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Favoring Boys in India

August 16, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: The 2001 Census in India shows a steadily declining ratio of girls to boys. Fred de Sam Lazaro of Twin Cities Public Television has the story behind those numbers. A version of this originally aired on the PBS program “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.”

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: This group home operated by a Hindu organization in New Delhi offers a safe haven to these abandoned children. The sex ratio here– 37 girls and two boys– says a lot about how girls are viewed in India

DR. NINA PARI: Almost from creation to cremation, women in India seem to have been discriminated against.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The root of the problem is ancient and economic. Male children are favored since they carry the family name and frequently get the family inheritance. Girls are viewed as liabilities who will cost their parents a dowry when they marry and move into their husband’s home in the Indian tradition.

DR. NINA PARI: People feel that bringing up a daughter is like watering a plant in somebody else’s home, because here they’re going to educate her, nurture her, spend money on her. Ultimately, she’s going to be married and go to somebody else, so what’s the worth of all that?

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Years of campaigns and laws have failed to eradicate India’s dowry tradition, which cuts across all religions, and the discrimination goes far beyond abandonment. India has had a history of female infanticide, and in recent years, feticide, using information gained from ultrasound scans. Sonograms are illegal when used to determine the sex of a fetus. Still, about five million so-called “sex selective abortions” were performed last year after parents found out they were carrying a female child, according to gynecologist Dr. Sharada Jain.

DR. SHARADA JAIN: Most of the time, if a girl has got a girl child before, and if she’s coming for pregnancy care to you, you can know it for sure that she has had a sex determination done somewhere else, and now it is a male child. That’s why she is carrying through with the pregnancy — as simple as that.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Have you ever seen, or do you see, commonly, patients who have two girls in a row?

DR. SHARADA JAIN: Yes, but the percentage is very small. I would say 10 percent.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Ultrasonography, intended to monitor fetal health, is now used for sex determination in many places that barely have electricity. The town of Palwal, about an hour and a half north of Delhi, has about 40,000 residents– small by India’s standards. Yet it has no fewer than 24 ultrasound machines. Not coincidentally, the population of Haryana, the province, has one of India’s most lopsided gender ratios: 830 females for every 1,000 males. ( Ultrasonic sensor beeping ) In other words, the natural ratio would be almost even between females and males, meaning that almost one in five potential female children is aborted in some parts of India. This woman, a mother of three girls and pregnant again, is desperate for a son.

SUDHIR SUBHANI: She had some problem of abdominal pain and bowel distention.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Radiologist Sudhir Subhani said the cause of this patient’s pain became quickly evident: A twin pregnancy. But because of the law, he could not reveal the fetus’ sex.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Is that good news for her or bad?

SUDHIR SUBHANI: It is both good and bad, because one is male and one is female.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Oh, good.

SUDHIR SUBHANI: She also requested to know the sex of both the children, since she also had three daughters. Actually, this was the fourth pregnancy and she has three daughters. But we did not tell him… We did not tell her, and she went off.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Many doctors, however, are quite willing to share gender information with parents. In fact, one thing the law has done is raise the price of sex determination. Bombay Gynecologist Prakash Kakodkar admits he’s a participant in a widely corrupt system. In principle, Kakodkar supports sex determination and abortions only when there’s a history of hereditary disease among males in a family.

PRAKASH KAKODKAR: From the point of just sex determination, to terminate a female pregnancy, I really, I am not in favor of it.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But do you do it occasionally when requested to?

PRAKASH KAKODKAR: Yeah, I do. I wouldn’t deny that, although, whatever people say that they don’t do it, I still feel the majority of obstetricians are still doing it. That is my frank opinion.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: So you freely admit that you do, basically, contravene the law? I mean, do you face any legal sanction for doing that?

PRAKASH KADKOKAR: No, that’s what I said, there is no legal sanction because there is nothing on paper.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Kakodkar says he does take into account the patient’s personal situation. Frequently, they’re under social and economic pressure, especially if they already have a female child or two. At the same time, he admits, business is so lucrative for the doctor, it quickly overcomes any ethical reservations.

PRAKASH KADKOKAR: Initially you feel a little, you know, bad for having terminated an unindicated pregnancy, but then subsequently I feel one loses that, it really doesn’t bite your conscience that much. Let me be frank, absolutely.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: You are being quite frank. In fact, much more than I expected.

PRAKASH KADKOKAR: Yeah, I’m saying it very, very frankly.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: And terminations are the chief source of your income?

PRAKASH KADKOKAR: Very much. Very much.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Much more than delivering babies?

PRAKASH KADKOKAR: If you don’t do it, somebody else is going to do it, because the patient is hell bent on getting it done.

DR. SHARADA JAIN: The doctors feel that the government machinery works so slow– so slow– that nobody can touch them and that’s why probably the fear complex is not there with them. And if one or two is cornered, the media publicizes it, something can be done about it.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Early in May, India’s supreme court did, in fact, order the government to step up its enforcement of the anti-sex determination law, something that even Dr. Kakodkar supports if it is done properly, he says.

PRAKASH KADKOKAR: If it’s uniform, I mean, everybody is not going to do it, then it’s a different story. So unless the government really puts its, you know, foot down and decides to, you know, act really tough with people who are doing this, I don’t think there is any way that you can curb the procedure.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Dr. Kakodkar says a government crackdown will likely stop some doctors from engaging in sex determination, ultrasounds and abortions. But he says these procedures are so widespread they will still remain available, only now for an even higher price.