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Law on Sex Determination: consequences of skewed sex ratio

A few days ago I had the opportunity to attend a discussion on the skewed sex ratio and the laws related to abortion in our country, as an intern in the People’s Union of Civil Liberties. The discussion was conducted by Dr. Meeta Singh, who is the Chairperson of the Dignity of Girl Child Foundation which works for the prevention of gender bias in our society, both intellectually and demographically. I am presenting the compiled discussion, which was  based on the gender bias in our country, its consequences and the difficulties she had to face while implementing the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, 2003 (PCPNDT Act) (Earlier, Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act, 1994).

This blog reflects the situations prevalent in Rajasthan, however the same scenario with modifications is prevalent all over India. The present adult sex ratio of India is 940 and the infant sex ratio is 914 girls  per 1000 boys. Even though naturally, more boys are born than girls (the normal infant sex ratio ranges between 105 boys for every 100 girls), the ratio in India has fallen far below this average. This has created a vicious circle resulting in the further fall in the adult sex ratio which can have catastrophic effects on the overall population, as will be evident later. It seems that the Vietnamese proverb “One son is children, two daughters are none” has been verbatim followed in our country too, to the extent that the two daughters have become “none” not figuratively, but literally. Several reasons have been indentified for the same.

A woman has been considered as a liability since ages in the Indian society. It is so not only because she has to be sent to her in-laws along with a lot of dowry, but also because she will have to be brought up till she gets married by spending a lot of money. Moreover the perception that  men are the bread earners and add value to the family while women as home makers do not add any economic value augment the reasons behind their ill-treatment. The religious sanctity associated with the supremacy of men and the patriarchal society that we live in, can be cited as other explanations for giving preference to the son.

There can be numerous sub reasons. Another reason, which has been seen in recent times, is the fear in the minds of parents that the girl who will be born, might suffer from sexual abuse. This has been more so in case of people who lack means to tackle such horrendous ordeals suffered by their daughters  as and when they arise. It becomes scarier for women who have suffered violence and do not want the same to happen to any of their close ones. Although, logically the solution so thought, doesn’t solve the problem. It was discovered that although these traditions had been going on since ages, the number of females dropped sharply after 1991 particularly. Earlier, people kept procreating until a  male child was born. However with the introduction of ultrasound technology in 1990’s, there remained no need to do the same, since the sex of the foetus could be determined before it was born. Since there was no law restricting the same, doctors were freely advertising services of sex selective abortion. The advertisements were a testimony of the fact that  education then had little role to play in spreading awareness about the harms of the disparity in the sex ratio.

They read, “Aaj 500 rupay kharch kare aur kal 5 lakh bachayein” (spend Rs. 500 today to save 5 lakhs tomorrow). This meant that a girl child was a liability in the eyes of even the most educated population of India. Before we continue the story further (which will but be in the sequel to this article), let me acquaint you with the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971 (“MTPA”). It was introduced to combat the great number of deaths of the expecting mothers caused due to unsafe abortions. Population explosion was another reason for bringing in the Act. However, like every other law in India, there were loopholes in this law, which were used to misuse this social legislation. It needs to be noticed that ultra-sonography to detect the gender of a baby can be done only after a certain period of conceiving the baby, which is generally 12 weeks, since the baby does not develop fully till that time for the purposes of sex determination.

One of the conditions under which the MTPA allowed for the termination of pregnancy even after this time period (but before 20 weeks) was the failure of contraceptives resulting in mental anguish to the woman.  It is surprising to note the manner in which this provision was misused. Woman used to go for sex detection after 12 weeks and in case she bore a female child, she used to approach the doctor asking for abortion claiming that the contraceptives failed and was causing her mental anguish. The doctor used to abort the baby after the formalities. It is difficult to believe that most of the times it was only after twelve weeks that the woman realized that there had been a failure of contraceptives! Thereafter was devised the PNDT Act, 1994 (amended in 2003 to The Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act). It forbade the pre-natal determination of sex of the foetus. It had many clauses which were helpful in delineating the motive of the Act.

The Act made a 4 level monitoring along with the registration of the clinics which carried on the process of ultra-sonography obligatory, even when it was for purposes other than sex determination. Even when these clinics planned to sell these machines, they needed to make sure that the buyer had applied for registration or was already registered. The records of the machine had to be maintained for a period of 2 years. The doctor if found guilty, was restricted from practicing for a particular period of time and if found for a second time, his/her name was struck from the register of the Medical Council of India. The inspectors, who were put in charge of preventing the misuse of these machines, were given the power of secret inspections. These inspectors used to inform the clinics being visited before the so called surprise visits, frustrating the aim of the Act and the visit. To decrease the impact of the worsening situation, E-cells were made in all the districts in Rajasthan. However the population and the number of clinics under the ambit of each E-Cell were huge to be managed efficiently by one. Many NGOs joined the effort of the government to make the Act a success and organized sting operations in collaboration with the police to hatch these rackets. The sequel to this article will depict these operations and continue the story further. ————————————————————-



The implementation of the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act, 1994 (“PNDT Act”) (amended in 2003 to The Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act) was a tough knot to untie as was discussed in Part I of this article. This article continues the story left unfinished in the earlier Part. It enumerates the steps taken by the government and various NGOs to achieve the objectives of the PNDT Act. A prize of rupees 1 lakh was instituted for the people who could report about doctors carrying on gross crime of sex-selective abortion. Yet the crime continued unabated and every other day doctors were devising new ways to carry on this practice under the veil. To go undetected, the doctors had employed brokers who used to bring clients to them.

The doctors had no direct exchanges with the patient and even the results of the tests were communicated to these brokers only. Complex rackets were devised which were tough to break. Most of these doctors were influential and had connections with men in power. It was difficult to catch them since they maintained fool-proof official papers regarding the machines they used. Bogey (fake) clients were often used to catch them. The clients were given currency notes (a photocopy of which was kept as a proof with the organization trying to catch them), which they were asked to present to the doctor, while asking for abortion. When the notes were later recovered from the doctor, it was a proof of them carrying this evil process. However these decoy operations were not easy to carry out.

State authority’s permission was taken and an affidavit was signed by the patient which read that the patient was not interested in sex selective abortion. The very first stage of finding the decoy clients was the most difficult.  The family members were   not willing to send a pregnant lady for such a sting operation in fear of her losing the baby in case it became a prey to the evil eyes of others (which in Hindi is called nazar lag jana- a common superstitious belief in India.). It was also feared that if an influential doctor was caught red handed, he may send people to threaten the woman to take back her statements. Several initiatives have been taken to alleviate the situation (including the amendment in 2003). However a lot more needs to be done. More particularly, even when foeticides have decreased to a great extent, deaths of the female child are happening in the form of infanticides. Giving incentives to doctors to counsel people against sex selective abortions can be another way to stop the crime. Why do we actually need a balanced sex ratio? The increasing number of crimes against women is partially a result of the skewed sex ratio.

There have been instances of villages witnessing a ‘baaraat’ (the procession which a groom takes to the house of the bride) after more than 100 years. The declining number of girls results in practices like polyandry. There have been cases in Haryana particularly, where one woman was married to four husbands. This lady not only has to fulfill the material needs of food and water and carrying out domestic chores, but also the sexual needs of these four men. This results in adverse impact on the mind and body of the woman and also increases the chances of sexually transmitted diseases. Moreover the age at which girls are married off goes down, which is already low in certain parts of India. This is because, because of a lack of number of girls, the parents of the boys want to marry their child as soon as they can find a girl, thus putting a pressure on the girl’s parents. There is also a rise in the crimes against women since many boys are unable to find mates for themselves. For instance presently, there are 60 men out of every thousand, who are not able to find brides for themselves leading to more and more sexual crimes against woman.

Moreover, single men get attracted to terrorist groups and are an easy recruit, since they have little to lose with no family and children. More about this phenomenon can be read in the book ‘Bare Branches’ by Andrea M. den Boer and Valerie M. Hudson. There is also a conjecture that this would lead to a process of reverse dowry. Buying and selling of brides also takes place. What do you think is a long term solution for this? Educating the girls? No, it has been proven time and again that girls seldom take the decision of abortion (although the MTPA allows for it). In a country like India, where patriarchy is imbued even in laws, imagining a girl aborting a child without the permission of her partner, can be nothing but an imagination!

A way out can definitely be to educate the boys to respect girls so that when they grow older, they do not pressurize the women to do the same thing. A brilliant example of this is a campaign in the villages of Rajasthan by Dr. Singh whereby young boys are made gender sensitive and made aware of the consequences which follow the skewed sex ratio and today the results are amazing. The boys not only ensure that no discriminatory treatment is meted out to their sisters or any other women, but also make sure that they get equal rights.

The same boys who were earlier indifferent to what was happening and enjoyed being served hot food by their sisters are now putting up a brave fight to send them to school. I am just hoping that we do not become akin to China in this regard, where after the single child norm and a similar son preference in the society, the only child which can preferably be born is a son for obvious reasons. The situation is such that because of lack of women in the society, the women are abducted and married off, forcefully. These girls are then made sexual slaves. This is happening with girls who have not even attained puberty, making marriages of a teenager with an octogenarian a common sight. It is high time that we wake up and stand for the cause.