Perhaps one of India’s greatest obstacles to overcome as a developing country is the unfair and unequal treatment of its women. India is a country that has long been known for its, for lack of a better term, hatred against women. Most prominently exemplary of this cultural and social phenomenon is the widespread selective abortion of female fetuses. This practice is not due to pregnancy health implications placed on the mother, but rather a strong dissatisfaction in birthing a daughter, as opposed to a son. India’s complete preference for men over women can be observed from a cultural, social, political, and economic standpoint as women in India are disadvantaged in every instance. Indian women are put at a disadvantage by their most astoundingly cultural hatred placed upon them, lack of access to proper health centers, ineffective laws banning the selective abortion of female fetuses, and the clearly divided economic inequalities between rural and urban residents. By approaching this important issue from the feminist theory, one of the anthropological perspectives that most captures the complexity of this issue, we can look at how gender specifically affects the women in India and how perhaps this practice may one day be put to an end.
The feminist theory primarily asks: how does gender impact this issue or problem? The feminist theory seeks to determine whether or not individuals are being treated fairly and equally despite the gender they identify with, or rather if any inequalities exist specifically and primarily due to their gender. Often times, we see issues with sexuality and gender expressed in inequality in the workplace, or in battling the traditional house wife roles that modern day women have fought in tearing down and proving themselves in the workplace as equals. These are the issues we hear when we generally hear issues raised by people who identify as feminists. The Feminine Mystique describes this feminine battle as something that women are left feeling empty about, needing perhaps some other validation besides children and a husband coming home to meals and a clean house. This paper asks, “Just what was this problem that has no name?”, in recounting the great emptiness and lack of purpose housewives reported feeling despite the great happiness their families brought them in this life they had so long idealized (Freidan, 1963).
There are many different feminist focuses and main objectives within the all-inclusive “feminist perspective” umbrella. Many feminists with different perspectives find themselves at odds with one another, and find that other goals and ideologies work against what feminists are trying to accomplish or simply not looking at the right issues. One feminist perspective, the positionality theory, challenged the approach to gaining women’s equality of that of challenging the house wife mentality (Bratton, 1998). Instead, the positionality feminist perspective stresses that these roles that we attribute to housewives and more feminine values and duties should be more highly valued and validated in our societies. This theory focuses on the idea that perhaps we should not tear down these motherly roles and housewife lifestyles but idealize them and promote its positive characteristics. We should put forth our energy towards building women up, rather than tearing them down and shaming a specific role that women do hold in caring for children and other feminine qualities and freedoms (Alcoff, 1994). We can still promote the ongoing effort for women having equal political and workplace opportunities as men, while idealizing these other roles that women may choose to partake in and the lifestyle that they may choose.
While these exact issues are far off in the distance, so to speak, from the blatant and harsh inequalities Indian women face, the feminist perspective ultimately looks at how gender affects cultural issues, and we can use this theory in seeing where this cultural and social inequality stems from and perhaps how to prevent this suppression from occurring and reversing these negative attitudes towards women and young girls in India.
Culturally, the incredible hatred for India’s women is most prominently the root of this issue. While there are several determinants of health that also affect the selective abortion of female fetuses, the cultural influence upon this issue is of most precedence. Selective abortion of female fetuses is a cultural practice that has long been both observed and encouraged in the Indian culture. According to Pubali Ray Chaudhuri, in her article Being Female in India: A Hate Story, “For Indians, girls are a burden; the desire for male progeny is as natural to us as breathing” (Chaudhuri, 2013). Before conception, families and mothers pray so that they may only have a son instead of a daughter. Even throughout childhood, sons take complete precedent over their sisters. Their families take care of the boy’s needs first, whatever is left may go to the girl. It is often said that a daughter to an Indian family is the “paraya dahn” which means the treasure of another’s home. Here, treasure is not to be taken gracefully, or to be thought of as a loving, endearing term towards women. Rather, daughters are viewed as more of an object, something that must be traded once finally a husband is found for her so that he and his family may take the burden of the Indian daughter off your hands. What’s more, the bride’s family must pay to the groom’s a dowry for taking the burden of their daughter off their hands. These young women may only hope that they marry into a financially and spiritually sound family for their own financial future, and emotional and physical well-being and safety, or else face the communal shame in coming back home after failed marriage, as all blame for failed marriage is placed upon wives, not at all upon husbands.
This culturally as well as economically taxing process of raising a daughter also plays in to the social determinant of health being social and economic status. There is known to be a great and staggering divide between the health of rural and urban Indian individuals. The two measures of either high or low income and either urban or rural residence are generally synonymous because those who are wealthier reside in urban areas, and those who are of India’s poorest reside in urban areas. Those residing in urban areas are at an advantage in that they make more money from urban jobs, and are in closer proximity to resources such as better health centers, and therefor generally have far better health and far greater opportunities than individuals living in rural areas of India. We can clearly see the divide between these two groups of people by their health statistics compared, by ratio. The ratio of underweight children under 5 years of age is 1.4, rural to urban, the same ratio as diarrhoea treatment, with more urban residents being given access to treatment than rural. The ratio of deliveries accompanied by a skilled attendant is 1.7, and finally, the ratio of improved sanitization facilities is 2.5, urban to rural. When drawing from the richest 20% of the population, the statistics observed are most similar to individuals residing in urban areas, and when drawing from India’s poorest 20%, their statistics fall most in line with individuals residing in rural areas (Unicef, 2013).
These statistics are even more staggering considering that while 75% of “health infrastructure, medical man power and other health resources… concentrated in urban areas,” only 27% of India’s population resides in the urban areas to access these resources. This leaves 73%, the overwhelming majority of India’s population residing in rural areas with substantially lacking resources and access to health centers and correct health information, (Patil, 2002). Clearly lack of access to the majority of India’s population to certified health centers leaves a great number of women at risk for risky abortions, if so choosing to abort their female daughters. It is far too easy for women to seek out potentially harmful services for this procedure that allow for the under-representation of selective abortions we expect to be occurring.
As we have observed that women most likely to subject themselves and their unborn daughters to this procedure are those already with one or two daughters, perhaps we could focus on these particular women in informing them of the cultural impact of this situation and perhaps by providing them with greater opportunities through monetary aid in raising another daughter, or at least access to a proper health facility to oversee the procedure if she so chooses to go through with it, we could perhaps begin to see a decrease in this phenomenon (Jha, 2006). Maybe outright denial of the procedure isn’t the right first step, but providing health information and knowledge to these women of the impact of their actions on their gender could be most beneficial.
We have already seen that government action has done little in putting an end to this cultural and health phenomenon. Laws have been put in place to restrict this practice, however they have proved unsuccessful in the past. In the late 1800’s, as India’s first census was taken, the British government came to realize the extent of the female abortions. The found he ratio of women to men to be 940 to 1,000. Perhaps this doesn’t seem too extreme, but in gender ratios, the exact opposite ratio is generally observed. What’s even more staggering, in rural areas in India, such as in Sikh villages, the ratio between females and males were as low as “31 women to 100 men” As the ratio appeared to decline, it was thought that the issue had been solved by the British government offering payments to families who could perhaps not pay for another daughter and discouraging the selective abortion or female daughters; however, the 2001 census showed the lowest ratio yet of 927 women to 1,000 men (Santhya, 2004). The dark truth of the matter is that this observed even furthered decline in the ratio is thought to be attributed to the medical advancements made in prenatal sex determination. The most alarming and horrifying statistic I have come across so far: “…a study of centers in Bombay which revealed that out of 8000 abortions in six hospitals preceded by amniocentesis, 7,999 were female fetuses” (Patel, n.d.). Somehow, as medical advancements have only improved, the great and powerful hatred and rejection of females have only gotten more and more extreme.
What’s worse is that most of the abortions that do take place are largely unrepresented signaling that the true statistics are even higher than what we can observe. As we often see when the Western world tries to force its own ideals upon other countries and cultures different from its own, the problem is only exacerbated. More women continued to practice selective abortions of female fetuses, only more than before they chose not to seek out approved and advanced medical care to oversee the abortion but rather private procedures that remain unrecorded and likely unsafe for both unborn child and mother.
We can fully attribute the issue of female abortions to the lack of equal respect and valuing of women in India. An entirely patriarchal society, India’s castration of women as valuable members of society and individuals to be respected and praised has led to this horrible practice of aborting females not given a chance at life based on their gender alone. It’s truly incredibly horrifying to consider how humiliating and dehumanizing this outright hatred of your entire gender by your country would feel as a woman.
As the feminist approach helps us to understand where this practice came from, it can similarly and just as well help us to understand and think about how this problem may be solved or eliminated. This approach helps us to see that simply implementing policy changes outlawing these abortions or trying to screen for reasons behind abortions, (this would be difficult to implement and difficult to find a way to be able to depend on truthful answers), is not all that must be done to put an end to this practice. India’s government has made progressive and useful strides towards creating a downwards trend of the practice through. India’s government is working on deterring this phenomenon through beginning to enforce jail time on those who continue to abort female fetuses based on their gender alone; however, it is admitted that government action has been long and hard to come by (Sabu, 1997). After waiting centuries for even India’s citizens to admit to the wrongness that is this practice, it has taken even longer for the government to respond to the pleadings of these activists and progressive leaders on implementing any movement or actions for change. In fact, the outspoken activists have been long met with government outright denial of selective abortions, female infanticide, and the overall neglect of female children entirely. The government has long responded with silence, denial, and a great laziness in response or plans to make a change.
Clearly, a cultural change must be made first and foremost before we can expect much to be accomplished for women in India. Even if female infanticide or selective abortions were outlawed or reason to be incriminated, the overall neglect of and dissatisfaction of females and daughters still remains. This is likely to be a long and difficult battle that we face. The preference of sons over daughters is something so deeply rooted in Indian culture that it will likely be difficult for the country’s people to come to understand as wrong. It will take the dedication of activists, and the improvisation and increase in access to better health facilities for women and, lower income individuals. The resistance to this ideology has long been brooding and boiling, as women have been forming movements and rights groups since the mid 1900’s (Mehrotra, 2015). These groups have been fighting to put an end to dowries, hunger and famine, unequal employment and education, and for the right to own land. It is not that no one is fighting for the better treatment of women and girls in India, it is that more people must listen and come to understand the complexity of this issue. It is not something we can simply outlaw and expect to go away overnight- it is not that simple. More people must come to respect women as equals, as gifts to this earth just as much as men are. Families must begin to treat their own daughters, nieces, and granddaughters better, as precious gifts to their family just as sons, nephews, and grandsons are. We must make a change beginning in the family dynamic, within the home in treating females with the respect and dignity and equality that they deserve. We must treat this issue as important from both a cultural and health perspective. The feminist perspective can help us in moving towards the better treatment and health of women in India, and in so, hopefully one day ridding of the practice of selective abortions.
Sources for feminist perspective:
- Friedan, Betty; 1963 The Feminine Mystique. New York: Norton
- Alcoff, Linda; 1994 Culture/Power/History. Nicholas Dirks, Geoff Eley, and Sherry Ortner, eds. pp. 96-122. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- Bratton, A. (1998, May 1). FEMINIST ANTHROPOLOGY. Retrieved from http://www.indiana.edu/~wanthro/fem.htm
Sources for India and Selective Abortion Info:
- Chadhuri, P. (2013, January 7). Being Female in India: A Hate Story. Retrieved from http://msmagazine.com/blog/2013/01/07/being-female-in-india-a-hate-story/
- Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/india_statistics.html
- Patil, A., Somasundaram, K., & Goyal, R. (2002). Current health scenario in rural India. Australian Journal of Rural Health, 129-135.
- Jha, P. (2006). Low male-to-female sex ratio of children born in India: National survey of 1·1 million households. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0140673606679300
- Santhya, K. (2004). Induced Abortion: The Current Scenario in India. Retrieved from http://ww2.chsj.org/media/Resources/Maternal Health/Induced Abortion_The Current Scenario in India.pdf
- Patel, R. (n.d.). The Practice of Sex Selective Abortion in India: May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons. Retrieved from http://cgi.unc.edu/uploads/media_items/the-practice-of-sex-selective-abortion-in-india-may-you-be-the-mother-of-a-hundred-sons.original.pdf
- Sabu, G. (November 20, 1997) Female infanticide in Tamil Nadu, India: From recognition back to denial? Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0968808097900938?np=y
- Mehrotra, D. (2015, July 10). India Together: Veteran Voices: Detailing Indian Women’s Struggles: Deepti Priya Mehrotra. Retrieved from http://indiatogether.org/detailing-indian-women-s-struggles-women