From The New Indian Express, 19 October 2009, by Zubeda Hamid, a Friend of Prajnya: on the current status of female foeticide and infanticide in Madurai and adjoining districts in Tamil Nadu.
For close to two decades, Madurai has been in the spotlight for the practices of female infanticide, and, more recently, female foeticide. With the constant media probing and pressure from various government wings and non-governmental organisations, villagers in the district are now hostile on the subject. “We don’t know anything; haven’t seen anything; and for all intents and purposes, it does not happen,” is the parroted line you get when form the villagers.
A look at the figures though, is disturbing. The ideal sex ratio is 952 female births to every 1,000 male ones. In the past eight years, the figure for the district (rural) has ranged from 878 in 2001 to 923 in 2006, both far below normal.
Infant deaths too seem biased on the side of females. In 2001, the district saw 678 female infant deaths while the figure for males was 570.
Though the numbers have dropped over the years, female infant deaths remain higher than those of males.
In 2006, there were 403 female infant deaths and 374 male ones.
“The statistics themselves show that there are fewer female babies than male ones. Even taking into account the usual infant deaths, the figures are below average,’’ says M Jeeva, a State committee member of the Campaign Against Sex Related Abortion.
Figures from the Deputy Director Health Services, however, show that the sex ratio at birth for the district (rural) was 962 in 2007-08 and 969 in 2008-09.
This indicates that the district does not have an infanticide/foeticide problem at all. And yet, seven months ago, there was a report of a woman who had killed and buried her baby daughter in Usilampatti.
The trend, says Jeeva, has shifted from infanticide to foeticide in the last decade, at least in the more urban parts of the district. “Infanticide still exists in some villages but it is much lesser than it was 20 years ago and far more hidden.
With the burgeoning of scan centres across the district, abortion after detecting the sex of the baby is the current practice. There is nothing to stop a couple from determining the sex of the baby at an unscrupulous clinic and then having it aborted privately,’’ he says.
Sex determination is forbidden under the Pre-conception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act 2002.
The district has 196 registered ultrasound clinics.
All of the registered clinics are supposed to submit monthly reports to the health authorities.
In 2007-08, the number of clinics submitting reports began at 90 and did not exceed 125.
Father Antony Samy is the director of the Claretian Mercy Home in Azhagusirai, a village about 25 km from Madurai. The home takes in babies left behind in the cradle baby scheme as well as other abandoned or surrendered babies. Of the 30 babies they have at present, only five are boys, two of whom are handicapped.
According to Fr. Anthony, foeticide has not yet penetrated to the villages. “Even to get to a primary health centre, villagers in Azhagusirai have to travel around 12 km. They neither know about scanning nor can they afford it,’’ he says.
Infanticide, according to him, has gone down considerably but still exists in some pockets. “Two decades ago when we first started work here they would kill even the first female baby. Now they accept the first two female infants but do not want a third,’’ he claims. The practice, according to him, was prevalent amongst the Kallar community, who are primarily agricultural labourers. “It is not so much a desire to do away with females as an ove r – whelming desire to give birth to a male. A male equates both not having to give dowry and receiving dowry when he gets married, which, as these families are joint, is a source of income,’’ he said.
Where mother turns monster
Lush green paddy fields and the quaint streams gushing alongside make the rural pockets of Theni district a blessed landscape. But the scourge of female infanticide continues in these areas. With the civilized world outside having forgotten all about it after an initial uproar, when the practice came under media scanner long a g o, many baby girls do not get to live for more than three days here.
Prevalent in Changalpatti, Dhadicherry and Varthanadu blocks , the baby girls are given the death sentence by the father or any other patriarch with the mother or grandmother executing it rather silently. In many households of the local caste Hindu community, bringing up a girl is still seen as a burden.
The milky sap of Calotropis plant comes handy for the women, who smear it on the lips of the infant or apply it on the breasts of the feeding mother.
That, however, happens to girls whose mothers and grandmothers are kindhearted. The alternative method is to fill the mouth of the infant with coarse paddy grains and let the child choke to death.
After the death, they bury the baby under their makeshift washroom sheds and cover it with a huge stone slabs on which they wash clothes.
Once the deed is done, some women members go into mourning too. Besides crying for the dead, they go through the rites like having a bath and partaking a feast of country chicken curry and Mutton fry. Thangamma (name changed). a woman married at 18 and is now 31, has killed six of her daughters and says: “I don’t want the girl to suffer like me, it is better she goes early like this than live to suffer.” Another 29-year-old woman, who killed her third daughter, says, “This is a day’s trouble. If she lives, it is a lifetime of trouble.” Nagarajan(37) says, “ This our traditional training, we are used to it.” M Jeeva from Development Organisation for Women, who has been fighting against female infanticide for over 15 years says: “The main reason for this practice is that women in this community do not have any dignity. Dowry and the attended expenses on ‘sirru’ that the girl’s parents have to bear during marriage prompt them to indulge in this practice.”
Cradle Baby Scheme brings new hope
In Uthankarai block of Krishnagiri district, quarry workers think that sending their baby girls straight to God is better than giving them for adoption. The women, for whom, apart from arduous physical labour, sexual abuse is also part of their life, do not want their daughters to go through the same problems they face in their daily lives.
In Reddipetti and Chenappanayakanur village in Uthankarai, female literacy rate is only 20 per cent. Also, the school drop out rate among females in this area is very high.
Karunamurthy of Help for Education and Learning project, an NGO, has been working among the women in Uthankarai for some time now. “The male-female sex ratio is dropping here. A study undertaken by Campaign Against Sex-selection Abortion (CASA) in Krishnagiri and Dharmapuri districts in 2005 has found that there were only 826 females per 1,000 males,” he says.
In other parts of Krishnagiri district, female infanticide is common among caste Hindus.
Kesavaraj from the Association for Rural and Community Development says, “ Things here have improved now. Some 15 years the situation was very different. The Cradle Baby Scheme has brought in this change. Still, the mindset that a girl child is a burden to the family prevails here. They generally allow the first two children to survive. But if the third child is also a girl, she will not be allowed to survive, instead will be put to sleep.” The reason cited for such practices are dowry. Apart from the traditional demands for various things, a motorbike for the groom is a new phenomenon in this locality.
Even educated town dwellers indulge in it here
Dharmapuri district, with its unique problems of prolonged drought, migrant labour and domestic violence, also has a tradition of female infanticide, according to the studies done by Development, Education and Environment Protection Society (DEEPS), a non-governmental organisation (NGO).
The blocks where the practice of female infanticide still exists are Thenakaram, Nallampalli, Karimangalam and Thalakodu.
Shankar from DEEPS says, “ Dowry is one major cause”.
He says that some people who had come and settled down here from Salem district in the past 15 years have made a unbecoming influence on the local population, whose members are now vying with them in giving more dowry, thus raising the bar.
“This practice is not confined only to the rural parts. Even the educated living in the town quietly indulge in this practice,” observe Shankar of DEEPS.
According to 2001 census in Dharmapuri, the female-male sex ration is 887 females to 1,000 males in below 6 years category.
In the region known for temporary migration, it is common for pregnant women to leave for work elsewhere and come back without the child. Though they cite fever and other illness for the child’s death, most of them are cases of female infanticide.