By Aarthi Chezian
Over 117 million girls are missing in the world today, lost to femicide, the murder of women simply because they are women.  These 117 million girls do not exist because of cultural systems that deem them as worthless or unnecessary burdens. Every minute, four baby girls are lost to sex-selective abortion and female infanticide —that’s 2.1 million girls who never had a chance to live just because they made the mistake of being female. Of these 117 million girls, 43 million are from India.  In India, the state of Tamil Nadu was a surprising addition to the list of areas where female infanticide drastically affected the sex ratio. Tamil Nadu, like most other South Indian states, is considered one of the better states in regard to women’s rights and social support. However, researchers found a 4% decline in the sex ratio over only two decades.  Why were girls in a relatively progressive part of the country disappearing?
It’s A Girl
A major motivation behind sex-selective abortion and female infanticide in Tamil Nadu is the cost of raising a daughter. Culturally, daughters come with a price tag that many families either cannot afford or would prefer not to waste on a child that was meant to leave and marry into another family. However, sons are culturally viewed as the inheritors of the family’s assets, the ones who take care of the family as the parents age, and continue the lineage. Historically, this created a culture that encouraged the devaluation of women. The pattern of skewed sex ratios began to show in the 1980s due to the neglect of female children through malnutrition, lower quality of care, and restricted access to healthcare. This grew into infanticide and, with the appearance of sex-determining technology, foeticide, over the next two decades. 
Soon after the Forum against Sex Determination and Sex Pre-selection (FASDSP) began in Mumbai, researchers discovered reports of female infanticide at levels that affected sex ratios at the taluk, or county, level in the rural districts of Madurai, Salem, and Dharmapuri in Tamil Nadu.  They found that the killing of newborn baby girls was concentrated in the low-caste Kallar communities and the high-caste Gounder communities. One community could not bear the cost of a female child and the other did not want the burden or expense of raising a daughter within upper caste restrictions. As the Tamil Nadu government began to notice these increasing trends of female infanticide; they created the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) (PNDT) Act of 1994, which became the PC (Pre-Conception)-PNDT (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act of 2003.  The legislation made sex-determination and subsequent abortion illegal and made both the physicians and the family liable. Unfortunately, it was not effective, and sex-determination tests are still performed just with more secrecy and at a higher price.
Tamil Nadu also instituted two programs to address the crisis: the Girl Child Protection Scheme and the Arasu Thotil, or Cradle Baby program, in 1992. The Girl Child Protection Scheme involved placing Rs 100 into a state fund for every baby girl enrolled into the program, and, as the child grows and attends school, more money would be added to the fund. At 21, if the girl remains unmarried, she would receive Rs 20,000.  In theory, this program sounds incredible. It relieves parents of the financial burden they fear, facilitates higher education for women, and discourages child marriage. However, the participation in the program came with restrictions: in order to qualify one must have no sons, be sterilized, and must fall below the poverty line.  Not the easiest criteria to fill, nor the most appealing incentives. It also failed to address the loss of female children from wealthier communities.
Arasu Thotil allows parents to leave unwanted children in empty cradles located in hospitals, welfare centers, and government offices. The children are then sent to orphanages where other families can adopt them. This program provided a home and a life to the newborn baby girls being left to die abandoned in the streets and in trashcans. Yet, data has shown that while there is an increase in female children being taken up by the program, the killings are continuing. In a way, the program has legitimized the abandonment of female children.  The problem with both programs is that neither attacks the root of the problem. The primary cause of female infanticide and foeticide in Tamil Nadu is the culture that perpetuates the devaluation of women. Government initiatives should be tackling how to redefine women’s value in Tamil society. If women are no longer viewed as burdens, they will be treated with the humanity they deserve.
- “Gender-biased Sex Selection.” United Nations Population Fund. UNFPA, 31 July 2015. 8-21 <http://www.unfpa.org/gender-biased-sex-selection>.
- Bare Branches, pp. 112-113, 157.
- Christophe Z. Guilmoto, Sex Imbalances at Birth: Current trends, consequences, and policy implications; UNFPA Asia and Pacific Regional Office, 2012, p. 47
- John, Mary. “Sex Ratios and Gender Biased Sex Selection: History, Debates, and Future Directions.” UN Women. <http://asiapacific.unfpa.org/sites/asiapacific/files/pub-pdf/Sex-Ratios-and-Gender-Biased-Sex-Selection.pdf>.
- Srinivasen, Sharada. (2012) Daughter De cit: Sex Selection in Tamil Nadu. New Delhi: Women Unlimited.
- Ball, Nita. “India’s Cradle Baby Scheme Hopes to End Female Infanticide.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 03 Dec. 2013. <http://www.reuters.com/article/us-india-cradlebabies-idUSBRE9B206P20131203>.
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