India lets girls starve to death as cultural prejudices holds sway

THE room is large and airy, the stone floors clean and cool — a welcome respite from the afternoon sun. Until your eyes take in the horror that it holds. Ten malnourished children — nine of them girls.

The starving girls in this hospital ward include a 21-month-old with arms and legs the size of twigs and an emaciated one-year-old with huge, vacant eyes. Without urgent medical care, most will not live to see their next birthday.

They point to a painful reality revealed in India’s recent census: despite a booming economy, the country is failing its girls.

Early results show India has 914 girls under age six for every 1,000 boys. A decade ago, many were horrified when the ratio was 927 to 1,000.

The discrimination happens through abortions of female foetuses and sheer neglect of young girls, despite years of high-profile campaigns to address the issue. So serious is the problem that it’s illegal for medical personnel to reveal the gender of an unborn foetus, although evidence suggests the ban is widely circumvented.

“My mother-in-law says a boy is necessary,” says Sanju, holding her severely malnourished nine-month-old daughter in her lap. She doesn’t admit to deliberately starving the girl but only shrugs her own thin shoulders when asked why her daughter is so sick. She will try again for a son in a year or two, she says.

Part of the reason Indians favour sons is the enormous expense in marrying off girls. Families often go into debt arranging marriages and paying dowries. A boy, on the other hand, will one day bring home a bride and dowry. Hindu custom also dictates that only sons can light their parents’ funeral pyres.

But it’s not simply that girls are more expensive for impoverished families. The census data shows that the worst offenders are the relatively wealthy states of Punjab and Haryana.

In Morena, a rural district in the heart of India, the numbers are especially grim. This census showed that only 825 girls for every 1,000 boys in the district made it to their sixth birthdays.

Though abortion is allowed in India, the country banned revealing the gender of unborn foetuses in 1994 in an attempt to halt sex-selective abortions. Every few years, federal and state governments announce new incentives to encourage people to take care of their girls.

In Morena, a Madhya Pradesh state programme offers poor families with one or two daughters a few thousand rupees (a few hundred euros) for every few years of schooling, and more than 100,000 rupees (€1,520) when they graduate high school.

But while a handful of Indian women have attained some of the highest positions in politics and business — from late prime minister Indira Gandhi to Pepsi chief executive Indra Nooyi — a deep-rooted cultural preference for sons remains.

Even the government accepted it has failed to save millions of little girls. “Whatever measures that have been put in over the last 40 years have not had any impact,” India’s home secretary GK Pillai said.

In Morena’s homes, villages, schools and hospitals lie some of the answers to why the country keeps losing girls. In the district hospital’s maternity ward, a wrinkled old woman walks out holding a just-born girl wrapped in a dirty rag like an unwelcome present. Munni is clearly unhappy. Her daughter-in-law has just given birth to her sixth girl in 12 years of marriage.

Will the daughter-in-law go through another pregnancy? “Everyone wants boys. A boy takes care of you in your old age.”

The law is not enough to combat “a society that values boys over girls,” says Ravinder Kaur, a professor of sociology at New Delhi’s Indian Institute of Technology.

“Laws are good because they may act as a deterrent” she says, but sex-selective abortions continue underground because “people find more devious ways.”


Lifestyle

Liz O’Brien talks to Niall Breslin about his admiration for frontline staff, bereavement in lockdown, his new podcast, and why it's so important for us all just to slow down.Niall Breslin talks about losing his uncle to coronavirus

Podcasts are often seen as a male domain — see the joke, 'What do you call two white men talking? A podcast'.Podcast corner: Three new podcasts from Irish women that you should listen to

Esther McCarthy previews some of the Fleadh’s Irish and international offerings.How to attend the Galway Film Fleadh from the comfort of your own couch

Whether you’re on staycation or risking a trip away, Marjorie Brennan offers suggestions on novels for a wide variety of tastesThe best fiction books for the beach and beyond this summer

More From The Irish Examiner