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'Even married women won't be safe'

June 22, 2004 17:43 IST
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India's obsession for male children is spawning many sociological and demographic problems.

In north India, where the problem is more pronounced, young men of marriageable age are finding it increasingly difficult to find a bride, according to The Times, London.

The United Nations, alarmed by the sharp drop in the sex ratio in the 2001 census, has urged drastic measures to arrest the trend.

Over the years, say social scientists, Indian parents, both rich and poor, have aborted over 40 million girls. These, and many other parents, see girls as a liability.

India is predominantly patriarchal and a girl, once married, is considered the property of her husband's family. Her marriage itself can end up in a back-breaking financial burden -- the parents of a girl are expected to bear the cost of a lavish wedding, deck the bride in expensive ornaments and provide a fat dowry. Besides, the groom's family sees them as an unending source of wealth.

Boys, on the other hand, continue the family name and are considered an economic staff by parents in their old age.

The result of this skewered perception -- a skewered male-female ratio that brings with it attendant problems.

In Haryana, for example, where a quarter of the female population no longer exists, young men are finding it increasingly difficult to snare a bride. Desperate young men in Punjab are looking outside the state to get married.

Female foeticide is resulting in another unforeseen problem.

'With no jobs or family responsibilities, young boys spend their time playing cards, drinking, harassing females and making a nuisance of themselves. We believe a boy gains adulthood at 18; he must be married by then. But these days, boys are entering their mid-thirties and not finding a girl,' Balraj Singh, a farmer in Hoshiarpur in Punjab, told Amrit Dhillon of the Times, London.

Feminists, too, say the skewered demographic will result in a surge of sexual violence against women.

Sex determination tests, though illegal, continue to be easy. Using an ultrasound test to determine the sex of the foetus -- which is promptly aborted if is a girl -- is a popular practice in much of north India.

Earlier, female children were murdered by their parents/families after they were born. Now, thanks to the cheap ultrasound technology that flooded the country in the eighties, they are destroyed in the womb itself.

Villages struggling with basic amenities have access to ultrasound machines and unscrupulous doctors interested in a quick buck. As a result, there are villages that have not seen the birth of a girl child in years.

The Indian Medical Association says around five million foetuses are aborted each year. In some northern areas, the male:female ratio is 1000:793 in the 0 to 6 years age group. In some others, it is even lower at 754. In Punjab and Haryana, it dips to as low as 600 girls to a thousand boys.

Yet, the sex determination tests and abortions of 'unwanted' foetuses continue. Some gynaecologists in Delhi talk of patients going in for multiple abortions because the foetus turns out to be a girl.

For unscrupulous doctors and ultrasound technicians, sex determination is an easy way to a quick buck. In order to avoid being caught, they use code phrases or words to indicate the sex of the foetus. These include 'the sky is blue', 'your baby will play football' or 'your child is like a doll.'

Some clinics go to the extent of loading an ultrasound machine onto a van, along with a generator to cope with the frequent power cuts, and travel to the interiors to offer sex-selection services.

Many would-be mothers willingly use this option either to alleviate their desire for a son or to escape the trauma they will have to undergo if their child is a girl. In many parts of India, it is still believed that the onus of the child's sex lies with the woman.

Meanwhile, the bride famine is resulting in unusual, if socially unacceptable, solutions. In many families, fraternal polyandry is discreetly becoming the order of the day.

'A young woman is formally married to only one brother. Neither she nor her parents have any idea of their real intentions. Later, her husband's brothers also have sex with her,' sociologist Ravinder Bhalla told the Times.

These experiments have their own repercussions. The Uttar Pradesh police have registered five cases of female fratricide; murders that were provoked by sexual jealousy or rivalry.

And then, there are the emotional issues -- when a child is born, who is the father?

But paternity, apparently, is not a major issue because the brothers don't marry different wives and go their separate ways. As a result, there is no division of the family wealth and property. This is being seen a boon in rural areas where many families survive on a small plot of land.

What of those, though, who can't find a bride?

With high unemployment in the north and frustrated young men hanging around street corners, more crimes against women are being committed.

'Violence against women is rising. We'll have more unnatural practices, such as brothers sharing a wife. In a few years, no woman will be safe. There will be abductions and rapes, even of minors. Even married women won't be safe,' says Dr B S Dahiya, a government official in Haryana who is battling illegal sex determination tests.

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