Authorities in Haryana are gaining ground in their battle to save thousands of unborn girls from female feticide. In partnership with the police, the state government has been cracking down on illegal ultrasound centres which tell parents the sex of unborn babies, leading to the abortion of girls. India made it illegal to test the sex of fetuses in 1994.
The biggest impact has been seen in Panipat, a district in Haryana which is infamous for its skewed sex ratio: just 822 girls were born per 1,000 boys in 2011. In 2017, the ratio rose to 945 girls – a dramatic increase in just six years.
The efforts in Haryana are part the national government’s flagship policy Beti Bachao Beti Padhao (“save girl child, educate girl child”), which was launched in Panipat itself by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015. The policy includes coordinated efforts to stamp out female feticide practices across India, alongside a number of schemes to promote women’s value in society.
As well as saving the unborn girls, their aim is to change the traditional cultural preferences which drive so many families to abort female pregnancies, and leave communities with extreme gender imbalances.
“Our Women and Child Development officers are working in each district to conduct raids on a regular basis,” said Dr Promila Kanwar, Specialist General at the Women and Child Development Department in the Haryana Government. “They are being arrested with the help of the police department.”
The Beti Bachao Beti Padhao policy began by focusing on 100 districts in India (61 were subsequently added), selected as having child sex ratios below the national average (918) according to the 2011 census. Twelve of those selected are in Haryana, making up over half of its districts, followed by 11 in neighbouring Punjab.
Female feticide is particularly widespread in Haryana, where illegal abortion practices have increased rapidly since after the 1980s, with ultrasound technology becoming more widely available. “The families approach them,” said Kanwar. “They know about these kinds of agencies.”
In 2001, for every 1,000 boys, there were just 819 girls born, compared to 902 just 20 years earlier.
“Between four and 12 million girls were aborted because of their sex between 1980 and 2010”
The Haranya government works closely with the police to track down illegal agencies, conducting sting operations and raids. Since the policy was passed in 2015, there have been around 549 FIRs (First Information Reports: cases recorded by the police in which they may arrest a person without a warrant). The Indian government have regulated prenatal testing since 1994 to restrict it to only those cases involving serious fetal abnormalities, and not sex determination. In 2003 the law was amended to give authorities greater powers to curb illegal practices, and in 2016 the Supreme Court issued further orders to help implementation, including the creation of a centralised database in each state.
The illegal businesses can make good money, with some charging more than Rs 10,000 ($155) for ultrasound. The girls are usually aborted between three months – when their sex can be detected – and five months in the womb.
“The conduit charges Rs 30,000 ($470) for the ‘complete package’,” Dr GL Singal, the coordinator of Haryana’s Beti Bachao Beti Padhao programme, told the Hindustan Times. “The ultrasound centre takes Rs 15,000 [$235] and if the foetus is female, it recommends an abortion centre that costs another Rs 15,000 [$235].”
“The tradition of getting a male child in a family is the main challenge before us,” said Kanwar. “Perspectives have been changing but it’s still there.”
The cultural preference for male children is so deeply ingrained that, especially in traditional rural states, underground abortions for unborn girls are commonplace. In 2011, the Lancet estimated that between four and 12 million girls were aborted because of their sex between 1980 and 2010. This extreme gender imbalance is illustrated by the fact that eligible boys from Haryana now travel up to 3,000 kilometres across the country to find themselves a bride.
Traditional Indian cultural views see daughters as a social and economic burden. Unlike daughters, sons can work outside the house, carry the family name and perform the last rites. The dowry system still persists in many communities, forcing families to pay exorbitant amounts of cash when their daughters marry. It wasn’t until 2005 that daughters gained an equal right to inherit property.
Beti Bachao Beti Padhao includes a number of schemes to raise awareness and improve health and education support for women. Their targets include balancing the sex ratio and increasing female enrolment in secondary school. An integral part of this is changing the mindsets of families.
“90% of funds allocated to Beti Bachao Beti Padhao were unutilised in the 2016-17 fiscal year”
“For gender balancing, we first have to change the mentality of the opposite sex,” said Kanwar. “We are working on uplifting women, but it’s not the only way to empower them: we have to conduct workshops and training programs for the opposite sex about how we can empower women, value women and help them grow.”
Each year, National Girl Child Day on January 24th celebrates and awards the achievements of successful women. In 2017, speakers included one of India’s first female fighter pilots, Avni Chaturvedi, and a silver medalist at the Rio Paralympic Games 2016, Deepa Malik.
“We also provide training programs for the sensitisation of police officers because they have to take women’s cases, but they are not that sensitive,” said Kanwar. Meanwhile, in a state with alarmingly high levels of sexual assault, the government are setting up emergency helplines for women in danger. Ensuring women’s safety, Kanwar argues, is a key step in empowering them in their communities.
Turning the tide?
“Haranya is doing much better than Punjab,” said Kanwar. “The delegation of powers has been very successful. Local delegates are more focused, the government are regularly providing the funds, and more policies and programs are implemented here.” The states have been working together and allowing inter-state inspections to help in their efforts.
However, critics have raised questions about the policy’s effectiveness, including concerns about diversion of funds, poor implementation, and a lack of sufficient monitoring mechanisms.
In March 2017, for example, a parliamentary panel found that 90% of funds allocated to Beti Bachao Beti Padhao had been unutilised in the 2016-17 fiscal year, with 10 times the figure having been spent in the previous year. Meanwhile, a report suggested that in three Haryana districts the percentage of girls’ enrolment in secondary education decreased in 2015-16 compared to 2014-15. With such a large population and many children not being registered at birth, it’s also very difficult to monitor the scheme’s success.
In spite of these inconsistencies, across the entire state of Haryana the child sex ratio is slowly improving. In 2017, the average ratio was 914 girls per 1,000 boys, with no district below 880 – a marked improvement from 876 in 2015.
In the short-term, they hope to stamp out the illegal practice which denies thousands of unborn girls the right to life. In the long term, though, profound cultural changes are needed to completely cut off the demand for female feticide.
“When we provide more opportunities for girls to come out from their homes and start working outside, and when we can show that girls are safer, we can make the sex ratio much smaller in the future,” said Kanwar.
(Picture credit: CIFF/Poulomi Basu)