Will women in India go the way of the dinosaur?

By Anjali Mehta

(Dr. Anjali is an Ophthalmologist with her own private practise in Delhi.She previously served in the Army Medical Corps. She is also engaged in social work. She can be contacted at mehtanjali@gmail.com)

Two categories of theories try to explain the mystery behind the extinction of the majestic dinosaurs that roamed the earth aeons ago.The gradualists feel that changing evolutionary trends such as competition with mammals and changes in vegetation and climate slowly eroded their numbers whereas catastrophists attribute it to one catastrophic event (a meteorite impact is usually cited) .

Seeing that the population of women in some states in India is steadily declining one needs to reflect (while it is still early days) whether some regional types of women too, could gradually become extinct? Regions lend their own special flavour to the entity we call woman. It would be hard to imagine our country without the brightly-attired women with their long veils from Rajasthan, the tall, fair sardarnis from Punjab, the recently successful sportswomen from Haryana and so many others…
An observation of prevailing trends (the numbers are from reliable open sources) reveals that a woman’s very survival is challenged at many stages of her life. This is more so in the poorer socioeconomic strata and in some parts of the country. For some women, it requires the right combination of luck and sheer tenacity to reach adulthood safely.

The first hurdle looms even before birth

The illegal practice of letting parents know the sex of the child before it’s birth, continues. It has been found that first pregnancies usually are not aborted, but second and third pregnancies are. An overwhelming number of aborted foetuses are female. A recent study in Lancet found that sex selective abortions are on the rise in India. The National family health surveys have found a similar trend. Sex-selective abortions are more prevalent in the northern states .
Apart from the aborted foetus , the mother is also at definite risk. Although the MTP act has made nearly all types of abortion legal, for various reasons , more than seventy percent of abortions are carried out under unsatisfactory conditions in small, poorly equipped, unsanitary clinics run by inadequately qualified owners. Such abortions frequently lead to maternal mortality due to sepsis or undue bleeding .India has amongst the highest number of abortion related deaths.

Challenges at birth

The birth of a baby girl is not a unanimously joyous event in our country. Some families view girls as a social and economic burden and kill newborn girls with impunity. Some in desperate conditions carry out this act to save their girl from a possible future of pain and hardship. Convictions occur regularly for all manner of crimes but how many deaths of infant girls have been seriously investigated and how many parents convicted? Almost none. The rampant female infanticide is reflected in dwindling sex ratios. The average sex ratio for the country (rural and urban) is 940 women/ 1000 males. Some states are well below this average and the concentration seems to be around Delhi (866 ), Chandigarh (818), Punjab (893) and Haryana(877), with Haryana having the lowest sex ratio among all the states (only the union territories of Dadar (775) and Daman and Diu (618) have lower ratios). That the the capital of the country and it’s immediate surroundings, where there is relative economic prosperity, should have these low figures is something to think about.

Challenges in the teenage period

The women who are born under more favourable conditions and thus escape this ‘unnatural selection ‘ reach a stage of enrolment in school and studies. Alas, every child does not have a carefree childhood. Many small girls are married off just after attaining puberty. Child marriages are still highly prevalent in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal (with Rajasthan being the worst offender) despite there being an act against this. Teenage pregnancies are associated with a much higher mortality ratio : twice as high in the 15-19 age group compared with early twenties. Some teenage mothers who survive may have damage to their still immature internal organs and become incontinent. This may lead to social shunning and neglect. Some unfortunate teenage girls are abducted and sold into prostitution. The life expectancy is shortened for girls in the prostitution circuit due to a combination of lack of hygiene, forced use of drugs ,injuries inflicted by violent male clients and sexually transmitted diseases, notably HIV. Some unfortunate girls are simply raped and killed outright.

Young adults in a cruel world

After this gruesome attrition process during the earlier years the more fortunate women who are able to actually complete an education and reach adulthood relatively unscathed then enter the domestic phase of their lives. Everyone is familiar with the dowry menace in our country. The word “marriage license” seems to be a license to start milking the girl and her family for money. Dowry deaths are as prevalent in the educated and (supposedly) thinking classes as among the poor.Although there is some conviction rate for this ghastly crime , it is clearly not enough of a deterrent since it is still widely prevalent and seemingly on the rise.

Motherhood

For the woman who makes it past these hurdles, to the state of motherhood, it’s not safe passage as yet. The odds are still stacked against her, specially if she is poor. India boasted of one of the highest maternal mortalities in the world in the earlier part of this decade.The latest statistics show some improvement (212 according to the census commission) but we still have a long way to international targets : 109/1000 by 2015 . Amongst the states, Assam, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan seem to have the highest maternal mortality figures (480,440,388 respectively-as per Govt. of India statistics 2006) The reasons for this alarming statistic range from social and cultural beliefs and practises to poor infrastructure. Notable are: still prevalent child marriages leading to teenage pregnancies, unsafe delivery and abortion, lack of good hospitals for skilled care in rural areas, poor basic health of women leading to easy susceptibility to infection and many others. When we realise that the supplementation needed in pregnancy consists of the very economical iron and folate tablets and two tetanus injections, the unnecessary sacrifice of maternal life seems very poignant. It is even more ironical when we consider that India is fast creating a good name for itself internationally in medical tourism.

Beyond motherhood

It seems that only at menopause does a woman’s fate appear to be a little more secure. However now the combination of her advancing years and the woman’s propensity to neglect her own health while looking after her children, husband and in-laws, make her more susceptible to the general problems of old age.

Will our women be saved?

The government, non governmental organisations and even individuals have been carrying out various initiatives around literacy, health and incentives for the family of a girl child . But this clearly is far from enough. We need to reinforce some actions and make imaginative changes in those measures which don’t seem to be working. We also need to change social perceptions and unkind mindsets.

Attention should be focused on the states which have high maternal mortality rates,low sex ratios,high percentages of child marriage, and poor literacy levels (Jharkhand [56%] , Bihar[53%], Rajasthan[53%], Uttar Pradesh[59%] and Arunachal Pradesh[59%] have fairly low literacy levels for women) .The states with multiple risk factors are at greatest risk of losing their female population (some northern states fall in this category) and should be attended to on an urgent basis.

Female infanticide should be taken seriously as a crime and concrete arrests made. Recently, there were arrests in the capital of those parents who had fraudulently tried to secure admissions for their children into universities. Surely, killing also merits parental arrest. When a death is reported from a particular area ,the village must be also put under surveillance. Awareness and counselling programmes should be undertaken to prevent more such deaths. This could be the responsibility of the district collector.

Alongside, the danger to girl babies must be removed by taking measures to ensure that girl children are not seen as a ‘burden’. Dowry should be abolished on a war-footing. Prospective brides and grooms should give written undertakings that they are not indulging in monetary transactions before they are bestowed with a legal marriage licence.Generous incentives should be provided to the family who has a girl child. It should be ensured that all girl children are highly literate and employed. Thousands more scholarships should be instituted for girls’ education especially in the vulnerable states.

The child marriage act has not been enforced at all and convictions are unheard of. The current punishment of three months in jail is not meaningful.The government should instead impose a stiff economic penalty on people defaulting. This should be divided and borne equally by the concerned girl and boy’s parents. Apart from the deterrent value,the government would also earn revenues which could be used for more schools for girls and their overall welfare.

Basic health care and good transport facilities should be provided so that all women have access to at least one good hospital within half hour distance away. The village Sarpanch should ensure that all households in the village are aware of where to go in a gynaecological emergency and should ensure that some means of transport is available. Iron and folate tablets should be distributed in an organised manner just the way Anti-Tubercular and Anti-AIDS drugs are being distributed – perhaps the same channels can be used.

We need to bring about a social change in the way marriage is perceived. Currently, too much importance is given to marriage and it dominates many aspects of our lives. In some cases, the growing up years seem to be little else than a preparation for the inevitable marriage. We should ensure that childhood is a rich and multidimensional experience for our children. There should be counselling in schools about not thinking about marriage during the formative years. Children should be encouraged to develop their talents and personalities, not to attract a good mate but to realise their own highest potential. Marriage should merely be one of the many aspects of a person’s life. It should not be a social stigma if people choose not to get married and prefer to just remain bachelors. People should neither pity (nor for that matter envy) those who choose to remain single.

At an individual level, each citizen must be aware of these issues and try and help in any small way possible. This could include educating a girl child or counselling a known family not to marry off their girl children early and helping them arrange a vocation for the girl instead. Parents should hesitate to offer their daughters in marriage to any family bringing up the topic of money. This can only lead to grief later. All parents must sensitise their sons and daughters to these matters at an appropriate age. Equality of the sexes should be stringently emphasised and practised in our daily lives. Parents should take greater responsibility in ensuring the safety of their girls and not sending them to cities to work unless they are absolutely certain of the credentials of the accompanying escort.

Women should be empowered at the school, family and social level in every way possible. An example should be set at the highest level by tabling and passing the women’s representation bill in Parliament.

For each person who does not care about women there are many who care deeply. Such people should come forward, in thought and action to help preserve and nurture our women.