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India’s Balancing Act

Jyoti Tibrewala

I recently read an article in the New York Times [“Abortion in India Is Tipping Scales Sharply Against Girls,” Apr. 22] on sex-selective abortions in India. A couple finds out the sex of a fetus, and often, if it is female, aborts it. The article went on to say that this practice has become regular in some parts of the country; the ratio of girls to boys has fallen to as low as 793 girls per 1,000 boys in some areas.

While I don’t condone these actions, the underlying reasons are somewhat sensible. The Indian culture instills a preference for male children. Sons will carry the family name when they marry, will be bequeathed the family property, and will care for their parents in their old age; traditionally, the son’s wife moves into his family’s home, and their family grows in the same house. The father of the bride must also pay a dowry on the occasion of her wedding, so a daughter is considered a bit of a financial burden. Consider this in conjunction with the fact that female-selected abortion is much more prevalent in towns and villages than it is in big cities. It is easy to see that a dowry is quite a large consideration. Therein lies the creation of a financial burden (although I personally would have a problem being considered an excessive financial burden by my parents -- people who are supposed to care for me no matter what).

Considering all of these factors, it is plain to see why there is such a strong preference for sons. However, purposely aborting female fetuses is not the answer.

First of all, the practice of sex-selecting fetuses for abortion is an injustice to society. At first glance, this may seem unjust only to women; in the long run, it affects everyone. If the abortion of female fetuses continues, the ratio of girls to boys in India will continue to decrease. The number of women available for marriage will be dwarfed by the number of available suitors. Only then will the mistake be realized, and by then it will already be too late.

Secondly, sex-determination tests were outlawed in India in 1994. This sort of atrocity should therefore not even be allowed to occur, but enforcement of the law is very lax. The article cites that doctors get around this obstacle by performing tests under the cover of diagnostic processes using ultrasound technology. The test is illegal, yet many doctors perform it anyway in order to sustain their practice. These doctors work in towns and villages where the residents tend to be poor. However, the doctors know the important role culture plays in the life of Indians, and they use this to their advantage by performing these sex tests. At the end of the day, they probably justify it by telling themselves they did a good deed for a couple; by telling them their baby would be female, they allowed the couple to make an informed decision on whether the child would be worth the time, resources, and money needed to raise her.

An immediate consequence of this logic would be perpetuation of the cultural belief that males are more important than females. While growing up, children might encounter this facet of their culture. This encounter could have hazardous effects on a growing girl’s self-esteem and self-worth. Children are precious. They should be considered a gift, and accordingly, they should be treated as such. By mere virtue of their innocence, no child deserves to be put in a position where they feel inferior to anyone or anything. (As a side note, I personally have never encountered the male superiority notion, either while growing up or in my visits to India; I can only imagine what it must feel like to go through life believing it.)

India is a country with strong cultural roots which manifest themselves into many aspects of life. The bonds of culture are hard to break, but even India is getting on its way on the long road to gender equity. In many cities, women hold jobs outside of the home; this would be unheard of 10 to 20 years ago. For technology to pull the country back would be a slap in the face.