May 22, 2013 | 10:37 PM (BD Time)
22 May, 2013 Wednesday
The daughter deficit - a new social concern
We were in Kashmir as part of a nationwide programme of the Planning Commission of India to find ways to end the drastic decline of the child sex ratio. The 2011 Census had already highlighted that the downward trend is visible in most of India, both urban and rural. This surprisingly included Kashmir, not known to be hostile to daughters.
As we visited different areas in the state, we stopped at a village in Budgam district to speak to a group of young ASHAs (Accredited Social Health Activists) about what can be done to reverse this trend. These bright village girls, dressed in their uniforms, with blue 'dupattas' (long stole) covering their heads, spoke in one voice: 'Honour the girl child from the moment she is born.'
This, of course, is easier said than done, given that honour is hardly in evidence in most families when daughters are born. In May 2010, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had entrusted the Planning Commission with two tasks related to children. The first was to restructure the country's Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS); the second was to devise policies to allow the girl child - once she is born - to live. The second task was related directly to the concern of the declining child sex ratio. The girl child, after she is born, becomes a victim of gross nutritional and health neglect. Consequently, more female children than male children succumb to childhood illness and these impacts the Child Sex Ratio (CSR) directly. There are two measures here we need to take note of: Sex ratio at birth pertains to the number of girls born per 1000 male children; while CSR relates to the number of girl children per thousand males between the ages of 0-6 years. It is the latter figure that the latest census has revealed. No figures have been released so far on the sex ratio at birth.
The Planning Commission began its work on the issue by convening a multi-sectoral meeting in Delhi to brainstorm on the declining CSR. It had to be multi-sectoral because the girl child is everybody's concern. Her survival is not just the responsibility of the ministries of Health and Women & Child, but also other line ministries like that of Rural Development, Education, Information and Broadcasting, Science and Technology, and Panchayati Raj. In fact, no sector can be exempted from responsibility for the girl child. The multi-sectoral action we had adopted to restructure the ICDS became the model for addressing CSR as well. The meeting was interesting, because it revealed the general anxiety and even emotion with which senior bureaucrats, representing different sectors of the government, searched for ways in which they could actually contribute to giving girls in India a happy and healthy childhood.
The ground was thus prepared for action in the field. For me, it seemed logical to begin with Kashmir, partly because of geography if one were to start with the northern most state in the country; and partly sentimental. I am one of four girls in my family who was born in Kashmir. Not only was my birth, back in the 1940s, celebrated, it was in Kashmir that I was nourished, and prepared for life.
After the Kashmir visit, the Planning Commission plans to work its way downwards, pausing especially in those states and districts that have shown a poor profile vis-à-vis declining sex ratios. Along with CSR, we will study the issue of sex ratio at birth as we search for ways to do more to address the negative trend, an issue that has been a recurring theme in Professor Amartya Sen's work for the last 30 years. It was he who had first talked about the "missing women" in India and all of South Asia. Since 2002, India has had the Pre-conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act, which criminalises sex determination and the use of ultrasound machines for this purpose. The Act has not made a dramatic impact, largely because of weak enforcement. Across the country, there have been minimal convictions. While most states have fulfilled the formal requirements of the law, the enforcement machinery continues to be weak. Innovations, such as the 'Kolhapur Experiment' that places a monitor in the ultrasound machine to track the pregnancy, have proved useful. But technological approaches won't help unless the misuse is properly tracked and punished. Those who deliver diagnostic services believe they are performing a useful function by identifying pre-birth abnormalities and they sometimes complain they are being unduly victimised. But the fact remains that sonography machines mounted on vans are being freely deployed even in interior areas, to cater to the trend of families wanting to be rid of female foetuses. This heinous abuse needs to be immediately identified and strictly punished in a time bound manner.
One is conscious, of course, that punishing this crime is only going to get more difficult with each passing day. Today, one can send a blood sample to clinics abroad with the help of the Internet and a credit card - no need for ultrasound machines! On the net, I found a site that advertised a special kit for $25. A drop of blood from the expectant mothers can reveal foetal gender after seven weeks of pregnancy. The kit guarantees 95 per cent accuracy, or a complete refund of the money spent. The advertisement had a toll free California number. Cyberspace is being used to create a world empty of women, it seems.
We also need to make sure that, once a girl is born, there are ways to ensure that she receives both care and love from the moment of her birth. It is in this respect that important suggestions to the Planning Commission came from experts and medical practitioners. They pertained to the state providing incentives to mothers as well as frontline care givers like ASHAs, anganwadi workers and auxiliary nurse midwives. Panchayats could adopt girl children and celebrate their birth and birthdays in the
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