haryana for young men to marry. Entire villages in the state are now devoid of brides. Bachelors are desperate, trying everything from propitiating the gods to buying brides from other states and arm twisting local politicians to get them brides in exchange for votes.
“Even medicine can become a poison if not used correctly,” Singh tells me. “Ultrasound was meant to improve the health of mothers and babies. But we use it as a killing tool. People are complicit. So are doctors.” In 1994, the Indian government prohibited sex determination during ultrasound and sex-selective abortions. However, despite the law, India’s ratio of young girls to young boys slid lower every decade. Per the Indian government’s data from its most recent census, held in 2011, there are 914 girls under 6 years old per every 1,000 boys. The numbers have dropped further since 1991, when it was 927 girls per every 1,000 boys. Singh’s home of Haryana has only 834 girls for every 1,000 boys in the age group 0 to 6 years. The numbers underscore the difficulty of her work.
A hectic day of trudging from village to village, chatting up pregnant women and encouraging young mothers of daughters has ended. It’s time to head home. The sun is setting, and there’s a cold wind blowing. Singh’s daughter is back from school and has been busy preparing for her mother’s arrival. Steaming cups of tea and biscuits await us. Ruffling her daughter’s hair, Singh praises her efforts and turns to me and asks, “Do you have a daughter?”
“Yes,” I answer.
“Then,” she says, “you’ll know what I mean when I say that they are so precious. I always prayed for a girl. And God heard me. I love my son too, but my daughter is very special.”