Seminar on Son Preference at Asian Social Forum Hyderabad

2 February, 2003 Kiran Moghe
AS a part of the Asian Social Forum held at Hyderabad, the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) organised on January 3 a seminar on the theme of "Expanding Dimensions of Son Preference in India." Indu Agnihotri chaired the seminar while Mythili Sivaraman presented the keynote address. Other speakers were Gigi Francesco (Philippines), Tahera Ali (Pakistan), Jagmati Sangwan and Chandrakala Pandey (India).
After a brief introduction by the chairperson, AIDWA vice president Mythili Sivaraman began her keynote address by addressing an important question: Is son preference simply a cultural phenomenon, or is it being strengthened by the course of development in the country in the last 2 years? To find an answer, we first have to understand the exact nature of son preference, which is a much more enduring phenomenon that we think it to be. To illustrate her point, she gave an example of a survey of young boys and girls conducted in Salem (Tamilnadu); they were asked whether they want a boy or a girl as their sibling. Of all the children, 99 per cent said they preferred a boy. It is also necessary to grasp what compels a woman to commit female infanticide. During an AIDWA survey on dowry in Salem district, a woman said, "I wish I had killed my daughter…. I can't pay back this loan." She was heavily indebted because of the high dowry she had to pay for her daughter.
AIDWA activists interviewed some women who were under trial or convicted after being charged with a crime. When one of them was asked why she had killed her second girl child, she looked bewildered and said, "I don't know." The fact is that no one went to see her after she delivered the baby, and the fear of torture had made her kill the child. Another woman, whose husband simply washed his hands off the matter by saying that the baby died in its maternal grandmother's house, committed suicide. Of the problems that came to light, one was the plight of the families and particularly the children of these women who were languishing in prison. Some had to sell their land in order to pay for the costs of court cases. One woman who had killed her third female infant constantly worried about her two daughters. She wanted them to be in jail with her, as she saw no future for them.
Pointing out that, instead of being put to use for the well being of the girl child, modern science was being utilised to eliminate her, Mythili said female infanticide was reflected in the adverse juvenile sex ratio (JSR), while female foeticide showed up in the adverse sex ratio. The JSR declined from 976 to 927 per 1000 in the country in the last decade. The sex ratio was worst in the richer and economically more developed states like Delhi, Punjab and Haryana. On the other hand, Kerala continued to have a higher proportion of women to men, although one could see a decline in the JSR even here. These facts prompt the question: what factors promote parity in sex ratios?
The speaker made an important point: though the state is formulating schemes aimed at promoting the girl child's welfare, the macro-policies pursued in the wake of globalisation and liberalisation defeat the very purpose of these schemes. Giving the example of the "Cradle Baby Scheme" implemented by the Tamilnadu government, she said the scheme, which encourages mothers to deposit their female infants with the state instead of killing them, has simply made a larger number of mothers abandoning their girl children. Not only it failed to strike at the root of the problem and eliminate it, its consequences for family attitudes and relations were also devastating. It is thus necessary to analyse the linkages between increasing son preference and the path of development pursued in the country, especially after the advent of globalisation. It is clear that consumerism, as reflected in increasing dowry demands and lavish weddings, has reinforced son preference, as has the devaluation of women's work. Liberalisation breeds insecurity for the girl child, creating conditions that encourage female foeticide and infanticide. The situation calls for urgent steps to improve the women's overall status, reversal of imperialist driven globalisation, media monitoring, intervention to reiterate the dignity of women, and a drive to discourage obscurantist practices.An illuminating talk by the AIDWA's Haryana state president Jagmati Sangwan illustrated the shocking realities of son preference in the northern states of Haryana and Punjab that have witnessed the Green Revolution. Now Haryana has a sex ratio of only 820 and Punjab, 793. Translated into numbers, these ratios mean the disappearance of over 2 crore girls. She said economic development and affluence have encouraged son preference here. The practice is now spreading to such communities (like tribals) as had been free from it up till now. This shortage of girls is leading men to buy women trafficked from Bangladesh. Many upper caste men are purchasing Dalit women, as a result of which their families do not accept the relationship. These women and their children live a shunned life, away from the rest, and the legality of these marriages remains questionable.
Another terrible consequence Sangwan reported was that women are facing gender violence from brothers, husbands and other male family members. Superstitions regarding son preference are being strengthened. One hears of truckloads of women visiting "godmen" who "ensure" the birth of sons by dubious means. She also pointed to the compliance of the state. The government of Haryana has succumbed to pressure from the doctors' lobby and given an undertaking that the police would not visit their clinics, since it adversely affects their social prestige. The state has displayed a singular lack of political will and downplayed what is a straightforward act of murder, involving the complicity of the medical community. The monitoring committees set up after the new PNDT Act are quite toothless and ineffective in curbing the practice of sex determination.
Making an interesting point, Sangwan said a consumerist society constructs the image of a man as the "provider" or "bread-earner" and of a woman as "dependent." The forces of terrorism, communalism, fundamentalism and casteism strengthen this "male-centric consumer" devoid of any humane sentiments and values. These consumerist values see the birth of a boy as "profitable" since it is a potential source of wealth in the form of dowry and of gifts for other family members. Even the midwife who assists in his birth gets a gift. But the birth of a girl child is the harbinger of future "losses." In this situation where women's status is already degraded, globalisation contributes to their further devaluation by strengthening son preference. Women themselves feel "secure" if they produce boys, perceiving them to be their support in case they are widowed or face an economic crisis.
Further, imperialism sees the third world women as a threat, responsible for the burgeoning millions, and son preference as a method of controlling populations. It is aided by fundamentalist forces that encourage obscurantism and traditional systems of oppression. Sangwan gave the example of caste panchayats in Haryana that had become virtually defunct but have found a new lease of life of late. These panchayats openly endorse bigamy in case a man does not have a son, and even order death to young men and women having inter-caste marriages. They infringe on the very basic democratic rights of the people, but again the state displays no political will to curb them. Hence, along with opposing neo-liberal policies of globalisation, it is equally important to oppose the forces of fundamentalism, highlight the women's contributions to the household and economy, and wage a struggle to replace the patriarchal system by a truly democratic one.
Tahera Ali from Karachi (Pakistan) is an activist with the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum and of the women's movement in Pakistan. She said the situation of women in India and Pakistan was the same, especially with regard to son preference. While Islam gave women the same rights as men, this is not reflected in practice. Discrimination against the girl child starts at birth. It is practised in the matter of nutrition, education, health, etc. She strongly felt that women alone could change the situation through a united struggle transcending national boundaries.
Gigi Francesco of the Philippines is one of the architects of DAWN and a crusader for workers' and women's rights. She made an impassioned speech, appealing for a full understanding of the meaning of son preference, which ranges from a "soft" version (subtle neglect of girl child) to a "hard" version (selective infanticide and foeticide). She described how the Chinese policy of encouraging the one child norm led to selective abortion of girl children, since the birth of a second child curtails the state benefits of health, education, housing, etc. While the state does not overtly encourage the birth of male children, this is inevitable in a society steeped in the Confucian tradition where men are seen as a symbol of prosperity and women, of suffering. Recent economic policies followed in China, whereby "family responsibility units" replaced "communes," have led to the rise of rich peasants who can afford larger families. Syndicates kidnap women from the poorer North, to be sold to these rich farmers in the South.
Gigi said we need to explore the linkages between the extreme methods and the more benign everyday practices that society accepts as natural. In the Philippines where Spanish colonisers imposed their "machismo" culture on the local Filipino culture, it is said that men never grow up. As a Catholic country that prohibits divorce and abortion, the same "machismo" promotes the practice of keeping mistresses, something that is emulated by working class men even if they cannot afford to support even one family. Thus the brotherhood of male privileging transcends class. The media and the worst kind of television soap operas promote such values and lifestyles of the elite, and it is among the reasons why son preference remains firmly entrenched in society. Son preference is stronger among the rich as the birth of a son helps to continue the "family name." Apart from cultural traditions, the church also encourages these values by ignoring bigamy and putting it down to neglectful wives. In a marketised economy, marriage, family, sexuality, human love and relationships, all get commercialised. There is an economic value, both real and imagined, ascribed to men. The capitalist economy that generates the money machine is centered on the image of a patriarchal man. The neo-liberal system prompts people to think about money and about ways to make more and more money. As men are seen as the source of economic value, social investment in men is larger and skewed against women. The question is, why are men valued more when in fact women work harder?
Gigi also linked the so-called "Global War against Terror" with the practice of son preference. She pointed out that for women living in a society that is being terrorised by imperialist powers or fundamentalist forces and is facing devastation, as are Iraq, Palestine, Bosnia, etc, women have a tendency to seek the protection of men, thereby strengthening patriarchal values. Thus, she concluded, it is necessary for women to come together to visualise and struggle for a society that is free from both class hedonism and violence.
Chandrakala Pandey, a Rajya Sabha member and member of the AIDWA central executive committee (CEC), made the last presentation. Extensively quoting from ancient texts, she pointed out how religious practices were intertwined with rituals that promoted son preference and derided the value of women. The forces of Hindutva are now promoting these very rituals by the inclusion of obscurantist systems such as astrology in the curricula of schools and colleges. She urged for promotion of a wholly new set of values and practices that value the girl child.
The presentations were followed by a discussion. Manasi Chakraborty (West Bengal), Sarojini Reddy (Andhra Pradesh), Anshumala Gupta (Himachal Pradesh) and Meenakshi Baali (Karnataka) participated in it from the floor.
Summing up the deliberations, Indu Agnihotri, a member of the AIDWA CEC, noted that there was a great diversity in traditional practices. Not all castes practise female foeticide, just as not all adhere to dowry-related customs. However, there appears to be an increasing universalisation of anti-women customs, practices, rituals and beliefs in the wake of fundamentalism that transcends religions, communities, regions and borders. While there is the rhetoric of cultural nationalism at the political level, there is unity of action when it comes to imposing prescripts based on patriarchal ideology.
On the other hand, many believe that these rituals and customs are vestiges of backwardness and would disappear with advancement and modernity, and that technology is gender-neutral. But technologies, like markets, operate within socially embedded structures. They not only preserve inequalities but also end up enhancing the existing and perpetuating new forms of inequalities and vulnerabilities. This is exemplified by the new reproductive technologies.
Dr Agnihotri said the processes of globalisation, which open up new possibilities through markets as well as easy access to these new technologies, operate in a similar fashion. Those who believe that globalisation is the only right path of growth and development, and act as its votaries, forget that societies and communities exist and co-exist in the midst of diverse and uneven layers, historical contexts and paths and forms of development. Therefore the ways of social and technological advance have to be suited to their specific needs, and have to address the issues, problems and concerns keeping in mind the socio-historical specifics as well as ideological beliefs. Failing this, growth-oriented models of economic development and donor agendas can combine to launch new onslaughts on women. This happened in the case of recent population policies where neo-liberal ideological beliefs are seen to coalesce with patriarchal notions of son preference. This has given India its peculiar demographic profile, where affluence and advance become synonymous with a premium on sons and the denial of life itself to daughters.
Interestingly, said Dr Agnihotri, these prejudices cut across the frontiers of nationalities, as the example of China also highlights. It was important to note that the advent of socialism per se does not ensure a better status for women unless gender-based inequalities and ideological beliefs are specifically addressed, interrogated and challenged.