Shroud of amnesia over India's missing millions

Did you know that genocide is occurring in India? There are well over 50 million missing girls and women in India who have been murdered, aborted or killed through neglect. ‘Missing’ is perhaps the wrong word — ‘eliminated’ would be more apt. According to criteria laid down by the UN, it is actually genocide because it occurs on an unprecedented scale and targets a specific group — females.

These women died as a result of female foeticide, female infanticide, dowry murders, the high mortality rate of girls under the age five due to deliberate neglect, and a very high maternal mortality rate. In 2008, the UN announced, the number of ‘missing’ women in India had climbed to 62 million.

Under Article II in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Resolution 260 (III) A of the United Nations general assembly adopted on Dec 9, 1948, genocide involves killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, and imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.

Media attention
It has never ceased to surprise me that so little media attention in India is given to what is essentially a major issue. Kolkata-based writer and activist Rita Banerji, through the ‘50 Million Missing’ campaign, is however trying to raise public awareness of the issue and move the Indian government to act. Rita is trying to overcome the widespread public apathy and the scepticism that such a mass elimination is actually taking place because, unlike media stories about genocide across the world, there is nothing in the news that suggests a ‘bloodbath’ is occurring.

The campaign began in December 2006 on the image hosting and community platform website Flickr and now has a photo pool of around 10,000 pictures of Indian women and girls as a powerful visual reminder of the fact that millions of faces like these have been deliberately eliminated.

According to the campaign, more than one million female foetuses are aborted every year, and thousands of new born girls are killed within the first week of birth. They are strangled, poisoned, drowned and buried alive. It is estimated that more than 25,000 women are murdered by their husbands and in-laws for dowry related reasons, and thousands more are maimed for life due to the violence inflicted on them. The rate of mortality for girls under five is 40 per cent higher than for boys the same age. The campaign says this is a case of negligent homicide. If one is born a boy in India, there is a 40 per cent greater chance of surviving than as a girl. Partly as a result of neglect and repeated and forced abortions to get rid of girls, one woman dies of pregnancy related causes every five minutes in India, which is the highest maternal mortality rate in the world.

The campaign aims to increase national and international awareness of the issue and to make information available to the public about various factors involved in this mass elimination. It has started an online petition to urge the government to take rapid and urgent action, and to make its own laws effective. To date, about 2,000 people from across the globe have signed the petition. Pre-conception and Prenatal Diagnostic Test laws are routinely ignored.

Rita is puzzled as to why there is this reluctance to treat murder as murder and concludes whether in-laws and husband kill a woman or parents kill their new-born baby girl such acts are indeed homicides. She argues that India today is liable for one of the worst genocides in human history.

There is no obvious correlation to indicate that poverty and illiteracy in anyway contribute more towards female genocide in India than do the wealthy and educated. It occurs throughout all strata of society. The lines between crime and what is generally accepted as ‘culture’ have become blurred. Regarding females as either second class people or as the property of men has deeply pervasive cultural and historical roots.

Laws pertaining to prenatal diagnosis of gender are widely flouted. Thousands of doctors, ultrasound and abortion clinics routinely cater to the killing of females, and the actions of both the police and courts result in dowry-related homicides going unregistered and uninvestigated and passed off as ‘suicides’ or ‘accidents’.
Due to the scale of the problem, it would be easy for resignation to take over. So what can be done? According to Rita, “Change begins with each one of us. It begins with how we respond to this issue. The first thing we need to do is to abnormalise what our history has normalised. We must refuse to allow this normalcy. So the next time you hear of a case of female infanticide, or foeticide, or dowry murder — please speak up. Speak loud. Rant, rave, protest, resist, but do not say — ‘this happens’, and look away.”

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