DEMOGRAPHY OF PUNJAB
— SKEWED GENDER RATIO —
Dr Birendra Kaur
Cry Baby Girl Cry
According to a recent report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) up to 50 million girls and women are missing from India’s population as a result of systematic gender discrimination in India. In most countries in the world, there are approximately 105 female births for every 100 males.
As per Census 2001, the child sex ratio in Punjab is 793 girls per 1,000 boys. This is the lowest child sex ratio in the country and compared to 1991 census it shows a decline of 82 points.
Just over 50 km from Chandigarh, which represents a modern city of the 21st century, Fatehgarh Sahib has the dubious distinction of being the district with the lowest juvenile sex ratio in the country. A Sikh can only hold his/her head down in shame.
A recent survey revealed that Punjab is one of the most prosperous states of India, as is also confirmed by the migration of people from neighbouring states. As such, it can be safely inferred that it is not poverty or illiteracy that is the underlying cause of female foeticide in Punjab. Rather, it appears that the Punjabis are using their resources and knowledge for it. Historically, female infanticide has been in existence since long. Girl infants have been known to be killed by rubbing poison on the mother’s breast, by feeding infants with milk of errukam flower or oleander berries, by using sap of calotropis plant, paddy grains, giving sleeping tablets or by simply burying the girl infants alive. Law banned this heinous practice in 1870, about a century and a half ago. Yet this abuse of girl child, which is violation of her human right to life, continues.
As technology advanced, new techniques meant for medical purposes began to be used for female elimination at the foetal stage. Amniocentesis was introduced in 1975 to detect foetal abnormalities but it soon began to be used for determining the sex of the baby. Ultrasound scanning, being a non-invasive technique, quickly gained popularity and is now available in some of the most remote rural areas. Both techniques are now being used for sex determination with the intention of abortion if the foetus turns out to be female. Many a time, these abortions result in death of the mother, adding only to the missing females.
The methods mentioned above do not involve manipulation of genetic material to select the sex of a baby. More recent preconception gender selection (PGS), however, includes pre-implantation gender determination of the embryo, and in vitro fertilization to ensure the birth of a baby of the desired sex without undergoing abortion. In PGS, X and Y sperms are separated and the enriched sperms are used to fertilize the ovum. The method was intended to reduce the risk of diseases related to the X chromosome. Ironically, it is being used in India to avoid giving birth to girl children
Who to Point the Finger At?
Now that we have become aware of the dwindling female population, and its likely consequences, we have started giving sermons to parents who go in for foeticide of their unborn daughter. Female foeticide is a heinous crime, no doubt, and deserves all the condemnation it can get. But, foremost of all, before going into its causes and remedies, I wish to highlight that it is very easy, indeed, to point the finger at others:
* When our cricketers lose a match, we burn their effigies, throw stones at their houses, humiliate them to the extreme, and so on. We fail to see ‘their’ agony over this defeat. In spite of their strenuous efforts, they lost not only the game, but also name as well as fame. We, who cannot even hold a bat straight, sit on their judgement, and also execute the punishment on them.
* We tell well-meaning Sikhs, dedicated to the cause of Sikhi and striving for its glory, to set their own houses in order first, if their child or grandchild has cut hair. We fail to see the agony of such gursikhs over such behaviour of their offspring. Children are influenced not only by parents but also by our society, of which we are all a part — each one of us. Somewhere, somehow, we have all contributed to this trend. Some of us have failed to maintain the Sikhi saroop, and some in Sikhi saroop have failed to live up to Sikhi. Exceptions are few and far between.
* In a similar manner, we blame and hold the couple guilty, who goes in for foeticide of their unborn daughter. We fail to see ‘their’ agony. Can parents kill their own child just for the fun of it? Canst we see a simple thing that they must be doing such a gory act only under some extreme, unbearable compulsions? Do we not know that these compulsions come from our society? And we are all a part of that society – each one of us. But, no. As I said earlier, it is easier to point the finger at others. That leaves us clean, perfect.
If even a streak of truth remains in us, we must hold ourselves responsible for each daughter of Punjab that is getting killed even before birth. Leave alone the right to life, which the Constitution gives to all, the woman does not enjoy the right to be even born. We are the murderers of the ‘crown princes’ of our Gurus – the only prophets who have bestowed equality on women. With what face can we tell the world that only Sikh women enjoy equal status, given the census figures that we are? Female foeticide has to be seen as a kalank on us all, on each one of us. So, as a first step, let us point the finger at ourselves.
Little Things Go a Long Way
Peculiar to South Asia, and certainly to India, tradition, values and customs encrusted over centuries have resulted in the insatiable desire for sons. These appear very simple, harmless rituals, but these have far-reaching consequences. We are all aware that Guru Nanak taught us through simple acts and specific words – his throwing water towards the West in stead of East as the others were doing; his lighting a fire and cooking fish during an eclipse; his refusing to wear the janaeu; his composing of a new aarti, his preferring to dine with Bhai Lalo over Malik Bhago; and so on. Connotation of what we do and say, therefore, is all important. I will briefly list some of the seemingly harmless things we do and words we use that have contributed towards the helpless situation that we find ourselves in today:
Just like various calendar systems are designed by man to merely refer to time, nomenclature is also designed by man to refer merely to individual persons in a society. It is for a society to adopt any system of naming. In many foreign countries, there are some surnames, but one is free to use any which one feels like. It connotes nothing at all.
The naming system of the Indian community is characteristic of a caste-based society. It was a need of Brahminism to devise such a naming system that would indicate, at the outset, the rung of the social status to which the person belonged. As such, undoubtedly, this system generates complexes of superiority among some and inferiority among others in the society. As na koi hindu, na musalman, Guru Gobind Singh introduced ‘Singh’ and ‘Kaur’ for his followers. He did not use ‘Singh’ as a middle name, but replaced his surname ‘Sodhi’ with it, in stead. For him, manas ki jaat was ek, only one.
The prevailing naming system is also characteristic of a patriarchal society. The child is given the surname of the father. Nothing wrong with that though, but this promotes and supports the belief of our society that lineage continues through males only. So, we go to the extent of murdering our daughters to beget sons. (Moreover, this ignores the role of mother altogether. Even on becoming adults/old, a thought never occurs to the children to this effect.) Again, adding the surname of the father is merely a system devised by man; it has no biological support or significance, or any divine sanction. The contribution of mother is more as compared to that of the father, starting even from the single-celled stage of the foetus. So, the belief is nothing but a myth, and the concept of vansh is totally misplaced.
Another belief, a mere superstition, that a father shall get deliverance after death only if a son lights his pyre also adds to the craze for sons. Who lit Guru Gobind Singh’s pyre? If Guru Gobind Singh had his own deliverance in mind through his sons, Sikh history would have been different – it would have been the kind we are creating these days. On the contrary, he had said, “char muye to kya huya, jeevat kayee hazaar.” Can we count ourselves amongst those thousands?
Then, a woman has to change her surname to that of her husband’s at the time of her marriage. Some feminists have started retaining their maiden surnames in addition to their husband’s. As per this naming style, their mother’s role still finds no place, as their maiden surname is that of the father. Also, have they thought how many surnames their children and grandchildren will have to carry?
It was this inequality among the members and between the genders that the Guru ended by introducing his new nomenclature system. But we prefer to cling to our biologically-misleading surnames, based on the nomenclature of a patriarchal, caste-based society, rather than seek to belong to the Guru, who sacrificed all his four great young sons, so that equality may prevail amongst all. I hope, it is out of innocent ignorance, and once we become aware of this fact, we would do the needful. According to the Guru’s system, the concept of lineage through only sons gets demolished, the mother does not feel alienated, and a woman gets an identity, an individuality that does not change throughout her lifetime. Even a modern woman can not see what the Guru has already done for her centuries ago.
It would not be wrong if we say that the marriage ceremony is, in fact, the enslavement ceremony of the bride. The marriage [merry-age (?)] ceremony, in our society, is an occasion that highlights, rather amplifies the status of a woman vis-à-vis man. Each ritual leaves an indelible mark on our psyche, in a very subtle manner. The concept of kanyadaan amongst Hindus clearly indicates that a girl is donated/gifted; in other words, she is a thing, and not a person. Referring to her as praya dhan by parents also has a similar undertone; nay, worse – she also does not belong to them.
The Sikh marriage ceremony ought to be reflective of Sikh values, but it is not, in the present format. Starting from the shabad, hum ghar saajan aaye to palley taidey laagi, from the style of laavan to the content of sikhya, all are discriminatory to the girl, and bring out the pati as Parameshwar. I take this opportunity to request those in a position to amend, once again, to please look into this matter, and do the needful after due deliberations. Discontinuation of some earlier practices like covering the bride’s face and assisting her during lavaan, etc., is a very welcome step, and will go a long way in boosting confidence in girls. It also indicates that we are open to more changes, if Sikh ideology permits.
Even a commodity can not be had without a price. But, courtesy our culture, a wife comes not only without a price, totally free, but also has to bring with her cash, jewellery, car, furniture, electrical gadgets, and what not. Not only that, her status is worse than a servant for life, as she is unpaid. Moreover, a servant is treated carefully, lest he leave. A wife’s psyche, on the other hand, is ingrained with – ab teri arthi uss ghar se uthegi. Education too brings no respite to her, but to her husband, yes, as her salary belongs to him. The agony of giving does not end with marriage; parents of girls have to keep giving gifts/money all their lives, whenever someone is born or someone dies in her in-law’s family.
Parents of the boy feel and behave like emperors, not realizing that they are in fact beggars. Amazingly, the donors (of kanya) are subservient to recipients. (Such is the worth of a kanya in our society! Or worthlessness?) Thus, India is the only country where beggars are calling the tune; and, also the only country where daughter-in-laws are burning. One never hears of a daughter/mother-in-law/son-in-law burning. The practice of dowry is unknown to foreign countries, including the Muslim countries as well.
Though prohibited by law in 1961, the extraction of dowry from the bride’s family prior to marriage still occurs. When the dowry amount is not considered sufficient or is not forthcoming, the bride is often harassed, abused and made miserable. This abuse can escalate to the point where the husband or his family burns the bride, often by pouring kerosene on her and lighting it, usually killing her. The official records of these incidents are low because they are often reported as accidents or suicides by the family. In Delhi, a woman is burned to death almost every twelve hours. The number of dowry murders is increasing. In 1988, 2,209 women were killed in dowry related incidents and in 1990, 4,835 were killed. It is important to reiterate that these are official records, which are immensely under-reported. The lack of official registration of this crime is apparent in Delhi, where ninety percent of cases of women burnt were recorded as accidents, five percent as suicide and only the remaining five percent were shown as murder.
According to Government figures there were a total of 5,377 dowry deaths in 1993, an increase of 12% from 1992. Despite the existence of rigorous laws to prevent dowry-deaths under a 1986 amendment to the Indian Penal Code (IPC), convictions are rare, and judges (usually men) are often uninterested and susceptible to bribery.
The value systems we impart to our sons and daughters are different. For example, we permit, rather take pride in the fact that our son has many girlfriends, whereas if a daughter has a boyfriend, it’s a disgrace for the entire family and she may even be eliminated for this; the entire responsibility of honour of the family lies on her shoulders. Such a mindset encourages the boys to exploit as many girls as they like; their marriage, of course, will be arranged on the basis of the extent of dowry the bride shall bring. This exploitative right that we happily bestow on our sons makes bringing up of daughters all the more difficult, a Herculean task.
Blessings and Wishes
Phrases conveying blessings and wishes in our culture are discriminatory to the girl at every stage. The birth of a son is the birth of a vaaris, the heir; the daughters are not even counted in off springs. An expectant mother is wished that she get a son. She is literally made to feel that she has no place in society unless she gives birth to a son. Husband may get remarried in the event. Again, biologically speaking, if a son is a must, changing the husband alone will help, as the gender of the foetus is decided by the sperm; contribution of egg is same to the boy as well as the girl child. Then, an infant girl is made to pray to God repeatedly for a brother, before she even understands what she is made to prattle all day long. No boy is ever asked to pray for a sister. Further, the blessings that a daughter-in-law receives on touching feet of in-laws are, directly or indirectly, for long life of her husband, their own son. If a widow, she is not allowed to participate in family ceremonies. Also, she changes her looks, her name, following marriage. She is told that her in-laws are her family now. She begins to keep fasts for husband. All such activities have gone on for centuries on end that she is unable to see the inequality in these; she has got accustomed to these, nay, she is almost enjoying these. Most of the time, the mad ad world, as well as all the media, objectify her; she fails to see that the easy money in these is, in fact, at the cost of her exploitation. It is very difficult to free a person who has fallen in love with one’s slavery/chains. But our Gurus aimed at it; we must carry on their mission, as this alone will eradicate every evil from society.
All such acts and words of the society, including the women themselves, as mentioned in the preceding paragraphs, make life hell, a nightmare for the daughter as well as her parents. And, the net result is there for all to see – terrorism let loose on her, the foeticide, the abuse, the rape, the violence, the burning, and so on. In the given scenario, female foeticide can only be seen as love of the parents for their unborn daughter; for, they free her from ‘our’ clutches!
Normally, the onus for corrective measures would lie both on our society as well as the government. But, I have very little hope from ‘us’ in this regard, as we could easily fall in the category of laaton ke bhoot jo baaton sey nahin maantey. As an example, we obediently follow traffic rules abroad, but once back home, we begin to feel at home. I can only pray that Parmatma saanu sab nu samatt bakhshey. May we practically live by Hukam of Waheguru. The Government, for its part, is sincerely trying to ameliorate the condition of women, as various laws have been either introduced or amended from time to time. Although some of these Acts are sometimes misused by people, yet, in their absence, scope of change in the mindset of society is impossible.
Some social legislations were formed during the British India that catered to the discriminatory customs of sati, child marriage, widow remarriage, right of women to property, etc. The effort continued and more legislation was formed after independence. Some of the Acts are:
The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 (the age of marriage was raised to 18 years, and husband and wife were allowed to get divorce by mutual consent)
The Hindu Succession Act, 1956 (man and women were given equal right of ownership of property and succession). This Act was amended in 2005 and came to be known as Hindu Succession [Amendment] Act, 2005 (now even offspring of daughters can claim right to ancestral property, and also parents can not will their property)
Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act, 1956 (provision was made that now not only boy, but girl can also be adopted).
Suppression of Immoral Traffic in women and Girls Act, 1956 (persons who run prostitution can be given imprisonment up to 15 years and fine up to Rs 2000/-)
Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 (provision was made for punishment for both giving and taking dowry)
Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 (recognizes even verbal and emotional abuse as acts of violence)
Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act, 1994 (provides for the regulation of use of pre-natal diagnostic techniques and prevention of the misuse of such techniques for the purpose of pre-natal sex determination leading to female foeticide)
More Expectations from the Government
Bring to Book the Real Culprit : In addition to punishing those involved in female foeticide, legislation could also be formed to hang the person named by the bride, because of whom the bride/wife burns herself to death or commits suicide. Just as the hospital authorities do not hand over the deceased body to the family, without conducting a postmortem on it, in a similar manner, each death of a wife must be investigated thoroughly, by ensuring participation of women on the panel. The Judiciary and Executive wings of the Government too must do their bit honestly, of course. Just a few cases of awarding life-term/capital punishment to real culprits from the in-laws’ family, and giving wide publicity to it, will see a sea change in the bride-burning cases and dowry demands.
Give Incentives : Overpopulated countries levy extra taxes on families larger than the limit set by them, and the under populated countries give additional benefits to couples on the family way. For example, China introduced one-child policy, in which having more than one child is made extremely unattractive, to check its overpopulation. France, on the other hand, has increased social and women’s services like childcare and parental leave to increase its population. Getting a tip from China, India could legislate that if a third child is also a third son, the parents may be heavily taxed. This would not only address the tilt in the gender ratio but also the issue of overpopulation.
Provide Safe Infrastructure : The Government must provide safer infrastructure to working women in commuting and working areas, so that nothing may hinder their growth, and they may be able to excel to their maximum potential.
Make Daughters Equally Responsible : The issue of old age security too drives parents to opt for sons over daughters. The Hindu Succession Act and its Amendment give equal liabilities (i.e., responsibilities, accountability, charge, etc.) in respect of property to the daughter as that of the son. But as rights and duties go hand in hand, she must also be made legally responsible, accountable for caring for her parents. Parents would, thus, be able to look forward to a secure old age, irrespective of whether they beget a son or a daughter. They would now rather invest in her with enthusiasm. The Law of Reverse Mortgage, already in place, that enables parents to live independent, honourable lives will also go a long way in reducing the craze for sons.
Remove Surnames : The use of surnames could be discontinued in all official records. Initials of the father and mother could be used in stead (e.g., Ramesh Kumar TM, Jaikar Singh JB). Further, just like in the case of men, the women’s marital status too need not reflect in their name; she be referred to as Ms, and not to be given the choice between Miss and Mrs in official forms. Also, women shall not be required to change their name after marriage, as columns like w/o are already there. Rather, a column h/o (husband/of) should be introduced. (The addition of the column seeking the mother’s name in the admission forms to educational institutions is very welcome. In its absence, the child must form the impression that mother is a non-entity.)
Do not Recognize Religion-based Marriages : All ritualistic marriages should find no recognition in official records, until these have been critically reviewed, ensuring that no act of the marriage ceremony depicts discrimination/inequality of the genders.
Hold Boys Accountable through DNA Test:: To counter the exploitative attitude of Indian boys towards girls, the claim of an unmarried girl for a particular boy to be the father of her child, should be confirmed by the DNA test. If fatherhood of the boy is confirmed, he should legally be her husband, with all the implications attached thereto.
Set up Centre for Adoption : The Government could set up an agency, that could act as a via media for the needy and those desirous of adopting and/or funding the education of the poor. The process should be very simple, and the donor could be kept informed of the progress of the child from time to time. The culture of adopting should be promoted through maximum publicity. Many a foreigners adopt our children. It is a pity that we indulge in lavish and vulgar display of wealth during weddings and festivities.