Friday, 8 April 2011

India's disappearing girls

The Economist and New Internationalist are both currently running articles about the skewed gender ratios that are being seen in India. While I have seen a lot written about this issue in China I haven't read about it in the Indian context before. If anyone out there knows more about the situation in India it would be good to know if you think these articles are fair.

The Economist has both a leader and an article about this issue.

The article talks about the downward spiral that is being seen for women as the ratios become skewed:
The impact on Indian society is grim. You might have thought that scarcity would lead to girls being valued more highly, but this is not happening. One measure is the practice of giving dowries. Almost no one, rich or poor, urban or rural, dreams of dispensing with these. Rather, as Indians grow wealthier, dowries are getting more lavish and are spreading to places where they were once rare, such as in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, in the south. In Kotla women huddled around Sakina shake their heads when asked to imagine life without dowries: “then nobody would find a husband”, they say.

A skewed sex ratio may instead be making the lot of women worse. Sociologists say it encourages abuse, notably in the trafficking of the sort that Sakina first suffered from but is now ready to pay for. Reports circulate of unknown numbers of girls who are drugged, beaten and sometimes killed by traffickers. Others, willingly or not, are brought across India’s borders, notably from Bangladesh and Myanmar. “Put bluntly, it’s a competition over scarce women”, says Ravinder Kaur of the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi.
The New Internationalist article focuses a bit more on the situation of young women who are forced or choose to move to other parts of India to marry.
Men from Haryana and Punjab are being forced to go in search of brides to distant West Bengal and Bihar. The language is different, the customs are different, the food is different. But the brides, poor girls, travel to these distant states because they are poor. Their parents can’t afford the dowry demands in their home states. Now for a Bengali or Keralite girl to marry a Haryanvi groom is like a Sicilian girl being dispatched to Siberia. Everything is different. It’s a whole new country.

But for the girls, apparently, it’s not all gloom and doom. If you ask people questions without a preconceived agenda, the answers will often surprise you. They certainly stunned me.

A group of girls from Kerala, where dowry demands are huge, decided ‘to screw Keralite men and their avaricious families. Why allow your parents to be humiliated and pauperized with dowry and wedding demands when there are families desperate for girls elsewhere? These North Indian families are willing to give our parents money to take us into their families as brides. First of all, that was unbelievable. We thought, why go through the degrading, shaming practice of parading yourself before arrogant Kerala grooms and their revolting parents.’

So these girls opted to be daring. To fly away, over a thousand kilometres north, and settle in a new land. And although the food is different and the language and customs strange, they’ve adapted. They’ve decided this is definitely not worse than a dog’s life with no dowry back home. What’s more, they write home and tell others it’s not such a bad deal, come join us.

Comment direction: The problems identified in these articles are directly related to the role and status of women in Indian society. Comments should broadly address this topic. I have also edited the original post so that it is more focused on this.


Hugh said...

I was very surprised to find that ultrasounds are not released in Japan for that reason (although apparently there's a lot of debate around this), particularly since, AFAIK, Japan doesn't have a tradition of female infanticide.

I think that ideas around the value of girl-children are rooted in economics, but this isn't the only issue where economic growth doesn't seem to have changed values in India - I read another article, I believe also in The Economist (which, say what you want about them, have to be admired for their taking Indian issues seriously) which noted that child malnutrition in India has remained basically static in the last twenty years despite increasing prosperity even at the lowest levels.

The obvious answer would be some form of education campaign but I doubt that this would be effective. It may simply be a case of the cultural values informed by economics having a very long lag time in their ability to change.

Maia said...

Absolutely not - supporting a woman's right to choose means you support that right even if it is being used in ways that you don't like.

When people decide they don't want/can't have a girl child, then someone on the other side of the world tut-tuting and saying "should people be taken away their technology so they can't use it in this way" is no solution. Support Indian women who are organising to change the the circumstances, don't try and force individual people to have girl children that they don't want.

katy said...

Maia, the law is an Indian law, I was more interested in whether people thought it was a useful response.

Anyway, I edited that bit out of the article because on rereading I thought it would detract from the real issues.

katy said...

Hugh, it is interesting because I think that it was long assumed that as prosperity grew the status of women would too. The thing I found striking about those articles was the idea that as women become more scarce their situation may become more precarious rather than more secure.

Deborah said...

With respect to female foeticide, I've written about it previously here: More on abortion: the female foeticide objection. If you want to discuss the issue, it would be best to take your comments over to that post.

In the meantime, this is a really interesting post, Katy. It's distressing to learn that women are not being valued more highly. I had rather naively thought that over time, scarcity would lead to higher value, but it seems that they remain as objectified as ever.

katy said...

Cheers Deborah. I am really interested in a discussion along the lines you have written and will head over to have a look. These articles were more about what skewed gender ratios mean for a community so this time I just didn't want that to get lost.

Deborah said...

I find the skewed gender ratios very creepy, and frightening. And of course when they are unpacked a little they paint a very bleak picture for women.