It’s a girl: The three deadliest words in the world
It’s a girl, a film being released this year, documents the practice of killing unwanted baby girls in South Asia. The trailer’s most chilling scene is one with an Indian woman who, unable to contain her laughter, confesses to having killed eight infant daughters.
The statistics are sickening. The UN reports approximately 200 million girls in the world today are ‘missing’. India and China are said to eliminate more female infants than the number of girls born in the US each year. Lianyungang in China has the worst infant gender ratio on record with 163 boys born for every 100 girls. Taiwan, South Korea and Pakistan are also countries in which unwanted female babies are aborted, killed or abandoned.
Gendercide in South Asia takes many forms: baby girls are killed or abandoned if not aborted as foetuses. Girls that are not killed often suffer malnutrition and medical neglect as sons are favoured when shelter, medicine and food are scarce. Trafficking, dowry deaths, honour killings and deaths resulting from domestic violence are all further evils perpetrated against women. This femicide has led the Geneva Centre for Democratic Control of Armed Forces to report in ‘Women in an Insecure World’ that a secret genocide is being carried out against women at a time when deaths resulting from armed conflicts have decreased.
The brutal irony of femicide is that it is an evil perpetrated against girls by women. The most insidious force is often the mother in law, the domestic matriarch, under whose authority the daughter in law lives. Policy efforts to halt infanticide have been directed at mothers, who are often victims themselves. The trailer shows tragic scenes of women having to decide between killing their daughters and their own well-being. In India women who fail to produce sons are beaten, raped or killed so that men can remarry in the hope of procuring a more productive wife.
It is an oft-made argument that parental discrimination between children would end if families across south Asia were rescued from poverty. But two factors particularly suggest that femicide is a cultural phenomenon and that development and economic policy are only a partial solution: Firstly, there is no evidence of concerted female infanticide among poverty-stricken societies in Africa or the Caribbean. Secondly, it is the affluent and urban middle classes, who are aware of prenatal screenings, who have access to clinics and who can afford abortions that commit foeticide. Activists fear 8 million female foetuses have been aborted in India in the last decade.
The Chinese cultural bias towards male children is one exacerbated by the birth control policy. India, however, poses a more complex problem where the primary cause is a cultural one.
Activists attribute a culture of valuing children by their economic potential to South Asia’s patriarchal social model in which men are the sole breadwinners. Sons both carry the family name and work from a young age. Daughter, on the other hand, impose the burden of a dowry before leaving the home upon marriage. Strict moral codes, onerous cultural expectations and demanding domestic responsibilities are all forces that further subjugate women.
Dr Saleem ur Rehman, director of health services for the Kashmiri Valley, has conceded that a healthy male to female infant ratio in Kashmir in 2001 led him and his team to become complacent. Since 2001, the ratio has dropped from 94.1 to 85.9 girls per 100 boys. The solution, however, lies beyond merely holding officials to account.
The cultural root of the problem partially explains why an effective solution has eluded authorities. Legal prohibitions have proved ineffective. In India, dowries were outlawed 1961 and in 1994 the Prenatal Determination Act outlawed gender selective abortions. Yet dowries remain a condition of marriage and action against unregistered or non-compliant clinics fail to intercept registered medical professionals performing illegal operations.
A crude supply and demand distinction can be drawn. Activists argue the demand for eliminating female fetuses is independent of the supply of illegal services. Only those that can afford to abort will do so. Others simply kill or abandon female infants after birth. This foeticide/infanticide equation will only skew towards the latter if the problem of illegal clinics and criminal doctors were solved.
In the New Statesmen, Laurie Penny explained that South Korea improved its infant gender ratio through a programme of education. But is increasing the awareness of contraception, abortion laws and women’s rights a panacea? No. Educational efforts insufficiently target the core cultural canker. Similarly, economic policed designed to encourage development are necessary but insufficient. Any improvement in living conditions is unlikely to offset the financial burden of raising a child and a dowry.
A solution therefore must be three-fold. Policy efforts combatting poverty must be supplemented by legal prohibitions. There must be an educational programme informing women of their rights. Finally and most importantly, there must be a social and religions campaign aimed at destroying ossified cultural attitudes.
The distinction between, on the one hand a programme of economics and education and on the other a cultural campaign is not qualitative but quantitative. The latter warrants a greater level of official engagement, allowing governments to actively discourage femicide rather than passively encouraging change.
A ‘secret genocide’ is a malaise in response to which government paternalism must surely be justified. In Kashmir, officials have enlisted the help of social and religious leaders. It is religious and social leaders that must reinforce legal prohibitions on dowries with campaigns attacking the social pressures of producing one. And they must supplement information of women’s rights by persuading mothers to educate their daughters and to allow their daughters to work. These cultural channels are best placed to begin to erode sexist cultural monoliths- Ram Mashru