Friday, March 31st, 2023 14:19:58

Gender Discrimination Before Birth

Updated: April 20, 2013 5:50 pm

One remembers the unfounded childhood belief often told in the form of gossips by the elderly women that if a son is born the mother earth goes up and she goes down if the newly-born child is a girl. It was difficult to believe this myth then which nonetheless reflects upon the gender difference in the Indian psyche. That sex discrimination continues to survive in many forms in India despite several laws and even after declaring the practice of female foeticide following prenatal sex determination illegal. This has been revealed by the study conducted by Leah Lakdawala of Michigan State University and Prashant Bharadwaj of the University of California, San Diego.

While using micro-health data from India, the studies conducted at the USA highlight sex-selective prenatal investments as a new channel via which parents can practice discriminatory behavior. It finds that mothers visit prenatal clinics and receive tetanus shots more frequently when pregnant with a boy. According to the findings of the study, preferential prenatal treatment of male child is more in regions known to have strong son preference and also among those women whose previous children were girls. Thus the study clearly hints at significant differences in the prenatal health care choices of women when they are pregnant with baby boys. The study concludes, “In India women are 1.1 percentage points more likely to attend prenatal care when pregnant with a boy and receive a significantly greater number of tetanus shots. In northern India, where sex discrimination is known to be more prevalent, women are 4.6 per cent more likely to seek prenatal care and 3 per cent more likely to receive tetanus shots if they are pregnant with a baby boy. In the same region, women are 16 per cent more likely to deliver their babies in a non-home environment if pregnant with a boy.” The US study also finds that women whose previous children were mainly girls tend to discriminate more when the current fetus is male. It further reveals, “… prenatal discrimination occurs largely among mothers who report having received an ultrasound during pregnancy.” It, however, does not find that “women experience increased medical complications during pregnancies that result in a male birth.”

The method of gender discrimination through prenatal sex determination was banned in India in 1994, under the Pre-conception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act. The Act aimed to prevent sex-selective abortion, which, as the government sources rightly realised and thus concluded, “Has its roots in India’s long history of strong patriarchal influence in all spheres of life. The PNDT Act, 1994, was amended in 2003 as ‘The Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act’. Then onward named as PC & PNDT Act, is a legislation to check and discourage the practice of sex determination and sex selection, whose root lies in India’s age old tradition of strong patriarchal influence in social life. The old Indian mindset had culminated into an obsessive preference for sons and consequently discrimination against the girl child and also women. This further led to social evils like female infanticide, bride-burning and sati and even deliberate neglect of the girl child in terms of nutrition, education, health care and her overall development. The highly exposing quality of the study recently conducted by the scholars from the US universities lies in its attempt at pinpointing the deliberate attempt on the part of the Indian parents to ignore the girl child by depriving them of equal medical facilities before, during and after the birth.

The fact that dominant Indian patriarchal attitude has resulted into “elimination” of girls and neglect of the women is not entirely new to Indian socio-cultural fabric. This is reflected into a sex ratio increasingly adverse to women. The sex ratio is the ratio of females to thousand males in a population. According to 2001 census, this ratio is 933 women for every 1000 men. The declining sex ratio between men and women as depicted in the diagram could have been worst had there been no social movements and governmental efforts to check the imbalance. However, during the last few decades, the situation has been worse, despite the remarkable achievements made by the country in all walks of life. Unfortunately, one of the chief reasons for this is advances made in medical science. The same scientific discovery made with the pious purpose of providing relief to the mankind is being used to kill the girl child before they are born. The misuse of medical technologies efficient enough to detect the sex of fetus in prenatal period has added a new dimension to the falling sex ratio. The highly-sophisticated prenatal diagnostic techniques like amniocentesis and ultrasonography have been in use elsewhere in the world for detecting genetic abnormalities. In India, these techniques are being misused very often with the connivance of medical practitioners for detection of the sex of unborn child and subsequently for sex selection in order to eliminate foetuses selectively, if they are females. The combination of sophisticated technology and progressive demographic slogan of small family has proved disastrous. Thus cutting across barriers of caste, class, religion and geography in India, there is increasing emphasis to ensure that at least one child, if not more, is a son. Subsequently owing to the advent of new sophisticated pre-conception sex selection technologies like sperm separation, the girl child’s elimination has become easier and also acceptable socially.

This gets reflected into further drastic fall in the child sex ratio in the 2001 census hinting at a demographic catastrophe on a national scale. Subsequently, alarmed by these developments, but probably more due to the directives of the Supreme Court over a PIL filed on this issue, the government amended the Act to provide it more teeth and to cover the new pre-conception sex selection techniques (also known as sex pre-selection techniques). Thus the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) 1994, as amended in 2003, came into effect on February 14, 2003.

The PNDT Act was required as the modern sophisticated technology was being misused to prevent the conception or birth of girls. Apart from this Act, we have several other laws, too, enacted in order to do away with the practices of social evils like sati, bride burning and dowry Death. Although, these laws have not succeeded in preventing many discriminatory and regressive practices, they do act as a deterrent. The PNDT Act is different from other social legislations as it does not involve only change in social behavior and practices. It also demands ethical medical practice and the regulation of medical technologies that have the potential to be misused. What needs to be emphasised is that the PNDT Act thus puts onus on the medical practitioners for responsible and ethical behavior. It also expects ethical behaviour from the people. What stands clear are that the law alone is unable to provide the remedy, what is required is the change in the very mindset that looks for a male child. This is probably what the hidden message of the conclusion drawn from the study conducted in the USA about the attitude of the Indian parents and reported extensively by the Indian media. The patriarchal ethos of Indian society that ensures transfer of property rights, lineages and even title through male parent do create a natural fascination for male child. The added associations of social evil like dowry demanding huge expenditure on the marriage of the daughters is yet another factor consolidating the base of age-old patriarchal values in the Indian society. Unfortunately, even the educated Indians have also not come out of this patriarchal syndrome. Otherwise, how to explain use of modern, costly and sophisticated prenatal sex determining technology that are more likely to be used first by the educated, wealthier and even more conscious. We will have to accept once more that the old habits die hard.

By PC Singh

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