Death Before Birth

By Lalitha Sridhar

It is like a countdown...972, 964, 955, 950, 940, 930, 929...but this one is different - not a cause for joy.

So reads the blurb of an activist pamphlet as it poignantly draws attention to the declining female sex ratio in India. Between 1981 and 1991, the numbers of girls born, as compared to the number of boys, fell unremittingly in all Indian States except Kerala.

In Tamil Nadu, while the Infant Mortality Rate fell from 125 in 1970 to 54 in 1996 (which means more babies survived), the juvenile sex ratio (between ages 0 to 6 years) declined from 1010 in 1941 to 948 in 1991 (showing that for every average 1,000 of the population, 62 fewer girls lived to grow).

Missing Babies and Fetuses

The New York based Population Council’s 1991 Review estimates the total number of “missing females” worldwide at 60-100 million. Of these, 32 million missing females are (ironically) ‘found’ in India. Figures are painstakingly compiled from the gender differences in the Infant Mortality Rate and Neonatal Mortality Rate (which indicate the existence of female infanticide).

Even within Tamil Nadu, certain districts are more vulnerable than others. The Department of Public Health survey of 1995 put the at birth sex ratio (a better indicator of feticide than the general biological average) at a disturbing below-900 in the districts of Dharmapuri (893), Salem (the worst at 839), Periyar (876), Coimbature (893), Thanjavur (883) and Kanyakumari (866).

Only the first two of these are economically backward areas while the rest, along with other districts with adverse sex ratios such as Nagapattinam, Nilgiris, Pudukottai, Virudhanagar and Perambalur belong to the “prosperous/developed” blocks.

Across Tamil Nadu, there has been a significant increase in the so-called “ultrasound” clinics that openly offer sex determination and preselection tests - they are a flourishing business in small townships like Namakkal, Usilampatti and Salem (the last alone has 73 such shady enterprises).

All agencies concur that while official figures may like to quote a certain decline in female infanticide (even the country paper presented at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing claimed a narrowing of the gender gap in the child mortality rates), it will remain a dubious claim since technology has only advanced the age (or lack thereof) at which the girl child is done away with.

How History Repeats Itself

The practice of female infanticide is documented to have existed in Europe in the early twentieth century and was found across Pakistan, West Asia, China and North Africa. The causes ascribed to that old practice include, besides the control of the population and socio-religious practices such as superstition and the disposal of handicapped/illegitimate babies, the gender-based selective killing of female children.

One of the earliest records of female infanticide in India points to a clan of Rajputs in Uttar Pradesh, the discovery of which is credited to Jonathan Duncan, a British official posted in Northern India. Subsequent to this, the British Raj passed the Infanticide Regulation Act of 1870 to curb, among other variations, the widespread incidence of neonaticide (the killing of a baby within the first 24 hours of birth).

To date, the problem is more widespread in the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and West Bengal and found only in some fairly widespread, but no less disturbing, pockets of Tamil Nadu. It has been suggested (but not proven) that the practice died down for a while in between but has staged a dramatic revival in the last two decades alone.

How Society Fails

Underlining the absence of a society’s collective conscience, the practice of female infanticide is the result of typically tradition-bound gender discrimination and extreme patriarchal perceptions. A woman without sons is considered barren and she risks being turned out of her marital home - a situation that has to be avoided no matter what the cost.

The more immediate and economic reasons include socially predetermined expenses that have to be incurred for girls: for everything from the cradle ceremony to marriage to even menopause, which the natal family of a woman is required to provide for. One advertisement for sex-selective abortion exhorted, “Spend Rs 500 now to save Rs 50,000 later”.

The media as well as the perpetrators take poverty as explanation enough, almost justifying a decision motivated by abject despair. But it has been equally well-documented that these very same families somehow find the wherewithal to raise one or more sons. The practice of female feticide/infanticide also plagues even the economically better off families.

Cold-Blooded Murder

In modern times, the practice of killing female babies in Tamil Nadu was first brought to the attention of the country by two expose articles - one which appeared in the Tamil biweekly Junior Vikatan in December 1985 and the other in India Today in June 1986.

In the former, the journalist was passing by a village and a stray conversation led to an old woman being drawn into a discussion about new-born girls when she remarked in a give-away, abruptly terminated one-liner, “In our parts, if girls are born one after the other, they (her parents) make their hearts (as hard as) stone and...”.

Only after much prodding and reluctant discourse did the case (with identity of the interviewee concealed) make the headlines and much media hype followed. The result was that infanticide activities went underground.

In a case reported in January 1994, a field worker found that a healthy 3.5 kilo baby girl discharged from the hospital had disappeared on a subsequent visit to the child’s home. Lodging of a report, apprehension of the mother and exhumation - from the front yard - of the infant’s body followed, leading to forensic reports suggesting manual strangulation.

Often elder women or mothers-in-law commit the actual act, almost always within the first week of birth. In a conundrum of embarrassing coincidences for the government, SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation) declared 1990 as the Year of the Girl Child and 1991-2000 as her Decade too, at a time when a woman was the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.

The administration generally ended up being at defensive loggerheads with the media over the “discovery” and critical coverage of what came to be categorized under “Death by Social Causes”. In the Konganapuram Block records of 1990-91, 151 female infant deaths were attributed under this heading, as opposed to the figure of 19 for male babies.

How to Stop It?

Legal action to prevent female feticide/infanticide included the Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act in 1994, which aimed at restricting the uses of technology to detect only genetic abnormalities in the unborn infant. It is worth noting that while the feminist agenda supports the right of a woman to abortion, it draws a clear line when it comes to sex selective abortion, indisputably a gender discriminatory crime.

Whatever else media attention did or did not achieve, it drew essential focus to the issue. There are over 30 different organizations in Madurai and about 25 in Salem that are tackling the problem as a key piece in the larger picture of rural development, health, education and institutional care.

Many independent organizations now network to pool funds and share data, either informally as in the case of the loose coalitions Kurinji and COPFI (Coalition for Prevention of Female Infanticide) or more vocally as with the SIRD (Society for Integrated Rural Development) whose successful CASSA (Campaign Against Sex Selective Abortion) has become an umbrella organization demanding that the declining juvenile female sex ratio find a place in the Assembly elections’ agenda across party lines.

The Indian Council for Child Welfare (ICCW) has focused on socio-economic development of the females. Role models such as one trained woman blacksmith running a foundry and another a bicycle repair shop serve as sustained inspiration and guidance for the weaker others that are still discriminated against.

Gender sensitization of the community through interactive street theatre sangams, and monitoring, guiding and counseling “high risk” mothers (who already have one surviving girl child) are a few of the many activities that are having slow but sure success. NGOs are also working with village elders or the panchayat by approaching them privately and speaking up for persecuted women before a case comes up for hearing and even providing temporary care to abandoned babies and encouraging the families to spare something for their care. In addition, grassroots demonstrations and activism raising slogans against infanticide have been ongoing efforts to curb something which is too deeply entrenched to coerce.

In fact, most NGO agencies shun media attention that only serves to drive a wedge in carefully cultivated relationships which address deeply personalized issues on the basis of mutual trust.

The girl child is still dying too young, often even before she is born. She has no voice nor any protection but in an ode to her right to survive, she is still heard and defended.

References :

‘Death by Social Causes’ by Elizabeth Francina Negi

‘Watering the Neighbour’s Plants’ by Sarada Natarajan

‘The Unborn Girl Child’ by M.Bhuvaneswari

Lalitha Sridhar is a Chennai-based freelance journalist keenly interested in development issues. Your emails will be forwarded to her by contacting the editor at:


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