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Female Foeticide

From Female Foeticide by Madhu Gurung, 1999. C/o Colonel (Retired) R.B. Gurung, Ranjhawala, P. O. Raipur, Dehra Dun. (U.P.).

Copyright © Madhu Gurung, 1999.

Area Study 4: Uttar Pradesh (Dehra Dun)

The road to Kandoli village is ten kms past the impressive Indian Military Academy. It curves gently to open up to a panorama of lime green rice fields. The air is fragrant with the smell of basmati rice. In the distance are the blue mountain ranges of the Shivaliks and tiny white houses of Mussoourie. The road converts into a track full of stones abundantly available in the dry river bed of river Tons. Our jeep groans as the road gets steep until we reach the village.

The village school is in session, the voices of young children rise and fall as they say their lessons aloud. Some are busy painting on the school verandah under the watchful eye of the old school master Kuwar Singh Pundir. At 56 he is a tall thin man with gentle eyes. He is the headmaster of the Prathmik Vidhayala, Kandoli (Lower) and has four more years to go before he retires. His father migrated 60 years ago like most of the villagers from Chamoli in the Garhwal hills. He tells me that the people of Kandoli are called Kathmali.

Under the shade of the huge peepul tree which acts like an awing on the verandah, Pundir and a young 28 year old teacher, Sunil Kumar, sit with attendance registers. The children sit on durries and jostle each other in youthful abandon. “We have 58 children in our school – 29 boys and 29 girls.” Pundir can’t disguise his pride when he talks of his students. He is himself a father of four girls, three of whom were married when they turned 18 and the youngest, now 20, has been bethrowed. When questioned if he wishes his daughters to have sons, he shrugs, “We have no discrimination in Garhwal between daughters and sons. My middle daughter has two daughters and they are welcome,” he replies.

Sunil Kumar who had been silent till then, interrupts, “There is discrimination of course, everyone wants a boy so why hide it. Majburi hai, nowadays economics determines less children. Everyone wants to have just two children and one must be a boy.” Kumar isn’t married but agrees that when he does, he will want a son.

Two generations – Pundir and Kumar, the change in attitudes startling and conspicuous, the old order giving way to the new like everywhere in India.

Garhwal has no history of infanticide, girls were never considered a burden because the tradition of the bride price they fetched. When the girl married, the heavy gold ‘nath’ she wore on her wedding determined how prosperous the man was.

But then the social order in the hills has been different to those of the plains. Says Dr Kiran Rawat a sociologist, who belongs to Kotdwar and who is currently working with the Himalayan Environment Studies and Conservation Organisation (HESCO), “Men migrate in search of work and so looking after home, fields and children, is left to the women. Women have children as working hands are required. Of course boys are desired but only to carry on the vansh. Families go through as many children it takes to produce one heir. They are not disappointed if they had a daughter, they just try again.”

“But behind the traditional acceptance for a girl child there are subtle biases. It was in the food a girl child is fed, the attention to her health or the education she is given in comparison to a boy –all seen from the point of view that the boy had to leave home to work outside.”

In a recent study conducted by HESCO in the Garhwal hills to determine gender bias in technology, some alarming facts emerged. HESCO identified 25 routine activities like fetching water, foraging for food and grass, working the fields, cooking etc; to find that women worked 16 hours daily in the hills. In fact, the survey revealed that there were no modern technological innovations which could be applied to the daily activities of rural women. Innovation in technologies like ploughing benefitted men as it was their job. The work for women remained as taxing and back breaking.

“The infrastructure in the Uttar Pradesh(UP) hills is very bad — women still have to walk miles to get water as there are no pipelines or taps. They still have to collect firewood, get grass for the cattle, weed, harvest, thrash the crop, cook and look after children. Most have little time for themselves, leave alone their own personal hygiene. More than 90 percent of them are anemic and about 80 percent suffer from luchorrea or ulcers. Women are hardy in the hills. They don’t complain, probably because men aren’t there and they know they have to do all the work. Till they fall in bed unable to work anymore, are they actually taken seriously and given medications,” says Dr Rawat.

In more remote areas of Garhwal especially those contiguous to Kumaon hills, Dr Rawat speaks of superstitions attached to rites of passage in a woman’s life. When girls reach menstruation, they are forced to live in cow sheds during their menarche. They are not supposed to touch the water, the chula or even enter the house as she is considered impure The cowshed is also the place where a woman will deliver the baby, the area between the cattle and the birthing area is demarcated by cow-dung. “This is the discrimination which has traditionally been going on in the hills. But in comparison to the plains there was no history of killing girl babies, only their well being is neglected,” says Dr Rawat.

UNICEF’s, Lucknow representative Madhvi Ashok was in Dehra Dun for a two day workshop on the girl child. Says Ashok, “According to the 1997 Government of India Sample Registration System (SRS) statistics, out of 1000 children born 92 boys die in comparison to 105 girls, which means that 5 lakh children die every year before reaching the age of one. According to the 1991 Census UP’s population was 13.9 crores. In 1999 the estimated population is 16.8 crores, of which three crores are under 14, so we are talking of a lot of children dying. Worst 85 percent die due to preventable causes like birthing practise, tetanus shots for the mother, nutrition or lack of medical aid in case of complications.”

According to the UNICEF figures the international maternal mortality rate is 200 –202 women for every one lakh births. The All India figure for the same is 440 to 473. In UP, especially the hill regions, it is the highest in the country at 707 deaths for every lakh births.

“The condition of women is dire in UP. There are only 17.2 percent institutional births as most are either happening at home or go unregistered,” says Ashok. “In the Uttrakhand area many women are dying because the odds are against them. Most marry early. UP’s average age of marriage is between 15-18 years, though it’s the legal age, most women are not physically or mentally ready to have children. Auxilliary Nurse-cum-Midwife(ANM) and Anganwadi workers can’t reach remote areas so the women are deprived of nutritional advice, checkups and immunisation.”

The migration of men to the plains is gradually making its presence felt in these hill regions. Dehra Dun is the first stop over for a vast majority . In fact if Uttarakhand becomes a State, Dehra Dun is expected to become it’s capital. Once considered the retirees paradise with schools and military institutions that produced Army Chiefs, bureaucrats, industrialists and army personnel, the city has expanded gargantuan and unwieldy. Today it is second on the list of the Voluntary Income Disclosure Scheme.

“Hill men come to the valley, they undergo gentrification, most don’t go back, they marry again and settle here with their new wives, work and children. There are a lot of cases of desertion in the hills. For the women back home dependent on their husband’s money order, it’s slow suicide. The men who return back home take back the social attitudes and the ways of the plains with them,” says Avdesh Kaushal who runs an NGO, Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK). “The obsession for a son is one of the worst things that has hit the hill society. What is sad is that it has crept into a society where such traditional bias did not exist. Having a daughter was no ‘matam’(crime) nor was not having a son at all.”

In 1991, Uttar Pradesh’s sex ratio was 882 females to 1000 males but in the hills of Garhwal the female sex ratio was higher. In Chamoli it was 1059 females to 1000 males and in Tehri Garhwal it was 1073 females to 1000 males. Male migration was said to be a major factor in this distorted sex ratio. In comparison the nodal towns where men from the hill region first descend and formed a base, the female sex ratio was a lot less. In Dehra Dun, given the fact there was a mixed population of Punjabi, Garhwali, Gurkhas, plain ‘UP-ites,’ the sex ratio was 851 females to 1000 males, much lower than the All India sex ratio of 927 females per 1000 males.

The situation is worst now,” says Dr Asha Rawal, President of the Gynaecological Association of Dehra Dun. Dr Rawal runs a nursing home and an ultra sound clinic on the East Canal road. “I have patients coming from Uttarkashi, Chakrata, Kotdwar, Tehri Garhwal, Nayagaum, Barkot. They all want sons and ask for sex determination. Even in such remote places they have heard about such techniques. It’s very tough telling them that girls are good and will look after them in their old age. Even if the first born is a girl, she is not welcome. It’s not that this is just with the people from the hills. Dehra Dun has a mixed population and everyone wants a son.”

“What is worst is sex determination can be done after three to four months which takes the pregnancy to the second trimester. Yet despite the risks, people are willing to try again and again. Some take it as a tool to limit their family. When I refuse they go to other doctors. I have had a patient who wanted me to take away her second daughter and throw her away.”

Today there are 13 ultrasound clinics in Dehra Dun. Most of them are not registered. For that matter, UP does not have stringent laws for nursing homes either. “There is no registration of Nursing Homes Act in UP,” says Mr J.P. Sharma of the UP Voluntary Health Association(UP VHA). “Some quacks were even conning people with fake unheard of degrees like ‘HPIF’ which to my horror I was told stood for ‘High School Passed Inter Failed.’ A recent study conducted by UP VHA and Technology and Research Network on Bio-Medical Waste Management and Handling in Dehra Dun town found that most of the nursing staff were not qualified.

Not far away from the Rawal Nursing Home, a gynaecologist does brisk business. Her nursing home is in the heart of the city. Outside her consultation room, couples sit waiting for their turn. Two heavily pregnant women lie on the bench, the corridor is a hub of activity, nurses and midwives move up and down. Inside the nursing home five women are in various states of labour, their relatives hover anxiously around.

Ramesh Bisht also waits as his wife goes in for a checkup. He admits this is his wife’s third pregnancy. The Bishts have two daughters and they hope this time round it will be a son. “What will you do if it’s a daughter,” I ask. “Test kara ke safai karayenge,” he says, his eyes stoic. The wife returns, the doctor has asked them to come back again after a fortnight for an ultrasound. When I questioned the gynaecologist if is she was qualified to do ultrasound she shrugs, “its so easy, when you do it once or twice you can do it again. And madam, we do not do female foeticide here,” she says as she leaves to do an ultrasound. “I don’t have an equipment but go for interesting cases to the ultra-sonologist.”

An assistant working in the same nursing home refusing to be named, needs little encouragement to talk. After the doctor leaves he shows me blank reference slips of ultra sonologists ready to be filled, even giving me some to keep. He confirms that most gynaecologists and private nursing home doctors, take a cut from ultra-sonologists for referring patients for ultra sound and sex determination. An ultra sound costs Rs 400, sex determination anything between Rs 900 to Rs 1100. The abortion costs between Rs 500 to a 1000 and more in more complicated cases.

“Doctors with private practises earn a lot of money cashing in on people’s desire for sons,” says Dr Renuka Nathani, a gynaecologist in the Doon hospital, the city’s biggest government hospital. The corridor outside the labour room is crammed with beds, women are lying or sitting, their faces grim with pain as they wait their turns in the labour room. The wards have a high ceiling and eight beds, most of them occupied . Well-fed dogs lie under beds of young mothers. People move around ignoring their presence.

Kamla Bisht lets me take a picture of her with her newly born son. Her neighbour too has had a son. The two women sit content and are quiet when their other room-mate Meera, refuses to be photographed with her twin daughters. Meera smiles but her eyes remain blank and says, “bhagwan ki marzi.”