Dangerous words: ‘It’s a girl’

The three deadliest words in the world…


A secret genocide against women in India and other countries? © Sudhamshu


It’s a girl, a film being released in 2012, documents the practice of killing unwanted baby girls in India and China. The trailer’s most chilling scene is one with a village woman who, unable to hold back her laughter, confesses to having killed eight infant daughters.

The statistics are sickening. The UN reports that approximately 200 million girls in the world today are ‘missing’. India and China are said to eliminate more female infants than the number of girls born in the US each year. Lianyungang in China has the worst infant gender ratio on record with 163 boys born for every 100 girls. Taiwan, South Korea and Pakistan are also countries in which unwanted female babies are aborted, killed or abandoned.

The gendercide being committed in south Asia takes many forms: baby girls are killed or abandoned if not aborted as foetuses. Girls that are not killed often suffer from malnutrition and medical neglect as sons are favoured when shelter, medicine and food are scarce. Trafficking, dowry deaths, honour killings and deaths resulting from domestic violence are all further evils perpetrated against women. This femicide led the Geneva Centre for Democratic Control of Armed Forces to report in ‘Women in an Insecure World’ that a secret genocide is being carried out against women at a time when deaths resulting from arm conflicts have decreased.

The brutal irony of femicide is that it is an evil perpetrated against girls by women. Policy efforts to prevent infanticide are directed at mothers but they are often themselves victims of pressure from family members. The most insidious force is often the mother in law, the domestic matriarch, under whose influence daughter in laws live. The trailer shows tragic scenes of women being forced to choose between killing their daughters and their own well-being. It is widely documented that in India women who fail to produce sons are beaten, raped or killed so that men can remarry in the hope of a more productive wife.

It is assumed that parental discrimination between children would end if families across south Asia were rescued from poverty. But the weight of the evidence suggests that femicide is a cultural phenomenon. Two factors particularly suggest that development and economic policy are only a partial solution.

Firstly, concerted female infanticide does not take place among poverty stricken societies in Africa or the Caribbean. Secondly, it is the affluent and urban middle classes, with an awareness of prenatal screenings, with access to clinics and who can afford abortions that commit foeticide. Activists fear 8 million female foetuses have been aborted in India in the last decade.

India poses a much more complex problem than China. The Chinese cultural bias towards male children is one exacerbated by the birth control policy. In India, the primary cause remains cultural.

Activists attribute a culture of valuing children by their economic potential to the prevalent patriarchal social structure in which men are the sole breadwinners. Sons both carry the family name and work from a young age whereas daughters impose the burden of raising a dowry only to leave the home upon marriage. Strict moral codes, overwhelming cultural expectations and demanding domestic responsibilities further subjugate women.

The cultural root of the problem is part of the reason why an effective solution has eluded authorities. Legal prohibitions have proved ineffective. In India, dowries were outlawed 1961 and in 1994 the Prenatal Determination Act outlawed gender selective abortions. Yet dowries continue to be a condition of marriage and action against unregistered or non-compliant abortion clinics fail to intercept registered medical professionals who profit from performing illegal operations.

Dr Saleem ur Rehman, director of health services for the Kashmiri Valley, concedes that a healthy male to female infant ratio in Kashmir 2001 led him and his team to become complacent. Since 2001, the ratio has dropped from 94.1 to 85.9 girls per 100 boys. But the solution lies beyond merely holding officials to account.

Activists draw a supply and demand distinction. They argue the demand for eliminating female foetuses is independent of the supply of illegal services. Only those that can afford to will abort. Others simply kill or abandon female infants after birth. They argue this foeticide/infanticide equation will only be skewed towards the latter if the problem of illegal clinics and criminal doctors were solved.

Laurie Penny posed the following question: ‘do you pass laws interfering with women’s right to make decisions about their pregnancies or do you permit the disappearance of thousands more women?’ In India, women pressured into having abortions have long been denied a right to choose and law enforcement efforts have largely proved futile. In the context of India’s femicide, the question is redundant.

In the New Statesmen, Laura Penny reports that South Korea improved its infant gender ratio through a programme of education. But is increasing the awareness of contraception, abortion laws and women’s rights a panacea? No, because these insufficiently target the core cultural attitude. Similarly, economic policies aimed at encouraging development are necessary but insufficient. Any improvement in living conditions is likely to be small and so will not offset the financial burden of raising a child and a dowry.

A solution must be three fold. Policy efforts combatting poverty must be supplemented by legal prohibitions. Secondly, there must be an educational programme informing women of their rights. Thirdly and most importantly, there must be a social and religions campaign aimed at destroying ossified cultural attitudes.

The distinction between a programme of economics and education and a cultural campaign is not qualitative but quantitative. The latter warrants a greater level of official engagement, allowing the government to actively discourage the killing of infant girls rather than passively encouraging change.

A ‘secret genocide’ is a malaise in response to which government paternalism must surely be justified. This higher degree of government involvement is needed because of the peculiarly cultural dimension of the problem. In Kashmir, officials have enlisted the help of social and religious leaders. It is religious and social leaders that must reinforce legal prohibitions on dowries with campaigns attacking the social pressures of producing one. And they must supplement information of women’s rights by persuading mothers to educate their daughters and to allow them to work. These cultural channels are best placed to begin to erode sexist cultural monoliths.


Ram Mashru is the editor of the Discuss[n] blog, and writes on subjects including world affairs and politics.