The missing daughters of Jhajjar
B Y R UHI T EWARI firstname.lastname@example.org ·························
Fifteen-year-old Aarti Ahelawat waits patiently for the midday meal at the govern- ment senior secondary school in Chhuchhakwas, a village in Haryana’s Jhajjar district. Her younger brother goes to the privately run Paramount Se- nior Secondary School a few metres away, and doesn’t have to wait for the free meal.
“Mother fed him a sumptu- ous breakfast,“ says Ahelawat, who left home hungry.
Ahelwat’s story and rampant female foeticide explain why Jhajjar has the worst child sex ratio in the country (the num- ber of girls for every 1,000 boys among children till the age of six), according to the census that was released last week.
Jhajjar reported a child sex ratio of 774 compared with the national average of 914 and the state average of 830.
Jhajjar’s experience is not unique. It is only an extreme manifestation of a larger na
tional trend that cuts across class and the rural-urban di- vide.
The census numbers also raise questions about the ef- fectiveness of policies that have, in the last decade, tried to reverse the decline in the child sex ratio, which became apparent in Census 2001.
Researchers and activists say the skewed ratio is the reflec- tion of a deep-rooted social prejudice and will require a strong response.
“Though it is illegal, most people get ultrasound tests done to determine the sex of the baby, and if it is a girl, they go in for abortions,“ said Santara Devi, chief of the vil- lage council of Dariyapur vil- lage, also in Jhajjar district, re- ferring to a law banning sex se- lection. “But nobody says it openly these days, unlike in earlier times.“
India’s Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, 1994, prohibits “sex selection, before or after conception“ and prevents ex- pectant parents from using pre-natal diagnostic tech- niques to find out the sex of their baby.
The problem A teacher at a government school in Dariyapur echoes Devi’s sentiments.
“People getting `ultra- sounds’ to determine the baby’s sex is a norm. There is nothing wrong with it,“ said Raj Kumar, who teaches math- ematics. “Boys, after all, are boys, and they are the ones who carry forward a family’s legacy.“
Kumar has one son. He said his wife had a “miscarriage when she was carrying a girl“.
With the availability of por- table ultrasound machines, the technology to identify the gen- der of the foetus is now more easily available across the country.
“There has been no im- provement in the condition of women in Jhajjar and other ad- joining areas. With advanced sex-determination techniques, foeticides have become even more common,“ said Manoj Solanki, who runs the Associa- tion for Social Research and Action, a non-governmental organization. “Girls are still considered to be a social bur- den and practices like dowry are responsible for such think- ing.“
Analysts and researchers say the ratio has become skewed because the girl child that is born is discriminated against, pushing up the mortality rate in the 0-6 age group.
The infant mortality rate for boys is 64 per 1,000; it is 73 per 1,000 for girls. “Female infanticide is fairly uncommon now. But apart from sex-selective abortions, what happens is how the girl child is brought up–it makes her more vulnerable to diseas- es and death,“ said the princi- pal of a big government school near Azadpur village, also in Jhajjar district.
Although the lady has worked in the area of women’s empowerment and awareness, she wanted to remain anony- mous.
“For instance, most boys who come to school are well- fed, while the girls seem to be starving and waiting eagerly for the midday meal. Then again, boys are given better medical treatment, nutri- tion…while the girl child tends to be ignored,“ she said. “One must remember that children in the 0-6 age group are very vulnerable to sickness. All this leads to a higher mortality rate for girls, and hence, a skewed child sex ratio.“
The problem has been exac- erbated by a decline in fertility rates, which normally comes with improved economic con- ditions.
According to the 2011 Cen- sus, the number of children in the 0-6 age group has fallen from about 163.8 million in 2001 to about 158.8 million now–an indicator of declining fertility.
Falling numbers However, the census also points out that the decline is greater for the girl child. While there was a decline of almost three million among girls, the decline among boys was only a little over two million.
“There are two main causes of skewed sex ratios in places like Jhajjar. One, foeticide, and two, dipping fertility rates,“ said activist Sabu George, who works in the area of women development and empower- ment. “With economic development and prosperity, the preference for a small family has increased, and along with it the desire for a boy child has been further enhanced.“
George, too, claims female in- fanticide is rare and limited to some very “difficult areas“.
An example of the small family phenomenon can be seen in Khetawas village, where most couples prefer to have two children, or even one child. Of a population of around 2,200 in the village, only 900 are women.
“People are now becoming more aware of the benefits of small families, and hence, are limiting themselves to one or two children,“ said village council chief Malta Devi. “ Be- cause of that, the demand for a boy has increased even more.
So when a couple has a boy as their first born, they undergo surgeries to ensure they can’t conceive again.“
“We had two boys and then I got an operation. Why should I risk having any girls now? We don’t want so many children,“ said Hemlata of Khetawas.
The social repercussions of this phenomenon of the miss- ing daughters are already ap- parent in Jhajjar.
In the conservative Jat-dom- inated Mathanhail village, the skewed sex ratio is forcing many young men to marry from outside the state.
“The main problem of less women is we are finding it dif- ficult to get our sons married, “ said 50-year-old Krishna, whose two sons in their 20s have been suitable match- es. “So we have to now get girls from Bihar, Jharkhand, Bengal, Oris- sa…. This is leading to further cultural problems.“ Naresh, who uses only one name and married Sunita from Jharkhand two years ago, said: “I faced a big problem. There were no wom- en. I couldn’t get married till I was over 30, when we got Suni- ta from another state.“
They now have a one- month-old daughter.
“I got married around two years ago and have managed to now learn the customs and language,“ said Sunita. “But it is very different here as com- pared to where I am from. I have to cover my face. It wasn’t so strict there. It is more con- servative here.“
Both Sunita and Naresh say their daughter will be treated differently.