After the findings of the 2011 Census, it is now Bollywood actor Aamir Khan’s high profile television show, Satyamev Jayate (May Truth Win) that has brought the issue of India’s declining child sex ratio and sex selective abortions to the fore. In his show, Khan underscored the Nawanshahr intervention by the Punjab government as the most effective campaign so far in addressing the issue of India’s declining child sex ratio and sex selective abortions. But exactly what was this intervention?
In 2005, a massive campaign to counter Punjab’s declining sex ratio was launched in the Nawanshahr district of the state. It was organised by the district authorities and it monitored the pregnancies of expectant mothers, conducted medical audits of scanning centres, and mobilised the youth at the district, block and tehsil levels on the issue, with the deputy commissioner of Nawanshahr playing a pro-active role.
While the district authorities did indeed display great enthusiasm rarely seen among bureaucrats today, the methods employed were rather peculiar and sometimes worked against women’s rights. The monitoring of pregnancies not only led to pressure on women, it encroached on their privacy. If a woman wanted an abortion, within the existing legal framework, she found it difficult to get one because she had to prove that sex-selection was not her motive. Certain macabre methods were also resorted to, including the staging of ‘shok sabhas’ (mourning meetings) for the dead foetuses near homes and nursing homes where it was believed that sex selective abortions had taken place.
There can be no denying that the Nawanshahr experiment was perhaps the most pro-active campaign in Punjab, or even in India for that matter, and generated an unprecedented awareness on the issue. But we need to question the privileging of such an intervention, given the cavalier way it treated women’s rights and the elements of coercion and fear that were built into it. After all, working on improving the child sex ratio is not just about increasing the number of girls born but also about countering gender discrimination and violence.
We need then to look at the big picture. The so-called culpability of a woman needs to be interrogated, as well as gender insensitive interpretations of the law and its ineffective implementation. The Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostics Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act (PCPNDT Act) has focused on some broad issues – the ethical use of new reproductive technologies, the role of the medical community, the market and families. Irrespective of some loopholes in the law, it can be considered a sound piece of legislation. Unfortunately though, it remains one of the least used pieces of legislation in the statute books.
There can be no denying the complicity between the State and society in terms of a shared ideology about the issue. The implementing authorities, irrespective are themselves steeped in a culture that perceives son preference as the natural fallout of the secondary status of the daughter who can never be an adequate substitute for a son. The role of doctors in expediting sex-selective abortions is clearly recognised by the law but in practice there is a tendency to overlook their role since the doctor is seen as only providing what the family wants. The issue is also often framed in terms of discrimination meted out by women against other women: Mothers-in-law pressurising their daughters-in-law for sons, or the wish of the woman herself to have a son, is often cited. In the process, it is women, not their husbands, who end up getting criminalised, with doctors invariably let off the hook.
Official understanding, in line with society’s thinking, underlines the active agency of women in perpetuating the heinous practice. The idea of gender discrimination being the root cause for such behaviour is never articulated. Courts have largely been unsympathetic to women who fight their families and clinics over sex determination tests or sex selective abortions. It is they who are perceived as having misused the law to get back at their husbands.
Another strategy for intervention that Khan seems to promote is to emphasise the “utility” of women, especially when it comes to men and marriage. By presenting contemporary examples of how men now find it difficult to get brides because of the dwindling numbers of women, he seems to be imploring families to keep their daughters for this reason. This fails to take into account that in many parts of India the decline in the number of women has led to a double burden on them. The practice of coerced polyandry has resulted in daughters getting eliminated, even as brides are bought and sold. Given this reality, the utilitarian argument about women’s “use” as “providers of sex and sons” is essentially anti-women. Nowhere is there an attempt to perceive the inequalities within marriage, its predominantly patriarchal structure and the potential for violence within it.
There are inspiring initiatives that are worth remembering, which do not figure in the television show. As early as in 1974, the ‘Towards Equality’ report had noted how the sex ratio is a significant indicator of women’s status. Let us also not forget the vibrant citizens’ campaigns in Maharashtra that brought about the first legislation against sex selection in the country. Then there’s the public interest litigation filed by Sabu George, Masum and Cehat, which led to Supreme Court directives to state governments to implement the PCPNDT Act. And not to overlook the numerous and sustained actions of the Indian women’s movement. It has been very alert to the coercive nature of population policies that contributed to the rise of sex-selective abortions and other forms of gender discrimination. It revealed the insidious link between local and global markets in reinforcing the practice of sex selection and how these markets, by providing sex selection kits through the internet, have appropriated the language of choice. What is important to note is that women activists don’t define the issue in terms of “correcting” numbers, nor do they harp on the “utility” of women. They argue for the right to safe legal abortion and woman’s reproductive choices.
Individuals and civil society organisations have done their bit. Manmohan Sharma of the Voluntary Health Association of Punjab has waged a long-running campaign to address the issue in a multi-pronged manner. Subash Mendapurkar of Sutra in Himachal Pradesh has been tirelessly working on the issue. The Centre for Advocacy and Research has been consistent in its efforts to raise awareness on the issue in the media and to sensitise mediapersons in reporting this concern. Nila Madhab Panda’s insightful tele-serial, ‘Atmaja’, on Doordarshan has tried to link the issue of sex-selective abortions to dowry, the patriarchal nature of marriage, and biased inheritance practices.
Some of these interventions have shown results. For instance, sustained campaigns have forced some states to withdraw the two-child norm that disqualified candidates for panchayats and municipal bodies from contesting if they had more than two children.
The State and civil society need to move beyond statist and patriarchal notions of marriage, reproduction and gender relations. This means more than just celebrating brave mothers who have saved their daughters or focusing on ‘poor men’, who have no women to marry. This means accepting women as equals and as individuals with needs, dreams, desires and rights, including the right to exercise control over their bodies. And this is the truth that we as a country are still not ready to accept.
(The writer, a feminist activist and researcher, teaches political science in Miranda House, Delhi University.)