“In an incident that ratlled the country, dozens of young men taunted and groped two girls as they left a New Year Eve’s party at a popular five star hotel in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay. An Indian newspaper photographer called the police and recorded the melee in a shocking series of photos that ran on the front page of almost every major newspaper in India, launching a flurry of editorials.”
–Another Face – Pakistan Defence Forum
The report above represents a “half empty – half full glass” case. It could be seen as a case of gang rape conducted at one of the busiest times of the year or a highlighter of a serious imbalance persisting in the community, specifically in India. It is critical to understand that such incidents indicate an imbalance in the society that threatens the very moral fabric. Ignorance of such incidents leads to a culmination of a potential time bomb with the capacity to finish the community once and for all.
The incident above highlights the gruesome reality of India, the country poised to become the economic power after China. Despite rapid growth and development, countries like India face major societal ills that threaten the very course of its future growth and development. India is currently facing a serious imbalance in female-male ratio. “According to a recent United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) State of the World Population Report, these practices, combined with neglect, have resulted in atleast 50 million “missing” girls in India.” (Another Face – Pakistan Defence Forum). If the trend continues, India could face major consequences in terms of crime and societal ills, particularly with regards to girls and women.
This paper will discuss the rejection of the female fetus or more commonly known as modern day female infanticide. The paper aims to introduce the method through which female fetus is rejected; sex-selective abortion, the causes of such female infanticide, the religious perspective, the consequences and conclusion. The objective of the paper is to analyse the issue from all perspectives and address various arguments and controversies that come with it.
Rejection of Female Fetus
Rejection of female fetus is today’s modern version of female infanticide and is not a new phenomenon. Before the advent of Islam, female infanticide was a common practice as female babies were buried alive. Although Islam forbade such practice, many laws were implemented to safeguard a woman’s right to live. However, in some cultures and religions the practice continued, and although the intensity lessened, it went on under a disguise.
In old times gender of the babies could not be determined due to lack of scientific technology. But today, with rapid growth of medical science, the gender of the fetus can be determined at an early stage. Thus, female infanticide is now occurring through the use of modern technology such as sonography and amniocentesis, thereby, leading to abortion should the fetus be of a female.
Abortion is defined as “pregnancy that does not end in a live birth or a still birth. It is the premature expulsion from the uterus of the products of conception, which include the placenta, bag of waters, and fetus if present.” (www.answers.com). There are five types of abortion; spontaneous abortion, induced abortion, therapeutic abortion, elective or voluntary abortion and legal and illegal abortion. In spontaneous abortion, the uterus expels the products of conception if there is something seriously wrong with the fetus. (www.answers.com). This usually occurs at a very early stage and a larger bleed is experienced around the expected menstrual period. Spontaneous abortion, often called a miscarriage, is a body’s way of preventing the birth of a defective child.
Induced abortion is defined as a ‘planned interruption of a pregnancy.’ The induced abortion is usually conducted through medicines such as RU-486, which taken within a few weeks of conception can trigger miscarriage. Other methods include medical intervention such as surgery where cervix is dilated and pregnancy is removed by suction or by forceps. This is within the three months of pregnancy. “After three months, it is usual to use a method of termination by administration of prostaglandins.’ (www.answers.com). However, this is not without side effects. Tearing of the cervix, sepsis and perforation of the uterus are some of the complications of abortion occurring after three months.
In the case of rejection of the female fetus, it is the induced abortion that is used. Ultrasound machines, sonography and amniocentesis help in disclosing the gender of the fetus. Thus, if female, the fetus is aborted depending on the time period of pregnancy.
Abortion remains a highly controversial issue on all grounds despite being an old practice. This is so because ‘almost all human societies place a high value on human life’. Also, abortion does have an emotional effect on women, which varies from case to case. ‘The majority of women have feelings of depression, and there is usually associated fear and anxiety caused by the pain and bleeding and the uncertainty as to the cause.’ (www.answers.com). However, these are not the only concerns that come with abortion. The diversity of cultures, traditions, norms and religion play a great role in the issue of abortion. The debate has intensified because of sex selective abortion that is set to play havoc with society’s as well as the nation’s growth and progress.
Causes of Female Fetus Rejection
It is unfortunate that despite making giant leaps and advances in various fields, human beings lag way behind in the area of ethics, morals and values. What Henry James wrote about human behavior (the quote is on the first page) in the ‘The Wings of the Dove’ holds true as of today. Human beings, within the bounds of culture, tradition, morals eat people up to satisfy their own needs and bow down to society’s pressures, even if they are wrong. The majority of the victims of such an atmosphere is none other than woman herself.
Various movements in history have taken place whereby women have fought for their rights and status. Despite achieving success in breaking little conventional wisdom, the fight remains and has now taken a new shape. Now, women have to fight for their right to survive; their right to live. Female infanticide, believed to be a practice of ancient times, exists today with the help of science and technology.
One of the critical reasons for the rejection of a female fetus is the low status of women. Various studies have proved that with education comes the empowerment of women, making them as productive as men. Yet, girls are still seen as an economic burden and incapable of earning. The mentality, however, exists in countries where feudal characteristics dominate and continue to prevail. In feudal societies, a woman is neither heard nor seen. This pattern of behavior is prevalent in countries such as India, China, Taiwan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In India, despite more women working in key positions in technological and government sector, they ‘appear to be losing the battle to overcome centuries old cultural attitudes that tend to devalue the role of women.’(Another Face – Pakistan Defence Forum). Further strengthening of this belief has been the society’s cultural idea of womanhood, which is traditionally bound with motherhood (www.oneworld.net). But other factors also play a role in the shaping of this belief.
In India, there are traditions that devalue its woman’s role in all walks of life. In many rural areas, women are economically reliant on men as tradition dictates men to be the sole breadwinners. The tradition has had an impact on women’s rights, as abuse is rampant and has also created an imbalance in employment sector. Thus, lack of employment combined with a weak status in society makes a vicious cycle for women, which can seem impossible to break. With strong preference for a male child and with medicine making it easy to determine the sex of a fetus, a female fetus is immediately aborted.
In many parts of India ‘having a boy allows the father to achieve a better status in the society, whereas having a baby girl is seen as a curse.’ In addition to this, the deep-rooted system of dowry, whereby a bride’s family pays the groom for marrying her has tilted the favor in terms of the male child rather than the female child. It is estimated that ‘dowries and wedding expenses regularly run to more than a million rupees ($35,000) where the average civil servant earns about ten thousand rupees a year ($3,500)’ (Another Face – Pakistan Defence Forum). The dowry system is prevalent in Pakistan and Bangladesh as well. Even with implementation of laws, the issue is rampant due to the law being loosely enforced.
In China, there is a deep-rooted saying among the rural people regards to a girl; ‘raising a daughter is like watering someone else’s field’. Such saying makes the position of a male child strongly favorable than a female child. “In 2000, 138 boys were born for every 100 girls in the provinces of JiangXi and Guangdong, which is 30% above the biological norm’ (another Face – Pakistan Defence Forum). With private clinics openly advertising the sex-selective abortion services and doctors taking mobile ultrasound machines to rural areas, it is promoting such traditions that are biased towards girls.
However, lack of economic power and low status in culture and society are not the only role players. Religious beliefs are playing a fundamental role in female infanticide. In India, where Hinduism is the central religion; ‘the son is responsible for lighting his parents’ pyre, in order for them to reach Nirvana and having only girls in the family amounts to being condemned to a lower caste in the next world’ (Another Face – Pakistan Defence Forum). This belief has given way to an inheritance law that also favors the male rather than the female. There is a strict taboo in India on a daughter inheriting land, as inheriting it would mean the loss of land by the father’s lineage. This has created a complicated web for women as in taking assistance of law to claim her part means losing the affection of brothers, as well as support in the event she is widowed without sons. Thus, a woman is trapped by the social customs and religions with no hope of any aid or recourse.
A country’s policies are also contended to play their part in this gruesome imbalance of female-male ratio. In China where the ‘one child policy’ is strongly enforced, the female-male ration has been adversely affected due to a strong preference for sons, in combination with cultural and religious norms. China, like India, suffers from a highly imbalanced female-male ratio.
Religion Perspective on Female Fetus Rejection
There is no doubt that all religions place a high value on human life. Various laws that exist today take their fundamental understanding and knowledge from religion. As religions are diverse, so are the laws and perspectives regarding a variety of matters. Abortion is controversial even within the bounds of religion, due to the concept of the time period of the fetus becoming human, that is, the argument surrounds the question; when does a fetus actually becomes a human being?
In Judaism, abortion is contrary to Jewish law. ‘All rabbinic authorities agree that for social or economic reasons alone….’ abortion cannot be permitted. Abortion is only permitted when a woman’s life is endangered by the fetus or the fetus suffers from a severe malformation or genetic disease. This is because the mother’s life takes precedence over the unborn child and it is better to let go of a child that would suffer in life due to malformation. Also ‘a lenient position is taken if the fetus is less than four days old, since the Talmud asserts that a fetus is not formed until after that time.’ (www.answers.com). However, no discrimination is made between a male and female child and to abort simply on the grounds of sex is unacceptable and prohibited.
Similarly, Islam also prohibits abortion and allows only in a given set of circumstances. Like Jewish law, if the life of the mother is threatened by the pregnancy, the Islamic jurists allow abortion on the principle that ‘the greater evil (woman’s death) should be warded off by the lesser evil (abortion)’ (www.wikipedia.org). The argument exists on the time period when a fetus becomes human. According to medieval scholar Al-Ghazali, ‘life occurs when semen is injected into the womb where it merges with the ovum and becomes predisposed to receive life.’ (www.wikipeda.org). According to scholars, 120 days are seen as the point in which ‘a fetus becomes fully human. This has been described as an angel coming and breathing life into the fetus.’ (www.wikipedia.org) But Islam prohibits abortion on the grounds of gender and going ahead with it is going against the religion itself. Islam has given both men and women equal rights in their spheres in order to protect and empower both. Thus, Islam prohibits female infanticide which is why Islamic countries enjoy a better male-female ratio.
On the other end, there are different beliefs about abortion in Christianity. ‘The Eastern Orthodox, Mormon, Fundamentalist Protestant and Roman Catholic denominations are against abortion.’ (www.answers.com). In Roman Catholic, no exception whatsoever is accepted for abortion. “Its position is that all abortion, done for whatever reason, and regardless of the stage of the pregnancy, is a transgression against God and His Church.’ (Rej3ection of Pascal’s wager: Abortion). In Roman Catholic, both mother and child die rather than giving mother the chance to live. This stance has created a huge debate with many rejecting this stance on the grounds that the Church gives women a lower status. History is a proof that Roman Catholics burned many women under the campaign of ‘witches’.
The situation is altogether different in Hinduism because the religion itself reinforces the social traditions. The opinion, or rather, verdict, on abortion is divided. ‘Some Hindu theologians believe personhood begins at three months and develops through to five months of gestation, possibly implying abortion up to the third month and considering any abortion past the third month to be the destruction of soul’s current incarnate body’ (www.wikiepdia.org). At the same time, Hinduism places a strong preference on male child as the parents of a son can achieve Nirvana on their death whereas the parents of the girl are doomed to a lower case in the next world. The belief is ironic since this is the religion that praises and worships female goddesses for strength and purity (goddess Durga for strength and goddess Sarasvati for purity and music). Thus, Hinduism as a religion reinforces social customs and pressures against women and in a way that promotes sex-selective abortion. Therefore, it is no surprise that India is witnessing a dwindling number of females and increasing males.
There are other Hindu institutions that oppose abortion on the grounds that abortion prevents a soul in its karmic progress towards God (www.wikipedia.org). Yet, a female child is killed wether through abortion or through other ways after birth such as abandonment, neglect, starvation and drowning.
Female Infanticide – Consequences of Sex Selective Abortion
Both sexes, male and female, have their part to play in the society. Without the other, society, community even socially life cannot move on because each sex has been blessed with different strengths, perspectives and thoughts required in a variety of ways. Thus, any incident or tradition that creates an imbalance between both sexes would have effects on values, morals, society and nation overall.
Rejection of female fetus would have dire consequences in various ways on communities and on nation’s development overall. On the ground level, rejection of female fetus means less baby girls are born. As less girls are born, there would be more boys who in future would remain without wives. Thus, more men will remain without marriage which also means that the lineage that starts with a man would also end on an unmarried man. If less girls are born, it also means that there would be few to reproduce and less children will be born. This trend would give rise to crime on various levels. Already India is fast becoming known for the increase in the rate of rape and sexually assaults on women. Foreign tourists, especially women, experience ogling and heckling by Indian men and some have been raped and murdered making headlines worldwide. On the other hand, commercial sex trade whereby girls and women are exploited had also risen in India. The crime could increase drastically if necessary steps are not taken to correct the imbalance.
It is also contended that the society could face severe aggressions and frustrations due to a high number of men. Aggression, frustration and depression are known to be factors behind alcohol abuse, domestic violence and unrest. With few number of women, men are more likely to engage in activities that harm themselves as well as prove harmful for the society overall. Thus, the moral fabric for the society would be destroyed due to aggressions and frustration paving the path of destruction. The film “Children of Earth” depicted the unrest developed countries would face in the event of no new born babies. Similarly, developing countries are setting their own path of destruction if the female- male ration becomes severely imbalanced.
However, the most worrisome development that could take place is the where the men of the same family share the same wife. Not only such a development would be against the basic nature of a man and a woman, but also, is against the human rights of a woman and the ethics of the society. All men of the same family sharing a same wife is equivalent to a rape and prostitution and no civil society would accept such demeaning behavior. But with the dwindling number of girls, it would seem that many societies would end up on such path if correct measures are not taken on time.
It is shameful that despite all our knowledge and education, we are still slaves to mortifying customs and traditions that devalue the role of a human being. Practices that many religions prohibited continue today merely on the grounds of ancients beliefs that hold no importance in present times. Thus, it is important to realise that until we are ready to change ourselves, our thinking and perspectives towards women, and accept their role in both social and professional world, nothing would change. Centuries old rituals will continue and women would be suppressed until we break the conventional wisdom with our education and knowledge.
It is equally important to understand that the gender of the fetus is not determined by woman. It is the sperm of the man that determines the gender of the fetus. The male gametes or sperm cells in humans and other mammals are heterogametic and contain one of two types of sex chromosomes. They are either X or Y. The female gametes or eggs however, contain only the X sex chromosome and are homogametic. The sperm cell determines the sex of an individual in this case. If a sperm cell containing an X chromosome fertilizes an egg, the resulting zygote will be XX or female. If the sperm cell contains a Y chromosome, then the resulting zygote will be XY or male. (http://biology.about.com/od/basicgenetics/p/chromosgender.htm). Thus, if a male child is strongly desired then men should seek medical advice that helps in eliminating sperms holding the female gender. This would alleviate the stigma on women who are blamed for producing the female child. Once this information is understood that its not the woman determining the sex of the fetus but it depends entirely on the sperm of the man, things would be seen from a different light.
It is argued that legislation should be passed whereby no abortion is allowed on the basis of gender, and if so the doctor would be jailed for a given number of years. According to Roop Rai, the owner of the website Unchaahi, legislation will not work as firstly there is no way of proving that abortion conducted was due to sex-selection or otherwise. This depends strongly on the woman to come forward and admit if sex-selective abortion took place. Secondly, banning abortion would mean leaving out genuine mothers whose case could be of other reasons other than sex selection. Thus, genuine cases will face unnecessary hassles. Then, sex selective abortion is a phenomenon mostly found in South-Asian women. The legislation would almost refuse the right to abort to South Asian women on the basis of a suspicion on sex-selective abortion. Finally, banning abortion is not an answer because there are always illegal and unsafe ways of pursuing such things like coat-hanger abortions. Therefore, legislation should be such that it provides security to the woman to come out with the truth despite the pressure coming from family or community. The woman should have a strong support system to help her adjust with the choices she will have to make in the event of disclosure.
Awareness on the importance of the role of women must be conducted through workshops, seminars, discussions at universities, big companies, community and media. It is argued that such workshops help disseminate knowledge as well as aid in breaking social taboo and customs that devalue the role of women. The workshops and campaigns can be designed if indicators such as sex ratio, poverty, domestic abuse, dowry, literacy rate, mortality rate, occupational standing and economic or financial contribution are all kept a tab on. For example, in the case of poverty ‘financial perks’ are alluring incentives for a baby girl to be spared. An innovative incentive program ‘Laadli’ launched in 2006 by Indian State Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh helped in saving many baby girls. Also, where NGOS provide support and food to both young mothers and baby girls, mothers become attached to their daughters and infanticide has decreased up to 50%.
Education repeatedly has been listed and argued to be an important tool for women’s empowerment. It allows girls to acquire skills and to become self-reliant. It is strongly contended that when girls become self reliant, they are less vulnerable to pressures and condition opposing their status. Thus, governments should reinforce girls’ educational skills to break the ‘economic burden’ taboo.
In the end, even with such recommendations, the answer to such complex situation lies with us. Unless we accept, understand the basic concept that women are human beings and play an important role in all walks of life, nothing will ever change.
R.Kumar (2001) “Indian Organizations Struggle to Remedy Frightening Sex Ratio”, www.oneworld.net accessed on 27 Jan 2009
Another Face – Pakistan Defence Forum
Chakrabarti, Simi (2003) “India: Abortion of Female Fetuses leads to Gender Imbalance”, The World Today: India
Malekar, Anosh “Hukumnama against Female Foeticide”, Info change India News and Development
Rai, Roop owner of website ‘www.unchaahi.org’ “ Legislation on Sec Selective Abortion”, accessed on 14 Jan 2009
“Religion and Abortion” www.wikipedia.org , accessed on 18 Jan 2009
“Rejection of Pascal Wager: Abortion”, The Roman Catholic Church and Abortion.
“Abortion”, www.answers.com , accessed on 16 Jan 2009