NEW DELHI – Ernest Hemingway’s collection of stories, Men without Women, examines tense gender relationships. In a particularly poignant story, a young man convinces his partner to have an abortion, viewing their unborn child as a hindrance to the status quo. Frustrated, the woman gives in.
That story, published more than 80 years ago, remains relevant today in India, where female fetuses face severe risks. According to the 2011 census, the sex ratio of the country’s children has dipped from 927 females per 1000 males to 914, a 60-year low. Ratios in the northern states are particularly alarming: only Himachal Pradesh now has a ratio of girls to boys above 900.
Despite being illegal, ultrasound sex-determination tests are being used across India to identify for abortion extraordinary numbers of healthy female fetuses. But there are serious concerns about legal operations, too. Genitoplasty – a sex-change operation on newborn girls – is a mushrooming, and deeply disturbing, business in India.
There’s only one word for it: gendercide. Left unchecked, it will leave India’s next generation of men with a severe shortage of women. Indian couples have a strong cultural preference, bordering on obsession, for sons over daughters – despite the strides in education and employment that women have made over the last few decades. Education and wealth have nothing to do with it – in fact, some of the worst-affected areas are in India’s wealthiest cities. However discomfiting a possibility, the real culprit might be Indian culture and tradition itself.
The expenses and pressure of the dowry system, and the fact that, in most joint families, only sons inherit property and wealth, contribute to this favoritism. Perhaps just as important is that sons typically live with their parents even after they are married, and assume responsibility for parents in their old age. Daughters, who live with their in-laws after they marry, are viewed as amanat – someone else’s property. In short, sons represent income and daughters an expense.
In the old days, when families typically had 5-10 children, this didn’t matter so much. The number of sons and daughters often evened out. But, for today’s smaller families, whether the children are two boys or two girls influences everything from financial planning to preparations for old age.
Many have argued that Indian women should stand up to their families and refuse to abort their daughters. But Indian women want male children just as much. Unlike Hemingway’s character, they are often more than willing to abort a girl and try for a boy. The novelist Salman Rushdie once put the question to supporters of abortion rights: “What should be done when a woman uses her power over her own body to discriminate against female fetuses?”
This raises other questions concerning the consequences of a large shortage of girls. Will women be valued and treasured? Or will the oversupply of men result in more bride trafficking, sexual violence, and female suicides?
Niall Ferguson, the British historian, cites scholars who attribute Japan’s imperial expansion after 1914 to a male youth bulge, and who link the rise of Islamist extremism to an Islamic youth bulge. “Maybe the coming generation of Asian men without women will find harmless outlets for their inevitable frustrations, like team sports or video games. But I doubt it,” he writes. He warns us not to be surprised if, in the coming generation, “shrill nationalism is replaced by macho militarism or even imperialism.”
Unfortunately, there is no instant solution. Saving our girls will require radically altering some of Indian society’s family arrangements, traditions, and attitudes. And there is no easy way to accomplish this. Legislation alone won’t help, for tradition is a law unto itself. Hindu religious law, for example, allows a woman to claim an equal share in her parents’ wealth, but few exercise this right. Culturally, she feels that she does not have an equal claim on her father’s property.
Nonetheless, India does need new laws – direct and enforceable – that clamp down on the cultural practices that underpin destructive traditions. For example, India could enforce a ceiling on wedding expenditure – typically a father’s biggest expense associated with his daughter. Constrained from spending on the wedding, he would compensate her differently – perhaps with a larger inheritance. Gradually, this would become the norm, and tradition would adjust accordingly. (Interestingly, the state of Kerala, whose people adhere to matrilineal inheritance, has among the most equal sex ratios and literacy rates in India.)
A more radical measure, which some have advocated, would be direction intervene, with the state providing benefits for families with more girls. Perhaps the authorities could also penalize families with boys, at least temporarily. India imagines herself as a woman – Bharat Mata, or Mother India. The irony is that, unless far-reaching changes are made soon, Mother India could eventually be the only woman left in the country.
Rakesh Mani is a former investment banker and Teach for India Fellow.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.