The last couple of weeks have seen some huge developments in the campaign to end female foeticide in India (the practice of aborting baby girls because of the huge desire to have sons).
India’s new prime minister Narendra Modi spoke out strongly against the practice, saying it was a “mental illness” affecting the whole country and saying that doctors who carried out sex-selective tests and abortions were betraying society.
He said: “We cannot call ourselves citizens of the 21st century by practicing such a crime and we by our mindsets belong to the 18th century, when daughters were killed soon after they were born.” He was launching a scheme for bank accounts for girls, to encourage people to see that having girls is a good thing.
Strong words from world leaders
Also this week US President Barack Obama visited India and in a speech talked about the importance of empowering women. He said: “We know from experience that nations are more successful when their women are successful… these are facts. So if nations really want to succeed in today’s global economy, they can’t simply ignore the talents of half of their people.”
So strong words from world leaders which are an amazing boost to the campaign to stop girls being aborted — although there is still a long, long way to go.
Millions of missing women
There are 60 million missing women in India – 7,000 go missing each and every day. It’s hard to take in that statistic, because that’s the number of girls being aborted before they are even born, according to estimates by experts. Female foeticide – the practice of aborting girls – is widespread in India: the 2011 census revealed there were only 919 girls to every 1,000 boys.
The reasons for this are complex, but essentially it is because girls are seen as a burden to families. In India girls will marry and move to their husband’s home so parents with only girls will be left with no one to look after them in their old age – a real fear in a country where there is no welfare or state pension system.
Aborting girls is widespread
That’s why 31-year-old Shabana, who I met in New Delhi earlier this year, who already had one daughter, was put under pressure by her husband’s family to abort her baby girl.
“They took me to the clinic to have it done but when I was there I went to the toilet and I felt the baby move for the first time,” she said. “I felt so angry with myself that I was going to abort the baby inside me. I stayed in the toilet for 45 minutes – I didn’t know what to do but I didn’t want to have the abortion.”
Shabana escaped from the clinic, but she was in tears as she explained that when her husband found out she’d given birth to another daughter, he left her and she has never seen or heard from him since. “I am dead to him,” she said simply. She is bringing up her two daughters alone and can only just about make ends meet.
Conviction rates exist but are very low
When that is the kind of pressure that women face, it is no wonder that so many girls are missing. India has laws in place against sex selective ultrasound tests and aborting girls, however conviction rates are very low.
ActionAid India works to make sure the laws are enforced, but is also trying to change entrenched attitudes with an innovative project across 12 areas of Delhi called the “Beti Utsav” which means “Celebration of Daughters”.
Celebrating girls’ lives makes a big difference
ActionAid staff and volunteers go to the homes of families where a girl has just been born and throw a party. They sing in the streets outside, bang drums and distribute special sweets. These celebrations are normal for the birth of a boy, but very unusual for a girl.
Smita Khanijow, from ActionAid India, told me that the Beti Utsav celebrations have really succeeded in changing people’s minds about having a baby girl.
“When we have held these celebrations and congratulated the new mothers they have thanked us for having broken the ice in their families.
“They have shared how we were the first in months to congratulate them and say a few kind words on the birth of a daughter. These gestures go a long way for them as they get social acceptance within their families and society.”
This blog was updated on 29 January 2015.