An ill-looking pregnant woman stands outside an unlicensed medical clinic in Chandigarh, the capital city of Punjab state. Only 31, Madhu has already undergone four abortions after illegal prenatal tests indicated she was pregnant with girls.
Madhu, a Hindu, already has given birth to two daughters. Her husband has threatened to abandon her, and his parents verbally abuse her for not producing a boy to carry on the family name. Madhu's own parents say it is her "curse" to bear only girls.
"I think bad thoughts," Madhu says in a feeble voice. "If the test says it is a girl again, I will commit suicide."
In India, a cultural obsession for boys drives 5 million women to kill their unborn baby girls every year, according to the United Nations Children's Fund. But that may be changing. In January, India's highest court ordered state officials to confiscate the physical assets of prenatal sex-determination clinics that use unlicensed ultrasound machines. India's high court sometimes takes the unusual step of issuing rulings apart from specific court cases. This ruling was in response to a plea from health activist Sabu M. George and two nongovernmental organizations.
The advent of high-tech ultrasound equipment in India has encouraged a boom in female feticide, despite a 1994 law that bans using the technology to determine the sex of unborn children. Many Indians see girls as an excessive financial burden because of the dowry system. Although the system has been illegal for 40 years, many families of girls must still pay dowries ranging from $500 to $50,000, depending on social status, to marry into good families.
"For a mother to kill her child is not easy," says Neelam Gupta, senior program officer at the Indian Council of Child Welfare. "She is forced to kill. She has no right on her womb. She is pressured by her husband, in-laws, and relatives to commit this crime."
The statistics tell a grim story. Among children up to 6 years old, there were only 945 girls for every 1,000 boys in 1991. Last year, the ratio slipped to 933 per 1,000. Many physicians provide the illegal tests and abort female babies for hefty bribes.
"Doctors have sold their soul for greed," says George, who comes from a Christian background. "It is tragic. While in the West the technology is being used to bring healthier children, here [it is used to select] boys."
Christians say that churches need to speak out more loudly. "[The] Supreme Court order would no doubt give more teeth to the law, but larger social awareness and education [are] required," says Joseph D'Souza, president of the All India Christian Council (AICC). "Christians can do a lot in this field."
Problem for Christians
Christians admit that feticide is practiced even in their own communities, "wherever there is high dowry," says John Dayal, secretary general of the AICC. "In [the] south, particularly in parts of Kerala, the dowry is becoming a major problem among Christians and has tragic social ramifications."
The AICC organized a seminar on the issue last October. Its women's department is drawing up plans that will include starting support groups. The Indian Medical Association last year organized a convention that asked religious leaders to use their influence to stop female feticide.
AICC president D'Souza admits that India's Christian minority is practically invisible on the issue. "[The] Indian church is definitely guilty of ignoring and remaining silent on this very important issue," D'Souza says. A "minority complex has kept the church silent, thinking that the problem is too big and we [are] so few."
"The reason why [the] church has not come out strongly is because the problem is so massive," says Donald H. R. De Souza, deputy secretary general of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India. "It's like [trying] to solve the problem of poverty."
India's Christian community, about 2.4 percent of the nation's 1 billion people, has historically exerted a social influence far beyond its numbers. Englishman William Carey (1761-1834), sometimes called the father of modern missions, led the fight against the now-banned Hindu practice of suttee, or widow burning. Christians have started many hospitals and coeducational schools in India.
Jyotsna Chatterjee, a Christian, directs the Joint Women's Program, an umbrella organization for several women's rights organizations. "We create awareness, lobby for women's power, have workers visiting nursing homes," Chatterjee says. "We work at the grassroots levels to spread awareness by visiting slums and rural villages and educate [people] by staging street plays and other cultural programs."
Donald De Souza says the Catholic Church is preparing to observe September 8 as Girl Child Day in India. He says, "We go to the poor in the rural areas and make them aware of the dignity of life created in the image of God."
Meanwhile, Madhu discovers from her ultrasound that she is "luckily" carrying a boy. But millions of other pregnant women in India carrying unborn girls will not consider themselves fortunate.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Related news and opinion articles include:
Concern over India's Vanishing Girls — Panos (January/February 2002)
The vanishing girls of India — Christian Science Monitor (July 30, 2001)
Availability of ultrasound encouraging abortion of unwanted daughters — Sydney Morning Herald (May 10, 2001)
India's unwanted girls — BBC (July 11, 2000)
India rapped over birth bias — BBC (July 11, 2000)
Plea to save girl babies — BBC (May 4, 2000)
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