Virtually all societies treat their women, in some way, as second class citizens. Whether it’s economic opportunity, social status or involvement in politics, if you look into the available data it’s clear that “no nation, religion, class or ethnic group has the monopoly on misogyny.” With that proviso in mind, in the next two posts I’d like to discuss one of the most insidious forms of misogyny that’s prevalent in many developing countries (but especially China and India): Femicide.
Femicide – one version of Gendercide – is the systematic killing of women due to domestic violence, rape, murder (including so called ‘honour killings’), sex-selective abortions, infanticide and insufficient access to health care. The last three issues directly relate to our project’s objective of improving maternal and child health outcomes. As difficult as it will be, addressing them will be a vital part of us achieving any success.
The tendency of societies to kill their women has resulted in 3.9 million excess deaths of girls and women each year – that’s over 100 million missing women since the 1970s. Referring to these women as ‘missing’ is a good way to think about how societies are contending with their many problems without the help of uniquely impactful agents of change. Empowered women enhance economic competitiveness (women have contributed more to global GDP than China as a whole), ensure state security and stability and even help societies overcome oppression (see the prominent role of women in the Arab Spring). In development discourse it is well established that healthy, educated women correlate with healthy, educated children. In other words women are essential for breaking intergenerational cycles of poverty. Without women, solving society’s ills is like pulling a bullock cart that’s missing a wheel. It’s no wonder then, that gender equality and maternal health constitute major parts of international development objectives like the Millennium Development Goals.
Unfortunately, progress on gender issues has been very slow especially in countries where a societal preference for sons is high. An estimated 250,000 and 1 million girls in India and China, respectively, were killed before birth in 2008 through sex-selective abortions. Infanticide and neglect seals the fate of hundreds of thousands more before the age of 6. This results in societies that have dramatically skewed sex-ratios. According to the 2011 Indian Census, there are 914 girls for every 1000 boys, down from 927 to 1000 in 2001. Rajasthan’s child sex-ratio is even worse at 870 to1000. The district of Ganganagar, where our hospital is located, has a ratio of 861 to 1000.
So why are boys preferred over girls? There are a number of complex cultural and economic motivations involved. In both China and India, boys are seen as an economic asset and girls a liability (exacerbated in China by its one-child policy). Boys will inherit land and family wealth and stick around to take care of their aging parents. Girls, on the other hand, will leave the family at marriage and, in India, take a large dowry with them (despite the fact that male-only inheritance and dowries are now illegal in India).
Ironically, the increase in sex-selective abortions globally is partially due to increasing wealth and access to technology. This is especially true for India, which has seen a decade of unprecedented economic growth. Sex-selective abortion has become easier to do and families are often willing to shell out big money – often to the most dubious of practitioners – to have the procedure done. Since sex-selective abortion is illegal in India the entire industry is pushed underground and the procedures are often performed in unhygienic conditions by un-skilled hands. Multiple abortions under these conditions – often a decision made by a women’s husband or family – increases the risk of complication and death for the mother.
Beyond that, boy-preference is just something, like the idea of caste in India, that’s become ingrained through generations of conditioning. It persists even where the economic incentives for sex-selection no longer exist. For example, even though my father’s family emigrated from India over fifty years ago and is not subject to the Indian pressures of dowry or inheritance, my paternal grandfather prayed incessantly for my parents to have a boy – he got a granddaughter instead (my older sister, and happily it must be said!) before he got me. As harmless as his wishes were, and as common as they are among people from any society, the sentiment becomes much more insidious in India where sex-selective abortion is more common and socially accepted and where women have less agency over their own bodies.
So what does a society that’s missing so many women look like on the ground? In the next post, I’ll describe what femicide looks like here in Rajasthan and try to get at some ideas on how it can be overcome.
All photos copyrighted