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Red Cross Society Provides Safe Cradle For Punjab's Baby Girls

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In September 2006, the police found over 50 female foetuses in a well in Patran, Patiala district, Punjab.

On July 2, 2012, a doctor in Jalandhar was "caught red-handed while conducting a sex-determination test."

On July 18, 2012, ultrasound machines in a private Amritsar hospital were seized after reports of misuse.

Going by these news snippets on female foeticide and infanticide that are routinely splashed in local newspapers, it's evident that Punjab is not a state that welcomes baby girls. The 2011 Census figures only confirmed this trend - the sex ratio of the state is 893 women for 1,000 men as opposed to the already depressing all-India figure of 940.

Attempting to change this dismal reality is an intervention that is proving to be a life-saver for baby girls in the state. In a bustling neighbourhood of Amritsar, on the outer wall of the Red Cross Society, hangs a cane bassinet. The word 'Pangura', or crib in Punjabi, has been painted underneath it followed by something that roughly translates into: 'Parents who don't want their babies can leave them in this cradle. Zilla Red Cross Society, Amritsar'.

This project, the brainchild of K.S. Pannu, former Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar, was introduced by the Red Cross in January 2008. The message going out to the community was simple: No child is unwanted, so do not throw her or him away. Within two days, the Pangura received its very first baby girl, a month-old infant. She was the third daughter in the family and her impoverished mother, who was already shouldering the burden of supporting a physically-challenged husband, had decided to give her up.

Over the years, this cradle has given many babies a new life. As soon as a child is placed in it, the weight sets off a bell that can be heard throughout the Red Cross building. Enough time is given for the relatives to anonymously disappear into the crowds before Asha Ram, a peon-cum-gardener with the Red Cross for the last 18 years, or his colleague, Sarabjit Kaur, brings the child in. Of course, there have been times when the duo has seen some parents lingering on. According to them, while a few leave little tell-tale signs of their emotions, like a bottle of milk, some children are dumped wrapped in just a sheet.

Once the infant is in safe hands, she is taken to a nearby hospital for a check-up and, if necessary, is given medical care. Later, after the necessary documentation is completed, she is sent to one of the five selected homes that are on the state government's list of Licensed Adoption Placement Agencies (LAPA). There's Nari Niketan in Jalandhar, the Swami Ganga Nand Puriwale International Foundation in Talwandi, as well as a shelter each in Ludhiana, Patiala and Bathinda. Informs Dr K.S. Bhalla, former Secretary of the Red Cross Society, Amritsar, "The girls are eventually adopted by childless couples, who have been verified."

Nowadays, the Pangura is so widely known throughout Amritsar that people even bring in abandoned babies from elsewhere in the city. In fact, in December last year, on a bitterly cold night - temperatures drop to near freezing during winters in Amritsar - not one but two babies found a safe and warm haven here. According to the Red Cross, till date this bassinet has saved the lives of 50 girls and five boys.

While some people fear that this scheme may be encouraging people to abandon their daughters, Prem Duggal, General Secretary, All India Women's Conference (AIWC), Amritsar, firmly disagrees with this view, "The Pangura has saved those children whose parents had anyway decided to abandon them. In fact, ever since this scheme started, fewer children have been thrown in the garbage." Duggal recommends that this model be replicated in other cities of Punjab.

Even Asha Ram, who is one of the first to come into contact with these infants, is glad that the Red Cross has introduced this initiative. He says sadly, "I have heard of newborn girls being thrown in drains where they are mauled by rodents or injured by shards of glass. At least many are now safe thanks to the Pangura."

Of course, the larger question here is: What makes the girl child so unattractive in the land of poet Amrita Pritam and painter Amrita Sher-Gil? Son-preference in the state has a hoary history. Sociologists point a finger at age-old traditions that underline the secondary role of women in society. For instance, on Lohri, a major post-Rabi harvest festival in Punjab, families celebrate the birth of boys by distributing sweets and gifts among friends and family. No such gesture is extended to newborn girls.

Says Dr Rajesh Gill, (WHO IS SHE), "Punjab has such a strong cultural history of discriminating against girls that even economic development has failed to deliver gender justice. Our traditions encourage the bias. Like during wedding rituals, for example, while the groom and his family are granted special status, the bride's relatives are relegated to fulfilling their outrageous demands." According to her, dowry demands made from a girl's family which, incidentally, can continue many years after marriage as well, is a major factor. Adds Dr Kunal Mehta, Assistant Professor of History in a Jagraon college, "The discrimination takes various hues - from humiliation by in-laws to social stigmatisation."

Raminder Kalsi, Honorary Secretary General, South Punjab branch (Chandigarh) of AIWC, is of the opinion that much of the dislike for the girl child is rooted in the issue of land ownership. She refers to an article published in the 'Punjab Mail' (January 12, 1969) that reported on some influential people who were trying to justify disinheriting their daughter because parents of daughters were "'taxed' double" - once with the dowry expenditure and then when they gave her property. Even at that point the AIWC had stated: "We strongly condemn the new fanatic movement being fanned by reactionary press and parties... In case certain elements try to disinherit the daughter, we (All India Women's Conference) shall fight out their game with full might at our command and shall not allow them to put the clock of progress backwards."

Kalsi believes not much has changed since those days. "More than dowry, it is land. The fact that a daughter could become a shareholder in the land is a dreaded thought," she says.

But Duggal also feels that over the last five years certain government initiatives as well as civil society actions have made a difference. For example, the state administration has started organising Lohri celebrations to honour the girl child and local organisations are taking up the cause.

The issue has also become a topic of discussion. The Internet is rife with blogs that discuss "Kudimaari" - Punjabi for killing a girl. Films like Mukesh Gautam's 'Akhiyan Udeekdiyan' and Aamir Khan's 'Satyamev Jayate', which had dedicated its inaugural episode to this issue, were widely watched in Punjab.

Red Cross Society's Viney Sharma even has some good news to share, "Not one day goes without childless couples inquiring about adopting a girl child. Some have sons and want to adopt a daughter. Things are certainly changing."

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the www.wfsnews.org website.

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