“Oh No, Ladki Hui!” Even India’s Rich & Educated Don’t Want a Girl Child


“Oh No, Ladki Hui!” Even India’s Rich & Educated Don’t Want a Girl Child

Illustration: Arati Gujar

In December 2020 the National Family and Health Survey was released by the Government of India. It stated that sex ratios are still imbalanced in India: while some states showed an improvement, other states and territories like Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh, Kerala, Jammu and Kashmir, and Andaman and Nicobar islands showed a decline. Also noteworthy is the fact that data, for states famed for their skewed sex ratios, like Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Rajasthan were not “available”.  Even this “official” survey had to concede that the sex ratios at birth are currently worrisome no matter which way you look at it. It’s 2021 and things are only going downhill for women in India.

Reading these findings once again triggered the pain that had set in motion a long, arduous, and continuing journey. One does not know the entire truth of a place until one imagines sending one’s child there. It wasn’t like I was not aware that there is discrimination against women in the world. It was not like I had not fought back against a system that demanded conformity. And it was certainly not true that I had not faced any violence from a society that will go to any lengths to preserve a status quo.

But somewhere along the way, unknowingly, I had made peace with it. I hid in one of the many crevices specially created for women. I married a man who could veil the truth of how skewed things were behind the veneer of good upbringing, manners, and upstanding morals.

Life was humming along in this hammock of falsehood and then she was born.

The birth of a child is hardly anything you can forget, especially if you are doing the birthing. It was a sultry day in August 1997 when I was shocked by the quantity of water flowing down my legs.  I imagined she was eager to come into a world that would be ecstatic to have her.

My first memory of her was the wild mop of hair, staring eyes, and her wriggling legs as she tried to adjust to the new world. Outside the operation theatre she was welcomed with tears of joy, some clapping and whooping. I later learnt that this surprised the staff at the plush South Delhi nursing home – they were not used to seeing such an enthusiastic reception for a girl.

When visitors started to arrive, they mostly met our joy and enthusiasm at least halfway but there was one woman, an aunt-in-law, who proceeded to “condole” and assure me that “next time it will be different”. I honestly thought she was referring to the caesarean and was heartily agreeing with her until my husband (now an ex) rudely ushered her out. It was the first of many realisations. How adults can speak about a newborn in this way is unfathomable! And yet they do.

I continued to stay in the nursing home for 12 days due to post-surgery complications. Approximately every three days a new set of expecting mothers would arrive and soon leave with babies. And in all the days I was there – they all gave birth to only boys. This was mystifying to me and I pressed the patient and the gentle nurse for more details. Reluctantly, she admitted that this was the result of sex selective abortions.

Along the way, I learnt that those who do not need to worry about affording dowries, and still abort baby girl foetuses, did so because they felt they should be allowed to exercise a “choice”.

I felt wrenched at the idea that my class of people – the educated and privileged – were involved. It was becoming clear that this was not a problem that was distant. And suddenly the prospect of sending my girl into a world that would rather flush them down a toilet than let them live in it seemed unthinkable.

When we returned home, we wanted to secure her future immediately and we fixed a meeting with a man to buy an insurance/investment plan for our daughter. His advice right out of the gate was: “Please buy something that matures before she gets married – you see they often burn brides for their insurance.”

All this when she was not even able to hold her head up on her own.

I felt overwhelmed and somewhat strangely culpable for not being more aware of the length and depth of this bias. And then as it happens when one sees something; it starts to show up more often. I started to notice the deep hypocrisy of a society that hankered after modern resources provided by a liberal thought process while secretly nurturing their conservative mindsets.

A few weeks after my daughter’s birth, on the third page of the city supplement of a popular daily newspaper, there was an interview with a midwife accused of killing baby girls. The journalist seemed to be horrified not just at the act of someone physically killing infants but also by this woman. However, there was one statement that the midwife managed to make, “Look I’m only the hangman. These girls were sentenced by someone else –why don’t you talk to them?”

This one sentence cut deep and set in motion a 15-year journey that ended with me making Kajarya, a film that explores these themes. Not surprisingly, like bringing a girl into the world safely and with love, this endeavour was hard and riddled with obstacles.

Along the way, I learnt that those who do not need to worry about affording dowries, and still abort baby girl foetuses, did so because they felt they should be allowed to exercise a “choice”. As one of them said to me in a hushed tone, as she swirled a glass of some pricey white wine, “If I can choose the car I want, or a hand bag then why not the sex of a child… I mean you only keep talking about pro choice and all na?” This was logic tailored to a mindset that could not be altered by any facts.

The one statement I heard most often from women was “What’s the point of bringing a girl into a life of misery?”

As I travelled into villages, I found the same thought process albeit minus the facade of hypocrisy. I heard statements like “Girls are too much of a responsibility – what if they run away with someone?” or “Girls are weak”, “Girls are a hassle” and the one I heard most often from women was “What’s the point of bringing a girl into a life of misery?”

A word here about the motherhood instinct – today instinct has been buried deep behind layers of social mores. What we feel is way less important than what other people think we should feel. If the world around is screaming that boys are preferable, that killing a foetus only because she is a girl is acceptable and that a woman actually “owes” it to a family to produce a boy then where does one station motherhood and it’s instinct to protect? Women are actively asked to push it away while acting like they are naturally steeped in it. This is only one of the many contortions that are expected of them.

The latest in the arsenal for obliterating girls is the IVF route. Here very often the only fused embryo that is allowed into a womb is male. Of course IVF is terrible for a woman’s body, and it costs a great deal but to a society blinded by prejudice – all of this is a small price to pay. Some even travel overseas to make this possible. In the end, the more resources you have, the more distance you can put between yourself and the crime of eradicating girls.

This discrimination springs from fear linked with pathetic notions like “Reputation”  “Pride” and “Purity”. This fear serves to dial up the violence against women who are supposed to be repositories of society’s honour – moving testaments of the goodness of a society that freely harms, maims and kills them. And as the violence against women escalates, the dread of sending them into the world increases. Thus choking women off from access to basic human rights, starting with the right to be born. And so it is that the circle of death and violence is perpetrated in a self-sustaining double bind that is spiralling down into a vortex.

One under informed gentleman said to me once, “You see when there are very few girls left their value will go up. Men will be forced to be good to them now.” Now, in Haryana and Punjab, lack of women means they just buy a poor one and stick her in the family like a slave. In the river of exploitation there are endless tributaries to keep it flowing.

In the book “Bare Branches, The Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Population”, authors Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer stated that most violent crimes against women are committed by young unmarried males who lack stable social bonds. These surplus men often play a crucial role in making violence prevalent within society.  It is therefore no big surprise that violence against women in India is at an all-time high. Our indices of gender parity are plummeting (India dropped two spots to 131 on the Human Development Index (HDI) this year, according to a report prepared by the United Nations Development Programme. Women’s participation in the workforce is down as well. It’s like the progress made by women so far is being undone.

It is this reality that my daughter is faced with today. It is this world that she lives in. However, while she will have to fight this exhausting battle against the violence that surrounds her, she now has the certainty that she is fighting on the right side. She will neither need to whitewash, nor brush under the carpet the prejudice that is trying to force women back into oblivion. And most of all she knows that she is loved, she is wanted, she is celebrated, she is capable and so very precious. And it is my hope that she, and every other girl like her, will use this arsenal to make the world their own.