Bringing up a girl, to quote a Punjabi saying, is like watering a neighbour's garden - and it is widely acknowledged that India's patriarchal society has long been based on a simple need for male heirs, often at the cost of unborn females, who are widely seen as little more than an economic burden.
As many as 13 million female foetuses may have been aborted in India in the past two decades following prenatal gender checks. Hi-tech mobile ultrasound technology, it seems, is responsible for sending millions of women to backstreet abortion clinics across the country.
But abortion of female foetuses has long been a part of life in Britain and The Observer has uncovered evidence that pregnant British Asian women, some in effect barred by the NHS after numerous abortions, are now coming to India for gender-defining ultrasounds and, if they are expecting girls, terminations.
The medical procedure is called partial-birth abortion. After around 24 weeks in the womb, two-thirds of a full-term pregnancy, the foetus is pulled from the mother feet first, up to the neck. The doctor then creates a hole in the skull to take out the brain, making it easier to collapse the head and take out the foetus.
'We can abort at over 20 weeks pregnant and the delivery of the foetus at that stage is difficult,' says Dr Revati Mukundan matter-of-factly in the neat offices of the Kalkaji Family Planning Clinic in south Delhi, her clipped English making the matter sound clinical and routine.
'Certainly we can do it, but we would need to have specific grounds for the procedure, and I can assure you a complaint about the sex of the child is not a good reason. We have had a number of British clients, but also clients from the Middle East and Germany. We offer a professional and caring service.'
Behind her, in a waiting room, Ritu, 27, is fidgeting impatiently with her scarf. This mother of two children from Leicester has come to India while her husband, an engineer, has stayed with his family. With her is a cousin she barely knows. Ritu is just over 14 weeks pregnant. 'I'm here because we were already coming on holiday to see relatives,' she says quietly, motioning her cousin away. 'I had an ultrasound here a few days ago. It cost about £20 and we found out I was having a girl. My mother-in-law suggested we aborted the baby because the family wants a boy, but insisted we do it in Delhi. I've had an abortion in the UK and she is worried the NHS won't let it happen again; anyway, it is cheaper here - only £100 - and the doctors are excellent.'
Ritu says two of her aunts in Britain have had five abortions between them in their quest for a boy. Both were eventually refused ultrasound tests in Leicester and had them privately.
'There are clinics in Leicester that won't identify the sex of babies to Asian women. They have a policy, they say, so more British Asians are coming to India when they are pregnant to make sure everything goes to plan. All I want to do is keep my family happy. My husband doesn't seem to care. We already have two daughters and he agrees with his mother that we need a boy, so I'm going through with it; I don't have any choice. We are going on holiday after this and we will try again for a boy.'
There is more than anecdotal evidence that some British Asians are timing family visits to Amritsar, Ahmedabad and Delhi with trips to ultrasound and abortion clinics. For many couples in the UK, under pressure from traditional extended families, multiple abortions at home in their quest for male heirs are seen as increasingly risky.
Another case brought to the attention of The Observer is of Kulwant Seghal, 37, not her real name, from Sheffield, who horrified her own relatives by going to extreme lengths to give birth to a baby boy. Despite having two healthy daughters, she felt barren for not having produced a son and, above all, felt the scrutiny of her in-laws, in the UK and India, over her perceived failure. When she finally had a boy after three abortions he had a mental impairment so she is now trying for a second son.
'I might have two daughters,' she told The Observer, 'but they don't mean anything to me without a son. Who is going to look after me and my husband, who is going to take care of the family business? No woman is complete without a son.'
Asked about her son's learning difficulties, Kulwant goes quiet. A relative says she may have had four abortions, the third on a trip to India last autumn.
Last month, Saroj Adlakha, 59, a GP, stood in the dock with Shilpa Abrol, 20, at Birmingham magistrates' court. The doctor, with a surgery in the King's Heath area, is now on bail, alleged to have passed details of a clinic in Barcelona to the young expectant mother, who had passed the 24-week UK abortion limit.
A report by the Commons Science and Technology Committee conceded last year: 'Some UK communities do have a decided preference for boys over girls and permitting such choices leads to increased opportunities for reinforcing sexist attitudes.' It cited research at De Montfort University, Leicester, proving that a social need for male children, particularly among Britons of Indian descent, was widespread.
Dr Sabu George, a gender rights expert based in New Delhi, said aborting healthy baby girls was well documented among British Asians, and multiple abortions for married Indians in Britain had become increasingly common. 'The desire for boys transcends caste, social, educational and economic status. One in seven girls in Delhi is killed in the womb and the situation goes on in Britain, where the belief systems are identical.
Only health centres and clinics in the UK, particularly those in Asian communities, are now increasingly refusing to declare the sex of unborn babies,' he said.
'It is getting complicated and becoming an issue of a "right to know", but permissiveness by these clinics leads to abortions and the doctors working in them are digging their heels in. This is why we believe more and more British Indians are coming here for abortions.'
Another key issue is the development of gender pre-determination technology. Senior members of the Asian community in Scotland have called for the closure of a gender selection clinic in Glasgow after it placed adverts in the Punjabi press exploiting the preference for boys.
There is little dignity to be found in the small queue outside the entrance the Kalkaji Family Planning clinic. Shivering in the freezing night air in thin shalwar kameez, the painted nails and gold sandals of the women look out of place in this Delhi suburb. There are no men in sight. The damp, windowless basement they are waiting to descend into has three rooms. The teenage nurse there gave The Observer a tour earlier in the day. Patients are met in a dark hallway and taken to an examination room where they lie on bedsheets stained brown with blood and urine.
Next door is the operating theatre where, under a flickering sodium light, they are clamped on to a medieval-looking iron operating table, padded with a thin foam mattress. Strapped into two worn leather leg stirrups, the patient can see jars of formaldehyde or broken glass phials on metal surgical trays. The last thing they see before leaving the clinic is the thick layer of mould growing on the ceiling of the recovery room.
The abortion costs 1,000 rupees (£13). It takes less than an hour between the initial examination and returning to the street. The majority of the women in the queue are married and are giving up healthy unborn girls under pressure from husbands or other relatives.
Dr Puneet Bedi, a foetal medicine specialist in Delhi, said: 'People don't look at this as a life or death issue, or even as an ethical question. It's just an extension of our consumer culture. If someone can afford to buy a Mercedes, they feel they can afford to secure themselves a son.
'There is a common saying among Indians, Ladka marey kambakth ka; Ladki marey bhaagwaan ki (It is a fool who loses his male child and the fortunate who loses a girl). It's the logic these people hold and they will keep going until they get what they want, a son.'
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