Covert violence against women : Sex selection and foeticide

The horrifying rape and death of the 23-year-old physiotherapist in Delhi was the tipping point that led to nationwide clamour against this social crime that has shown no signs of abatement, even after years of protests from human rights groups, women’s organisations and activists.

 The existing law does not deter these criminals and shoddy enforcement allows even the most heinous rapists off with shockingly light sentences.

The time is right for tough reform. It is also time to look at the criminal within us and address ‘invisible’ forms of violence against women, beginning with female foeticide.

As Indians, our preference for sons has led to the ‘disappearance of daughters’ and a dangerously skewed sex ratio in many states that, it is warned, can be a contributing factor for attacks against women and human trafficking.

The social reasons for sex selection include traditional male preference, burden of dowry, safety concerns for girls and view of women as belonging to the family they marry into.

It is compounded by the small family norm that adds pressure to beget a male heir. Female infanticide has now been replaced with female foeticide as a means to achieving this end.

The States with the worst sex ratios are Haryana, Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir and Delhi NCR. It is not entirely incidental that these states have the highest record of rape and violence against women.

With more than 600 cases of rape reported in New Delhi this year (and only one conviction) it means at least two women are brutally assaulted every day in the national capital.

The 2011 world census revealed that India, with its ratio of 914 girls for every 1,000 boys, is among the lowest ranked in the world.

The Indian census 2011 reported 933 girls for every 1000 boys, setting off alarm bells in the Health Ministry and political establishment. A fallout of the skewed ratio is growing numbers of young men, mostly unemployed or low-wage earners who may be deprived of the prospect of a family.

Sociologists suggest this can lead to antisocial behaviour and violence, threatening the stability of society. A study by Hudson and Den Boer in Asian countries, including India, showed strong correlation between homicidal rates and skewed ratio in individual states across this country, after controlling for confounders such as urbanisation and poverty.

Although rape, as an act of violence, has complex causation, it is prudent to consider skewed sex ratios as an important contributing factor. Legislation alone cannot resolve this violent form of social bias against the girl child.

Despite the awareness campaign and tough regulations, very little has been accomplished in the 20 years since the Pre-Conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act, 1994, was passed. The law was meant to check the widespread use of the non-invasive ultrasound technology since the 1980’s for sex selection and subsequent abortion of unwanted female babies.

Misuse of technology

It is illegal to disclose the sex of the foetus during routine pregnancy scans. The sex may only be disclosed in limited conditions of sex-linked congenital and hereditary diseases.

In spite of amendments to include harsher punishments and registration of foetal ultrasound equipment and Diagnostic centres involved in foetal ultrasonography, there continues to be widespread misuse of this technology with unethical and criminal collusion between Doctors and patients.

With the advancement in assisted reproductive techniques, the Pre-Conception clause was added to the PCPNDT Act to pre-empt selective selection or creation of male embryos before implantation. However, this is difficult to enforce given the complex criteria used to select suitable embryos and gametes at that early stage.

It is clear that we have to rely heavily on the ethical conduct of doctors in use of such technologies.

There is huge financial profit to be made by radiologists and diagnostic centres by acceding to pleas from patients and in-laws to disclose the sex of the unborn child. Postgraduate MD seats in radio diagnosis fetch capitation fees of 1.5 crore, reflecting the earning capacity of such specialists. Ignoring large warning and disclaimer signage at clinics, the condemned practice continues with impunity.

As long as the patient is in cahoots with the doctor, the law will find it difficult to bring perpetrators to book. Sting operations and raids have resulted in the closure of some facilities in Haryana but the news is not so promising in other states.

The Medical Council of India needs to take stern measures against offenders in the medical fraternity, revoking licence to practice if necessary and initiating criminal proceedings against the guilty. The clean-up against unethical practice has to begin somewhere and abetment in this crime against the most vulnerable in our society, the innocent unborn, cannot be ignored.

Although education of women is central to possible changes within society, general awareness and social condemnation of violence against women must be stepped up to bring a change from within. Parents have an important role in raising their sons without a false sense of entitlement and privilege.

Young men should be encouraged to participate at school and college level in women advocacy and equality issues. There also need for more dialogue on the change in home dynamics to accommodate the modern educated workingwoman.

Punishing rapists is not enough. It has to be accompanied by soul searching within us for a lasting change in mindset.

(The writer is a medical consultant in Bangalore)

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