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Mainstream, Vol XLVII No 12, March 7, 2009

Developed Punjab Evading Females

Introspective Propositions to Curb the Social Evil

Saturday 7 March 2009, by Manisha Bhatia , Shaik Iftikhar Ahmed

Addressing the national conference on ‘Save the Girl Child’, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took up the challenge of curbing the menace of female foeticide. Being a proud father of three daughters, the PM highlighting the alarming picture of gender imbalance is highly significant. It indicates the concern of the government to check the declining sex ratio in our country. Among all the States, Punjab bears the shame of having a low sex ratio. The reason for this huge gap in male-female ratio is primarily the patriarchal mindset and son preference that have been an integral part of the social set-up in Punjab. With the availability of the easily accessible latest technology of sex determination, it has become easy to get rid of unwanted daughters, as desired by a large number of families in Punjab.

If this trend of gender imbalance continues, one of the serious repercussions would be a rude shock to the institution of marriage in the decades to come. It has severe consequences especially in a society like ours in Punjab where marriage is almost universal. Shortage of ‘wives’ would result in expansion of the sex industry including unacceptable practices such as coercion and trafficking. With the expansion of the sex industry the magnitude of spreading Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STD) and deadly disease like HIV/AIDS would increase manifold. In this entire distorted social scenario marked by growing anti-social behaviour, crime against women is also expected to rise.

Keeping in view the threat to stability and security of society there is an immediate need to take certain corrective measures. The root of the problem lies in the patriarchal mindset and son preference facilitated and multiplied by the unethical conduct of illegal abortions. So interventions to curb the evil should start with the first and foremost task of raising the status of the girl child in particular and women in general. The task is tough no doubt but there is need to meet this challenge with missionary zeal. It should take the form of a social movement and reform.

One of the reasons why women are unwanted in Punjab is that they do not contribute to the family income and are also considered burdensome on the family as a huge dowry is to be given at the time of their marriage. Marriage has become an expensive affair especially in Punjab as it is one of the ways of exhibiting the economic status of the family. Parents therefore prefer to spend a few thousands on aborting the girl child to save many lakhs which they will have to spend later on her marriage. The concept of woman as a property is strengthened by the dowry system; so it becomes important to minimise the incidence of harassment of newly married women and bride burning. Law enforcement personnel are a potent segment of people to enforce the law strictly. Stern action should be taken against the violators of the law.

But before doing that it is important to increase the social worth of the woman by providing productive participation of women in all social spheres. Not only providing work but actually skill based work, where they are ensured remuneration at par with their male counterparts, should be encouraged. It is a fact that only paid work gives recognition of women’s economic contribution. The government should make all efforts to ensure the direction wherein women’s participation in all sectors of the economy should be equal to that of men. Increasing economic worth by providing equal employment opportunities at equal remuneration must be coupled with accepting the bilateral kinship system in Punjab where the government must amend the existing laws of inheritance by making daughters also acceptable as heirs to ancestral property legally and socially.

The strong son preference in Punjab is also because people feel that they will only achieve reincarnation through their sons. Such ideas need to be altered and the social order also needs a major reform. Religious leaders have to come forward to change the mindset of the people by preaching that girls are as valuable as boys and daughters should get the right to perform the last rites of their parents, equivalent to that of sons. The “hukumnama” issued by the Shiromoni Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) in 2001 saying that any Sikh indulging in female foeticide could be excommunicated as the practice is forbidden under “Rehat Maryada” was a huge step towards social reform.

Old age security remains an important motive for son preference in Punjab. There is complete absence of affordable and efficient public and private old age social security and disability insurance programme. In the absence of such a system sons become the effective support available. For this reliable and affordable old age pension, old age security and life insurance programme in rural and urban areas is required to reduce the excess dependency on sons.

The aforementioned measures would raise the status of women in Punjab and the parents would no longer consider their daughters as unwanted. Voluntary and social action groups can play a crucial role in raising the status of the girl child. Awareness regarding legal provisions concerning the social evils confronting women and children and disseminating information about infringement of the human rights of women and children should be generated by mass appeals.

The media should also start projecting the woman as independent, self-reliant so that she is not considered a burden on the family. TV, cinema and the press can be important tools in bringing about an attitudinal change in society. These measures would help in changing the public opinion with regard to all forms of discrimination, violence and victimisation against the girl child. But this process is lengthy and may take time.

In the meanwhile certain immediate steps are imperative. One of them is to curb the evil of female foeticide and infanticide. In this regard the medical professionals-doctors are the key players. The highest medical body, the Medical Council of India (MCI), should come forward to devise, develop and enforce the noble norms of the profession and punish the delinquent doctors. Doctors involved in the heinous crime of female foeticide should be severely punished under the offence of “Professional Misconduct”.

One must not forget that doctors are just one of the players in the conduct of female foeticide. Stern punishment should also be given to those persons who seek the aid of sex selective technologies. Here comes the role of the criminal justice functionaries especially the police personnel and magistracy. The offence of sex selection should be made cognisable and tried under the same section as “Attempt to Murder” (Section 307 IPC). The punishment given in such cases should be duly reported and highlighted by both the electronic and print media. The recovery of several decomposed bodies of female foetuses from a well in the town of Patran in Punjab was given good coverage by the media. Such exposures act as deterrent for parents to go for illegal sex determination and sex selective abortions.

As the Union Health Minister said, legislations alone cannot solve the problem. It must also be pointed out that we do not need Acts but there is need to frontally tackle the problem which lies in deep prejudices, the patriarchal social framework and a value system based on son preference. To make our girl children our pride, the first steps must be taken at home, in our families and in our communities.

Dr Shaikh Iftikhar Ahmed and Dr Manisha Bhatia belong to the Research Faculty, Population Research Centre, Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development, Chandigarh. They can be contacted by e-mail at: msiftikhar@yahoo.com

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