Friday, September 17, 2004

BOMBAY — Stockbroker Amandeep Singh had a booming business in Bombay and seemed a happy man when he learned that his wife, Seema, had finally become pregnant 10 years after they married.

The childless north Indian couple went to a temple and prayed to the Hindu god Ganesh to bless them with a healthy son.

But then, a secret ultrasound test showed the baby growing in Mrs. Singh’s womb was a girl.

“We want to have a small family with only one child, and we don’t want it to be a girl,” Mrs. Singh told a family friend. “There’s pressure from my in-laws — we have to have a son.”

So Mrs. Singh, 32, went with her mother-in-law to a suburban clinic and had the fetus aborted.

Afterward, she told the friend that she and her husband were now focused on trying to have a son who could be the “perfect heir” for the family and also for the business. If necessary, they would seek the help of a modern fertility clinic to help them choose the sex of their child.

The story is repeated countless times in Bombay and other Indian cities, where affluent parents are killing tens of thousands of fetal girls per year, hoping for a boy instead. A recent United Nations Population Fund report said the practice is widespread in India.

An anti-girl bias and the killing of girl babies has been common among India’s poor and working class for decades, but new figures show that in the heart of New Delhi — where India’s richest and the best-educated live — the ratio of girls to boys showed the sharpest fall.

The new report by India’s health ministry said that over the past decade, fewer than 900 girls were born in the capital, New Delhi, and in Bombay, for every 1,000 boys. New Delhi’s rich southwest region had the lowest ratio — 845 girls per 1,000 boys in the newborn-to-6-year-old group.

In Bombay, the ratio was 898 girls per 1,000 boys in that age group. In Ahmedabad, Gujarat — one of the most industrialized states — there were 814 girls per 1,000 boys ages up to 6.

According to a 2001 census, the overall birthrate for India was 927 girls per 1,000 boys, a steady decline from 945 girls per 1,000 boys in 1991 and 962 in 1981.

These statistics mean that, as a result of abortions or killing girls in infancy, up to 5 million baby girls “disappear” from India every year.

To counter the growing trend, the government is displaying large posters featuring images of little girls with messages like: “I am yours. Do not kill me.”

But the fact is that, in most cases, the decision to abort a female fetus or to kill a baby girl is made by the husband or his parents.

The 2001 census report, which was reanalyzed in a new light last week, reveals that in rural India, 946 girls were born for every 1,000 boys, while in urban areas where people are richer and more educated, there were only 900 girls per 1,000 boys.

The report said the sex ratios were most equal among Christian and Muslim Indians, and most tilted in favor of boys among Hindus and Sikhs.

Rajesh Gill, a professor of sociology at Punjab University said: “On this count, Muslims and Christians in the country follow their religion more strictly, and they are basically against the killing of any fetus or girl babies. Female fetuscide is banned in Sikhism, yet this heinous form of sexual discrimination exists among the Sikhs.”

India’s patriarchal society emphasizes the need for male heirs; a son is considered an extra pair of hands to earn income for the family. Girls, who need a dowry to attract a husband, are viewed as economic and social burdens.

In many cases parents do not care about providing sufficient food, education and development for their daughters, since they will eventually marry and leave home with as large a dowry as the parents can afford. “Grooming a girl,” an Indian maxim says, “is like watering a neighbor’s garden.”

While releasing the recent U.N. Population Fund report, one official in New Delhi said discrimination against women permeates every level of Indian society.

“It has spread across all religions, in rural and urban areas, among the rich and the poor,” she said. “Soon many men will not find brides if girl fetuses continue to be destroyed in the womb.”

The methods used in rural areas to kill unborn or newborn girls are varied and shocking. Opium is used, as well as oversalted milk, both of which cause the baby to die a slow and painful death. Midwives are known to hit newborn girls on the head or choke them.

More modern methods are no less disturbing. Despite being outlawed in 1994 in an effort to stop the practice, ultrasound to determine the sex of a baby is also used to destroy the child in the womb.

In cities and even rural areas across the country, tens of thousands of ultrasound sex-determination centers and abortion clinics have appeared. Although sex-determination tests have been banned in India since 1994, the ultrasound centers flourish openly throughout the country, often by bribing corrupt police and health officials.

A doctor in the town of Aligarh, 70 miles southeast of New Delhi, said that many single-room ultrasound centers and private hospitals in the area earn more than three-quarters of their income from sex determination and abortions.

“The sex determination test is done secretly, and no report by the ultrasound center follows when the fetus is found to be female and bound for an abortion,” said Dr. Shabbir Husain in Aligarh. “Afterward, the unscrupulous doctors issue a certificate stating it was a natural miscarriage.”

Under current Indian law, anyone seeking technological help to choose the sex of their child can be jailed for three years, and a doctor conducting sex-determination tests or helping the mother abort an unwanted baby can lose his or her license. About 450 cases have been lodged against doctors and their patients in past two years, but Dr. Husain said he has not heard of a doctor losing a medical license for this.

A gender rights activist in New Delhi, Dr. Sabu George, said that at the request of clients willing to pay more to have sons, some modern fertility clinics in India produce male babies using the technology of selective sperm separation. “The desire for boys transcends caste, social, educational and economic status,” Dr. George said.

Dr. Gautam Sehgal, an executive of ADS Diagnostic Center in New Delhi, said that despite rising education levels, people still believe having a son is one of the most important issues in life.

“Education has, in fact, nothing to do with it. I have received requests for sex determination from friends who have studied and lived in developed countries, people for whom money is the least of problems,” added Dr. Sehgal.

Murali Desai, a sociologist at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Bombay, said education and affluence have failed to bring values like equality into Indian society.

“It has brought consumerism and a ‘commodification’ of relationships. Women prefer sons, as it is often the only way to increase their status in the otherwise subordinate life,” he added.

“The desire for boys transcends caste, social, educational and economic status,” said Dr. George. “This mind-set is the outcome of the cultural values ingrained in the society for centuries, and we cannot change it that soon.”

Dr. Aniruddha Malpani, a top in-vitro fertilization specialist who runs the flourishing Malpani Clinic in Bombay’s upmarket Colaba neighborhood, defends freedom of choice for his patients regarding the sex of babies.

“I have treated about 75 patients, and all of them chose to have sons. In a democracy, people should be allowed to choose the sex of their children,” another physician said. “Activists say families should sacrifice themselves for the good of the country. That’s nonsense,” said the doctor, who insisted on anonymity.

Until recently, Dr. Malpani’s Web site openly advertised how parents could choose the sex of their unborn children with the help of modern technology at his clinic — claiming to be among the few in the world who can preselect embryos to guarantee a male baby.

Satish Agnihotri, a demographer and gender-research writer in Calcutta, said that those who believe urbanization and prosperity will have a modernizing effect in this regard are utterly wrong.

“The reality is the opposite. As prosperity goes up, the sex ratio seems to go down,” he said, meaning that as Indians grow wealthier, they raise fewer baby girls.

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