BANGALORE, India — Thirty-two-year-old Pooja Salotia, wife of a millionaire industrialist in Gujarat state in western India, has become a national heroine.
That was after she got her husband, Chirag, and nine other members of his family arrested in July for abetting female feticide.
Pooja’s plight is not shocking to many in India. Thousands of unborn girls are killed in their mothers’ wombs daily in India — despite a ban on sex determination tests and sex-selective abortions.
As soon as Pooja got pregnant, the family celebrated by throwing a big party. But her joy was short-lived when she was taken to a fertility clinic and the affluent family was shocked with the news that she was carrying twin girls.
Chirag and his family members promptly forced his wife to abort. But her ordeal did not end there. The husband kept pestering her to sleep with his brothers to ensure that she conceive a male. Unable to put up with the husband’s family going after her, Pooja took an unprecedented step — walking to the police station to file a complaint against her husband and his kin.
“Today, we have the odd distinction of having lost 10 million girl children in the past 20 years,” Renuka Choudhury, federal minister for Women and Child Development, acknowledged at a seminar in New Delhi last December. “Who has killed these girl children? Their own parents.”
Even UNICEF has acknowledged the gravity of the female feticide situation, noting that 7,000 fewer girls are born in India every day than the global average because of widespread gender prejudice leading to feticide.
Choudhury made headlines again in July when she declared that the government soon would introduce legislation to mandate registration of all pregnancies in a desperate bid to curb rampant female feticide.
But such threats from the government seem to have had little impact on the female feticide scenario in India.
“We condemn this [female feticide]. We feel shocked that there is scant respect for the sanctity of life,” Bishop John Baptist Thakur, chairman of the women’s commission of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, said July 31.Shocking Reports
Bishop Thakur was reacting to a flurry of shocking reports that made headlines from different parts of the country. Several dumps of female fetuses were found in late July. Police found around 30 skulls, which were believed to belong to unborn females, on July 22 in a sealed pit in Nayagarh in eastern Orissa state after local people alerted police.
A week earlier, the remains of seven female fetuses were found in another well in the same town. Subsequent studies showed that of the 12 fertility clinics in the town, only one has been registered.
On July 26, villagers spotted a van dumping two dozen female fetuses on the Krishnavati riverbed in northern Haryana state. Three days later, the bodies of six female fetuses were found in a well in neighboring Uttar Pradesh state.
On July 31, alert locals led police to another dump of 14 dead female unborns in the suburb of Bhubaneshwar, the capital of Orissa state.
Though Indian law bans sex determination tests, many doctors not only find out the sex of the unborn child but often abort several-month-old female fetuses for exorbitant fees. This lucrative business explains why many places in north India have only less than 800 girls for every 1,000 boys.
Amid the gloomy situation, bishop Thakur pointed out that there was “a silver lining too.”
“On the positive side, there is growing awareness at least among a section of the people. That is why these incidents are reaching the media quickly,” added the bishop, who heads the Diocese of Muzaffarpur in eastern Bihar state.
The bishop said he was glad to find roadside graffiti in several places in Muzaffarpur condemning female feticide as a crime.
“There are hardly any Christians here [in Muzaffarpur]. It is the work of NGOs [non-governmental organizations. The challenge now before us is to strengthen those campaigning against female feticide,” added Bishop Thakur.
Sister Lilly Francis Poovelil, executive secretary of the Women’s Commission of Catholic Bishops Conference of India, said that the rampant female feticide is “the product of the deep-rooted prejudice against the girl child in Indian society.”
“Many mothers even dread the birth of a girl child due to this prejudice,” pointed out Sister Lilly, who belongs to the Salesian Missionaries of Mary Immaculate.
According to Hindu tradition, a father cannot attain moksha (salvation) unless he had a son to perform his last rites. This religious sanction rendering the girl child “unwanted” subsequently gave birth to the dowry system, reducing her to an economic liability for the family.
Parents of daughters have to struggle all their life to earn the dowry to marry them off. Non-governmental organizations estimate more than 25,000 dowry deaths in India a year — most of them young brides burned to death. In-laws often claim they “caught fire while cooking.”
Many more thousands lead hellish existences, putting up with physical and mental torture by their in-laws for their failure to meet the dowry demands. It is this fear that prompts many parents to abort females.Church to Address Issue
Cashing in on this fear, unscrupulous medical practitioners used to carry blunt advertisements with billboards on the streets like, “Why not spend 500 rupees now instead of spending 500,000 [in dowry] later.” Due to government and media pressure, such advertisements have disappeared, but the business seems to be flourishing, given the frequent discovery of female fetus dumps across the country.
“The only way to change this mindset is through awareness programs,” said Sister Lilly.
Though the Church has taken some steps to spread awareness, Sister Lilly said the Indian Church is going to take up the female feticide issue in a “most serious” manner, as the biennial general assembly of 180 bishops in India in February 2008 will have “Empowerment of Women — in Church and Society” as its theme.
While a national preparatory meeting will be held in New Delhi at the end of August to finalize the agenda of the week-long assembly of Indian bishops, Sister Lilly said it will be followed up with 12 regional consultations where women and others will spell out their expectations from the Church for women’s empowerment.
“Female feticide is going to be one of the key issues,” she said. “We hope to take some serious and concrete steps to counter the killer mentality against the girl child from this [assembly of bishops].”
Anto Akkara writes from