Varanasi 2011

“What it feels like for a girl” –Madonna 2001

Imagine being a girl of a certain age that reads the news in India…

I was probably around 15 when I started regularly reading newspapers (The Starr Report (Clinton/Lewinsky scandal) was making headlines and was printed in full in the Washington post around that time).

That’s what I thought back to when I saw the article on the front page of the biggest broadsheets in India today: Imagine I’m reading it as an Indian girl, reading about that the extent to which bearing a son/having a male child/a boy is valued over that of having a girl has now reached even more sinister proportions: In Indore there are reports of doctors performing sex-change operations on girls of around 5 years old to turn them (biologically at least) into boys.(http://www.hindu.com/2011/06/27/stories/2011062762710900.htm)

I do not want my host country that I love, I adore and which is more varied and tolerant in many ways than ‘Western’ countries, to be painted with one brush. But let’s get real!: Although there are many exceptions and people happy to have a girl born to them, there is a striking number of sex-selective abortions, female infanticide and feticide. Only a few weeks after my move here (in March of this year) a historic (the first in about 10 years) comprehensive census came out. The birth ratio by sex had tilted increasingly towards sons being born. This, as the media pointed out rightly, is due to the greater availability and cheaper ways of determining the sex of an unborn child before birth, making sex-selective abortions a bigger problem than it was previously.

What struck me was the thought that despite the technological advances, wouldn’t the modernization of society with all its components (less gender-bias for example) counter-act and perhaps just keep the numbers in check to how they were 10 or even 5 years ago?

What I think most (I am guilty myself to some degree) people forget when they think about India is that despite it being hailed as an economic powerhouse and aspiring super-power, this also means that the gap between rich/ultra-rich and poor is widening. The trickle-down effect people talk of when speaking in favour of developing economies in line with neo-liberal policies and globalization does not -surprise surprise!- work as well as some neo-libs might think.

Women are seen as less valuable than men. Sure, the belief that men are more important is part of the problem. But I think –and what many Indian people I have spoken to have agreed with – the cause is often a lack of economic stability, extreme poverty, coupled with traditional belief systems.

It’s the old story: Boys are educated and will become economic supporters of their families, eventually marry and his wife will move in with his parents (another helping hand around the house). Although the system of dowry or ‘bride price’ is illegal, it is still practiced in some form or another. Once the daughter gets married off (ultimate goal of course, there is shame and economic disadvantages to having a ‘spinster daughter’), she leaves with some sort of a dowry/financial support in many cases and moves in with her husband’s family (depleting the family’s resources in more than one way).

The feminist in me wants to look at everything at once: The economy of care-why is there no value attached to the household work the daughter performs first for her own , then for her new family? Obviously, girls not being able to access education due to the gender stereotype of women’s place in the home…etc etc.

But, what must also not be forgotten, I believe, is the dire economic position a very large part of Indian society still finds themselves in.

It’s not a question of the chicken or the egg. In the end of the day, the perception of the ‘girl child’ as less valuable and the son-preference is not only down to economic necessity.

Not wanting to plug the organization where I work directly, I offer you a bigger, well known, Indian NGO that does really important work on the sex-selective abortion/Female Infanticide issue.

And the woman who runs it (Dr. Kumari) is totally fierce and awesome. I had the privilege of meeting her a month ago.

Centre for Social Research: http://www.csrindia.org

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