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Unwanted daughters: Fighting female foeticide in India

September 22, 2023
topic:Women's rights
tags:#India, #women's rights, #female foeticide, #abortion
by:Ayesha Khan
A cultural preference for sons and lingering widespread misogyny exacerbate the prevalence of female foeticide in India. But these villagers are tipping the scales one community at a time.

On days when the village council meets, Sushila, who chose to identify herself solely by her first name, leaves her home early. Together, she and other volunteers from the council form groups and go door-to-door through their village, Bibipur, informing women about the scheduled public meeting.

It is a rare sight to spot women conducting such meetings in India’s state of Haryana, where Bibipur is located, and where patriarchic sentiments and gender inequality are deeply entrenched. In fact, Haryana currently ranks as one of the most unsafe states for women in India. Due to a high rate of crimes against women, females in the state are frequently discouraged from venturing out of their homes for employment, education, or other activities. 

"The female village council meetings are a safe space for women, where they can openly talk about their problems," Sushila, who has been working as a social activist in the village for over 10 years, told FairPlanet. "We discuss issues of domestic violence, gender inequality, sexual and reproductive health and mental health, among others."

The mahila gram sabha (women-only village council) was founded in 2012 by Sunil Jaglan, the former village head of Bibipur and a social activist. It was established to address the pervasive problem of female foeticide, which involves the illegal practice of aborting female fetuses after sex determination tests. This marked the first time when women in Bibipur got a platform to raise their concerns in public. 

Despite the fact that determining the sex of the foetus before birth is illegal in India, sex-selective abortions persists in the country due to a predominant cultural preference for sons. In many households in India, girls are viewed as a social and financial burden, as their parents are often expected to spend substantial sums on dowries for their weddings. 

With the passing of the 1994 the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, India made it illegal to reveal the sex of an unborn child except for strictly medical purposes. And while abortion up to 20 weeks remains legal in India, pre-natal sex discernment is not.

Yet states like Haryana, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Bihar still have pre-natal sex determination clinics operating illegally. This largely contributes to India’s estimated 46 million missing females at birth each year, which accounts for nearly half of global missing female births.

In the midst of an alarming increase in sex-selective abortions, Bibipur emerged as an inspiration for other villages in the country. Today, female foeticide is no longer practised in Bibipur. 

Raising awareness

Things began to change in Bibipur when Sunil Jaglan, who was appointed village head in 2011, had his first child in 2012 - a daughter. The nurse who delivered the child refused to take the money that Jaglan offered as a thank you gesture, allegedly claiming she was disappointed to have delivered a girl and not a boy. 

"I was saddened by the mindset of my fellow villagers, and that’s when I knew that I had to do something to change it," Jaglan told FairPlanet, "so I asked my sister to bang the pots and pans - a gesture that announces the birth of a male child."

The celebration for a daughter took the villagers by surprise, he claimed. 

From foeticide to infanticide, Jaglan was aware of the desperate measures villagers would resort to in their preference for a male child. "Those who could afford prenatal sex testing and abortion opted for foeticide, but there was also another section who couldn’t afford it; they would deprive the infant of milk after birth and it would die of malnutrition," he explained.

In the same year his daughter was born, Jaglan founded the women-only village council and encouraged women to take part in other village meetings, which were historically reserved for men. At the council, he also formed and trained a team of volunteers who started monitoring pregnancies in the village.

When a pregnant woman would leave her home, Jaglan’s team of volunteers would follow her to make sure she is not going to a clinic where illegally prenatal testing might be administered. 

"If we found that a woman or her family is planning to get a prenatal sex check, we would meet her and the family to make them aware of the consequences of the crime. This started scaring the villagers and we saw the numbers improve," Jaglan said.

This move by Jaglan and his team also helped local law enforcement authorities track down illegal sex determination centres that were operating running in the state. 

At the time in Bibipur, the sex ratio, which refers to the number of females per 1,000 males, was 867. This figure was lower than the Haryana state average of 879. The sex ratio has since increased to 920, according to Jaglan. 

As per  the 2011 census, the southern Indian state of Kerala registered the highest sex ratio of 1084, followed by the union territory of Puducherry at 1037, while the country’s average stood at 943. 

Group interventions 

In a conservative society like Haryana’s, transforming mindsets was not an easy task for Jaglan and his team. They launched over 100 campaigns, some of which were eventually adopted as policies by the state government, such as the one that named local streets after people's daughters and another that had girls who excelled at school hoist flags on Independence Day and Republic Day - a job traditionally reserved for boys.

But in order to tackle the epidemic of female foeticide, it was crucial to address broader issues faced by women, Jaglan said. His team, he claimed, started conducting workshops onthe  use of contraceptives, menstrual hygiene, sexual and reproductive health and crimes against women. They also held documentary film screenings about female foeticide, which struck emotional chords with the villagers. 

"Initially, the women were hesitant, but later they themselves started approaching us if they were being pressured by their family members to test the sex of the foetus," Sushila, the volunteer from the women's council, told FairPlanet. "In such cases, we would intervene as a group to stop it from happening." 

From young to old, women of all ages in the village actively engaged in spreading the message. Those who attended the sensitisation and awareness sessions at the council were able to advise others in their community.

When Sushma, a homemaker in Bibipur, went to visit her parents in another village, it came to her attention that their neighbour is being asked to take unreliable indigenous medicines, such as Sex Selection Drugs (SSD), to conceive a male child. SSDs are known to contain testosterone and phytoestrogens in quantities that could be potentially detrimental to the growth and development of the embryo.

The woman, who already had five daughters, was trying to get pregnant for the sixth time. "I went to her and spoke to her family about the ill effects of taking such medicines," Sushma recounted. "I told them that daughters are a blessing and if we educate them and empower them, they are no less than a male child."

Village communities are leading the way

Another Indian village that fought female foeticide is Piplantri in the state of Rajasthan. In 2006, when Shyam Sunder Paliwal, the village head at the time, had lost his 16-year-old daughter, he commemorated her by planting a tree. Since then, every time a daughter is born in the village, 111 saplings are planted to celebrate the birth.

"After I lost my daughter, it became my mission to save every daughter in my village. Along with planting saplings, we started depositing some money for the daughters as fixed deposits, which can be used later in life for their education," Paliwal explained.

So far, the villagers in Piplantri have planted over 400,000 trees, turning a once barren land into a green oasis. The trees planted in Piplantri mainly include peepal, banyan, Indian gooseberry and bamboo, which are sustainable and useful for the local population. 

Under Paliwal’s leadership, awareness about female foeticide and women's rights in general grew substantially. Through the panchayat-at-your-doorstep programme, he used to tour the village and learn about the problems faced by women. Additionally, schools were built in the village so that girls would not have to travel to other villages to study, which was a concern for many parents.

For his efforts, Paliwal was honoured with the Padma Shri in 2021, one of the highest civilian awards in India. 

Advancing policy changes 

The activities in Bibipur and Piplantri have reportedly paved the way for change in several other villages of India when it comes to female foeticide. In 2017, the President of India at the time, Pranab Mukherjee, adopted 100 villages in Haryana and asked Sunil Jaglan to help implement what is now labeled the 'Bibipur model of women empowerment and village development' in those villages. 

Today, Jaglan works with heads of villages across the country that have low sex ratios and trains them on how to implement the model.

In Piplantri, Shyam Sunder Paliwal’s work influenced policies in the state after the former Chief Minister of Rajasthan, Vasundhara Raje, visited the village. Impressed by Paliwal’s work, she opened a training centre in Piplantri, where other village heads and bureaucrats would receive training from Paliwal to imitate initiatives similar to the one run by him in other districts.

While initiatives like these are making a significant impact in transforming people's mindsets on women's rights and female foeticide, India, with its vast size and diverse population, still has a long road ahead in achieving true gender equality.

mage by Sunil Jaglan

Article written by:
Ayesha Khan
Volunteers in Bibipur go door-to-door through the village, informing women about the scheduled meeting of the women-led council.
© Sunil Jaglan
Volunteers in Bibipur go door-to-door through the village, informing women about the scheduled meeting of the women-led council.
Female foeticide involves the illegal abortion of female foetuses following sex determination tests.
© Sunil Jaglan
Female foeticide involves the illegal abortion of female foetuses following sex determination tests.