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The Missing Girls of Mahendragarh

February28/ 2015

This article is from Open Magazine.

In the late afternoon, a drowsy calm prevails in the village of Kanwi. The shops are closed, the men till their mustard fields, and the women attend to children returning home from school. When a vehicle that looks like a cinema on wheels roars into the village, the women and children walk out of their houses to the anganwadi, where it is parked. There they settle on chairs and dhurries in front of an LCD screen to watch a film.

India Pushkar Festival

It is three weeks since Prime Minister Narendra Modi flagged off awareness raths for the Government’s new ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ (BBBP) initiative from Panipat. These vehicles travel from village to village, spanning the districts that have been selected for implementation of the programme. Kanwi, a village in Mahendragarh district of Haryana, has the lowest child sex ratio in the state. It has dipped from 775 girls against 1,000 boys, by the 2011 Census, to 762, according to a report this January. The survival prospects of the girl child in Haryana have always been low, but as current figures show, they are particularly bleak in some districts.

In some time, the anganwadi audience begins to get restless; the women want to get back to pending housework. Rekha, a young woman who works as a supervisor with the Women and Child Development Department, urges them to stay. “This is a state that has produced Kalpana Chawla and many female athletes, why don’t we want our girl child?” She asks them about the message of the film. “Bhrun hatya paap hai (female foeticide is a sin),” the older children declare in unison. “I send my daughter to school,” says Sita, a 30-year-old mother of two, “Most of us here are sensible people. We don’t have a son preference.”

Dharamvir Singh, a representative of the District Information and Public Relations Department, and a coordinator of the rath yatra, reacts to what she says. “Look at the crowd, it’s mostly older women or young boys,” he says, “As we travel around villages, we sometimes find one girl in ten families. Nayi kanyaan kidhar hain (where are the young girls)?” Later, Rekha says, away from the other women’s earshot, “They’re aware it’s a crime, so they will not admit it. But clearly it is going on.”

The rath rolls out of Kanwi after a short performance by a group of folk musicians who sing songs on mothers and daughters. The next day, it will set off in yet another direction in Mahendragarh, till all 370 of the district’s villages are covered.

“Bhrun hatya paap hai (female foeticide is a sin)”

One village is still to receive a visit. The village of Jorasi is located at a short distance from the district headquarters of Narnaul, right under the administration’s nose. A recent village- wise census of Mahendragarh has uncovered that Jorasi has the lowest child sex ratio of all, an abominable 286 girls to 1,000 boys, which makes it the worst village in Haryana for the girl child.

Jorasi, a prosperous village, has a population of about 2,000 and a literacy rate of over 80 per cent. Pawan Bhardwaj, who resides in the village, is the principal of a government school for girls in Narnaul. His wife Snehlata is an anganwadi worker. In 2014, she reveals, six girls and 28 boys were born in the village. In a conspiracy of silence, the village health workers will not admit to any foul play. One worker says, insisting on anonymity, “It’s a coincidence that most women had boys. This is a God given gap. What can be done?” Bhardwaj is more forthcoming: “Sex determination is all pervasive here. If the first child is a daughter, then a couple will select the sex for the second.” They are a rare family here with two daughters and a son. Bhardwaj admits that his second daughter was not easily accepted, but, “She is the most brilliant of all my children,” he adds proudly.

Jorasi has the lowest child sex ratio of all, an abominable 286 girls to 1,000 boys, which                       makes it the worst  village in Haryana for the girl child.

Historically, Mahendragarh, part of the National Capital Region since 2013, is known as the birthplace of the 16th century Emperor Sher Shah Suri. It has fallen on hard times. Apart from the notoriety it has gained for its gender gap, it is known these days as the place Baba Ramdev comes from. It is an agrarian belt, the state’s poorest. The district borders Rajasthan, which it resembles in its sandy and hilly terrain and camel carts on the streets.

Of the 12 districts of Haryana identified for the BBBP campaign, the lowest sex ratios are found in Bhiwani, Jhajjar, Rewari and Mahendragarh, all four in the Ahir dominated, southern part of the state, where female foeticide is most rampant. This is loosely attributed to two factors: porous borders that allow couples to cross over to Rajasthan for illegal abortions, and a tradition of large dowries in the Ahir community.

Combating Child Labor in India

Amartya Sen has described the declining sex ratio in India as the ‘missing women’ syndrome. In Mahendragarh, missing daughters express a sinister reality.

Atul Kumar, deputy commissioner of the district, accepts that improving the sex ratio is a matter of urgency. It’s like “an accident happening every ten seconds”, he says. “The urge for a male child is very high here. A difference can come through sensitisation and awareness, but that is a slow process and needs patience.” Under the BBBP scheme, every district–a hundred have been identified across India–is allotted Rs 1 crore for the current year to improve the sex ratio. Kumar feels that the cash incentive given to parents of a girl child should be increased, as girls are viewed as a financial burden.

In Mahendragarh, as in the rest of Haryana and much of the country, tradition and technology are closely interlinked. With a proliferation of portable ultrasound machines, small enough to fit into a pocket, sex-determination tests are within everyone’s reach. Clinics offering gender-selective abortions that operate illegally are also easily accessible. With the rise of infertility clinics, the problem of sex selection has only multiplied. The law is largely ineffectual. The rate of conviction under the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Technology Act, that prevents doctors from disclosing the sex of a foetus, is abysmally low.

The BBBP campaign has made female foeticide a hot button issue for the administration. Dr Vijay Garg, Mahendragarh’s civil surgeon, has been conducting raids on clinics and sealing ultrasound machines over the past few weeks. “We will not spare clinics where sex determination is practised. We will also put pressure on local health workers like ASHAs (Accredited Social Health Activists) and ANMs (Auxiliary Nurse Midwives), to check female foeticide by tracking pregnant women.”

Activists argue that the administration uses the patriarchy bogey to cover loopholes in the system. “Since the 2001 Census, we’ve known this is a critical issue,” says Akhila Sivadas of the Centre for Advocacy and Research, New Delhi, “There was an opportunity to put checks in place, but not enough has been done.” She feels that a scheme like BBBP draws renewed political attention to the cause, and that can translate into positive action at the district level. But, what is important is to use the existing framework more effectively. “We need detailed audits of Form F [mandatory as a record of pregnant women]. Local health workers should be empowered. There should be a fear of the law on the ground.”

The elimination of the girl child has a long history in India. In the 18th century, a British official observed that the ‘Rajahs of Mynpoorie’, a Rajput clan, killed all its female infants. Anthropologist Marvin Harris concluded that the practice of female infanticide traces its roots to land-owning castes, and was a result of privileged men trying to keep their land from being divided. In today’s Haryana, this finds an eerie echo. The Hindu Succession Amendment Act, 2005, that gave daughters the same rights as sons over ancestral property, is a source of dispute in land-owning families that want to keep daughters out.

Sociologist Patricia Uberoi, who has researched family and gender, says, “The child sex ratio has always been bad in states like Haryana and Punjab, but we find it is getting exacerbated, despite efforts to curb it. In a way, it reflects the resilience of traditional attitudes and institutions.” She draws an analogy of the situation in Haryana, a relatively well-off state, with that in China and South Korea. As standards of living go up and fertility rates decline, family planning has come at the cost of gender balance. With smaller families, girls become even more dispensable.

The good news in Mahendragarh is that more girls go to school here than other areas of the state, and its female literacy rate of 64.57 is higher than the state average of 56.91.

At the Government Girls Senior Secondary School in Narnaul, young girls talk about female foeticide as if it’s a common subject, which it is if you are a young girl in Haryana. The girls complain that they are not allowed to go out unaccompanied by a male relative as the risk of sexual harassment is high. “My brothers do not want me to study, they say, ‘Why educate her, when all she has to do it clean and sweep’,” says Aarti, who studies in class 11. Mamta, a student of science, has an encouraging family. She is aware how the odds are always against girls like her. “I consider myself lucky. I want to become a doctor, but I will always work for women. Here, they think women can do nothing; they don’t educate them, when women are so much better.” Her teacher Suresh Kumari says that the education acquired by women ends up wasted. “Women study and get married. They hardly ever work. After marriage, they are dependent on the menfolk and can never be decision-makers.”

The consequences of Haryana’s low sex ratio have slowly set in. Apart from rising crimes against women, the yawning gap has resulted in villages full of bachelors, which in turn has led to the phenomenon of bride shopping and trafficking of women brought in from other states.

Tags: Beti Bachao, Beti Bachao Beti Padhao Campaign, Female Foeticide, narendra modi
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