Health

The Absence of Women’s Voices in Sex-Selection Discourse

A new born baby's feet are visible peeking out of a shawl

Neha Rathi for BeyondHeadlines

Maya Patil, 35, lives in a village in Jalgaon District, Maharashtra. Married at the age of 17, she has three daughters and one son. After the birth of her first daughter, there was an expectation from her to give birth to a son. Since there was an increased strictness on the implementation of the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act, 1994, in Maharashtra, the family decided to check the sex of the fetus and get an abortion done in Surat, Gujarat, where the abortion could be done easily.

In the 14th week of the pregnancy, Maya was taken to a private clinic in Surat for sonography. At the clinic they were instructed to remain quiet about the procedure. Abortion was performed and Maya was sent home. It cost 3000 rupees for the entire procedure. With two daughters and no son, Maya felt stigmatized and upset that she was unable to give birth to a son ‘for the sake of the family’. Her next pregnancy was also tested for the sex of the fetus. Since it was a male fetus this time the pregnancy was allowed to continue. “We did not want a girl. It was because we wanted an heir to the family. My husband and my mother-in-law wanted me to have a son and that is also a reason why I was also keen on having a son, not a daughter. There was no one at home who said otherwise. If my first child was a son, I would not have gone for sex-selective abortions,” she tells.

During each of the pregnancies Maya Patil was afraid that it would be a female fetus and fervently prayed to have a male child. “I used to feel bad that I had two daughters but no son. I badly wanted a son. My daughters also wanted a brother and the family wanted an heir to the family. In our old age our son could be with us but daughters would not be able to support us. Dowry is needed for girls and that is why we had to go for repeated abortions. It is a burden to have 4-5 daughters in our society,” she shares.

About whether she has any regrets, Maya feels that it is the society that creates such expectations. “There is a lot of societal pressure. Sometimes parents pray that it would have been better had the daughters died at birth. It costs a lot of money to raise daughters. Those with daughters always say they want a son,” she says. She feels it was her helplessness at the time that made her agree to sex-selection.

Financial hardship and lack of resources to have more children, dowry, and fear of safety and security of bringing up adolescent girls are known reasons that encourage sex-selection. However, there are the more nuanced yet equally important aspects of the widespread lack of any real decision-making ability in the hands of women about their own body. So much so that many women consider decisions taken under the pressure of societal expectations, in-laws and husband to still be their own. There is thus the need to differentiate between active and passive pressure that plays a major role in decision-making on sex-selection.

Born and brought up in Maharashtra, Savita Patil, 32, has studied till class 7 and was married at the age of 17. A field worker, she farms a small patch of land owned by her husband, who works as an electrician. In the last five years she has obtained six abortions out of which five were sex-selective following sex-determination tests at private abortion clinics. “I had two daughters and wanted a son. I became pregnant five times and all these pregnancies were aborted, each in the 13-14th week after sex-determination tests revealed that I had conceived a female. The sixth pregnancy was not healthy and I had to get it aborted.”

Savita lives in a joint family, with her husband, his parents, two brothers, their wives and children. Her husband’s brothers also did not have sons, a fact which had mounted pressure on her to give birth to son to take the family name forward and to give a male heir to the family. At her house it was everyone’s preference and desire that she gives birth to a son. “My husband and mother-in-law put a lot of pressure on me that they want a boy because the wives of my husband’s brothers also did not have sons. That is why I also started to feel that having a son would be better. I was worried that if I did not give birth to a son how will my husband’s family continue?” she adds.

Though Savita considers sons and daughters as equals, she had no say in the matter about her own pregnancy and body. At her house the elders of the family usually take decision and she had to comply with their wishes. “I believe that a girl and a boy are equal but my mother and father-in-law believed that our family should have a male heir. As their daughter-in-law I had to comply with their wishes,” she says.

It was the result of years of advocacy and lobbying for the better implementation of the PCPNDT Act, 1994, that NGOs, journalists, lawyers and civil society in India could bring the Government of India to take action towards improving mechanisms to curb the worrying decline in child sex ratio. In the state of Maharashtra specifically, the research and fact-finding exercises conducted by NGOs in their personal capacity have revealed that on the ground there still exist loopholes in the implementation of law, of omission as well as commission, resulting in misconception about abortion related laws, fear of prosecution and stigma, as well as restrictions on non sex-selective abortions.

Couched in the euphemism of ‘taking forward the family name’, sex-selection is a deep set son-preference based on social, economic or personal reasons. The desire for a male heir to the family increases, quadrupling in families where there are sons and more daughters in the extended family. There is an important need for inculcating a sense of decision-making in women, especially in rural and semi-urban areas, about their reproductive health and rights based on their own belief and desire. Simultaneously, there exists a need for education and creating awareness about issues like the practice of dowry, child marriage and insecurity about bringing up a female child, which are all important issues that have their own politics and history and continue to be closely associated.

In an environment where sex selection and sex determination are criminalized, and where doctors, lawyers, law makers and activists all seem to have the say on the issue, there exists a conspicuous absence of the voices of women from the entire discourse. There is a need to take into account the experiences of women who have had sex selective abortions in order to understand the circumstances in which these decisions are made, the factors that shape these choices and how these abortions are obtained.

(Neha Rathi practices law at the Supreme Court. This article is based on her research on unsafe abortions funded by Save the Children and NFI’s Child Survival Fellowship. She can be reached at neha305@gmail.com)

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