SRINAGAR, Indian-Administered Kashmir: Preference for a male child is a known fact in Kashmir. Like most South Asian societies this preference in gender can often turn into prejudice, discrimination and worse. Many modern cases of discrimination against girls are now resulting in death.
Indian history and culture has brought with it many instances where girls and women are given less than their male counterparts. Areas in India’s northern Punjab region is an area commonly and publicly known as the ‘Kudimaar (girl killer) belt’ region where girl children are often seen as a large liability.
But Punjab is not alone. Recent figures in the Jammu and Kashmir region have indicated a sharp decline for unborn babies who are found by ultrasound clinics to have a female gender.
This is not a new trend. The growing widespread use of medical ultrasound technology to determine the gender of newborns is thought to be one of the largest factors now affecting the girl-to-boy child sex-ratio in India. Figures for the child sex-ratio in the Kashmir have been mapped steady decline for girls since India’s 1991 Census.
But how does this affect India’s larger society and its impacts for the regions of Jammu and Kashmir? What began as a process for human rights in India to provide safe abortions for all women in 1994 has now seen the expansion of a growing and troubling situation at odds with the rising incidence of sex-selective abortion.
Girl exclusion in India’s Kashmir
With three younger brothers, Aabiroo is the oldest sibling of four in her family. From a young age she experienced a common condition found in Kashmir: exclusion because her gender. “I was not touched by my mother when I was born,” Aabiroo shares. “She (my mother) shunned me as I was a girl.” Aabiroo’s mother left her baby immediately following Aabiroo’s birth leaving the newborn unable to nurse from her ‘natural’ mother. To help the family Aabiroo’s paternal grandmother stepped in to breast feed Aabiroo while her mother went away to her own parent’s home to rest and recuperate after giving birth.
A woman recuperating at her own mother’s home after childbirth is a local tradition, especially in India, and one that is common in the northern rural areas including Jammu and Kashmir. This practice can sometimes last for months, but it usually includes a mother’s recuperation with her newborn, not separated from her child. “Didn’t she think about how I would feel when I came to know about it once I grew up?” says Aabiroo.
Despite the new mapping of discrimination and a more recent league of reported evidence, many of Kashmir’s women have suffered silently and without assistance under a history of discrimination denial. The region appears to have been patting its own back for years for ‘not resorting’ to the practice of female foeticide.
Dr. Sarosh Amed Khan, a Senior Consultant at Modern Hospital in the Raj Bagh area of Srinagar, shares that some of his women patients are not willing to lactate their girl children after birth. The reason given by many of the mothers is because their child is female.
“Ten million girls have been killed by their parents in India in the past 20 years,” said U.S. based ABC News in December 2006. Calling the situation on infanticide “a national crisis” India’s Minister for Women and Child Development Renuka Chowdhury outlined the seriousness of the trend.
“Although neglect is the rule, in extreme cases son preference may lead to selective abortion or female infanticide,” followed a statement made by the OHCHR – United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights the next year in 2007.
New 2011 Census
In 2001, the census in India counted 941 girls for every 1000 boys. The current census for India now puts the figure at a lower and dropping number for girl children in the Jammu and Kashmir with 859 for every 1000 boys, while the Indian national average for girl children stands at 914. These statistics have created alarm, not only for parliamentary members in Kashmir but for members of Kashmir’s civil society, as well conservative and progressive religious leaders who have also begun to raise their voice against the practice of boy preference.
Dr. Saleem ur Rehman, Director of Health Services in Kashmir, admits that authorities have been complacent in the past to chart the activities of some of Jammu and Kashmir’s ultrasound clinics because of their past “good record.”
“After abortion was legalized in India in 1971, and technologies to diagnose the sex of the fetus became widely available, the practice of sex-selective abortions became widespread,” says research associates Arindam Nandi from the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy in Washington, D.C. along with Anil Deolalikary from University of California in their new April 2011 report, “Does a Legal Ban on Sex-Selective Abortions Improve Child Sex Ratios?”
“As the prices for sex-selection diagnostic tests fell during the 1980s and 1990s, the practice became even more rampant,” added the researchers.
“Modern diagnostic tools for pregnancy have made it possible to determine a child’s sex in the earliest phase,” said UNICEF in its annual 2006 report on the child.
In 1994 when diagnosing the gender of any unborn baby officially became illegal throughout India, this was accomplished through a legislative process with a law bill act called the PNDT Act (Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostics Techniques Act). The 1994 Act also completely prohibited any diagnostic tools from being used in India to determine the sex of an unborn child.
“Inequality is always tragic and sometimes fatal,” continued UNICEF. “Prenatal sex selection and infanticide, prevalent in parts of South and East Asia, show the low value placed on the lives of girls and women and have led to unbalanced populations where men outnumber women.”
As regional workers in government offices in Kashmir were visibly shaken following recent reports on the sharp decline in girl births in the Jammu and Kashmir region following India’s new 2011 Census, health officials in the region have now gone on the offensive asking authorities to raid suspicious ultrasound clinics, including numerous diagnostic clinics in the Kashmir valley.
There are currently 150 ultrasound clinics that have applied for legal registration in the region, but no data is available for those who haven’t applied. Medical registration requirements have been set up to help keep tabs on activities in the clinics that are supposed to record and report every pregnancy test conducted in the clinics.
Closing Kashmir’s ultrasound clinics
“Sixty-seven ultrasound clinics are now sealed [closed for business],” said Health Services Director Dr. Rehman in a public statement. The government has also put a 25000 Rs ($474 USD) reward up for any information or reports citing medical facilities, clinics or individuals involved in diagnosing or assisting in aborting sex-selective abortions.
As clinics have been placed under increasing scrutiny, there is also another new ‘medical nemesis’ contributing to the crisis for girls. Mobile ultrasound scanners are now commonly in use and cheaper to buy allowing more women to quickly know the gender of an unborn child in the privacy of her home.
“The decline [of girls] in Kashmir is much worse than [in] Jammu which is tough to understand,” Chief Minister Omar Abdullah told the BBC in May 2011. “We need people to wake up to the long term implications for Jammu and Kashmir,” he added.
In spite of recent gains in understanding the depth of the problem, Kashmir had an early wake-up-call about reduced girl births in 2007. This was a call the region chose largely to ignore at the time. Ms. Gula Froz Jan, a law school professor at the University of Kashmir, came out in 2007 with a study indicating that a higher prevalence of female foetus deaths occurred than normally expected in the region. Her findings were initially dismissed because the study was considered ‘too small’ at the time by experts.
But the findings were vital to Jammu and Kashmir. What Professor Jan discovered was that out of the one hundred women she interviewed on the topic of sex-selection, ten of the women admitted to being involved in some form of prenatal gender screening. Two out of fifteen diagnostic centres also admitted to conducting sex determination tests for pregnant women.
Does most of the problem begin with discrimination?
Because Professor Jan was aware of numerous sex-selective procedures happening, she admits it was this awareness that made her begin the process involved in gathering the data for her study. “I was aware of many such happenings in real life,” said Professor Jan about her knowledge of sex-selective procedures.
Ms. Hafiza Muzaffar, Secretary of the Jammu and Kashmir State Chapter of India’s National Commission for Women, a government sponsored organization created to protect women’s rights, feels that girl children are getting caught in-between a long history of discrimination against women in India.
“The root cause of the problem is that a woman is being harassed after marriage,” stressed Secretary Muzaffar. “She (a woman) says why I should give birth to a girl when my daughter will get the same fate,” added Muzaffar.
But how does this affect the selective filtering of pregnancies in the Jammu and Kashmir region for those who find out they will be having girl children?
Seema was four months pregnant when she found out that she was carrying a girl. Even though the termination of the pregnancy was very risky Seema wanted to go ahead with it. Her husband, a medical doctor by profession, was not willing to go along with her choice to end her pregnancy but Seema had a procedure terminating her pregnancy in Jammu.
Reshma a mother of four girls was longing for a male heir. She shares that she felt that she had to abort three girls until her dream of having a male child came true.
Professor Dr. Bashir Ahmad Dabla, who teaches Sociology at the University of Kashmir, says a proper analysis on the sex-ratio in Kashmir can only be assessed after the most recent and final figures are released. But Dr. Dabla now also acknowledges that female foeticide, also known by many as infanticide, does play a role in what he calls “a dangerous trend.”
New 2011 census data in India shows that many districts across the region of Jammu and Kashmir have seen an “alarming” decline in girl births. District regions include Pulwama, Kupwara, Shopain, Budgam and Kugam. This is not the only indication that girls face severe discrimination though. “The major reason for this is the basic thinking among the people (in) what we characterise as gender discrimination; they feel that both the sexes are not equal,” said Dr. Dabla. “While as the male’s role is considered as desirable and preferable, women’s role is considered damaging, because it takes from you[r] lot of financial and non-financial gain,” he continued.
Health officials like Dr. Rehman, as well as sociologists like Dr. Dabla, now say that government sanctions alone cannot weed out what Kashmir’s larger society considers to be ‘the menace of foeticide.’ (WNN)