Tuesday, February 08, 2005

The 'Y' of a second-class foetus

Last month, there was a bit of a hue and cry (not enough, I'd say) about the falling sex ratio in some parts of India - incidentally, some of the more prosperous parts, like Punjab, Gujarat and even Bombay.

We don't like the fact that we have only 927 little girls for every 1000 baby boys. According to Dilip D'souza, its been as bad as the genocide in Rwanda; we, as a nation, have done away with the inconvenience of about 1 million baby girls - either in the womb, or as soon as they were born.

I am reminded of the movie, Matrubhoomi - a nation without women. One of the most fantastic movies to have come out of the subcontinent in recent years (not just because of its subject, but also the dark humour and the outspoken empathy of director-writer Manish Jha), the film takes off on an assumption that the men of this country will, someday, be scrambling and killing for brides.

It also brought home a very horrifying truth - that a limited supply will not necessarily lead to women being treated as precious creatures, being given extra care. It is more likely that they will simply be bought and sold like grain in the black market. They will be stolen and abused, with that much more viciousness, for the rarity of the experience.

All the same, after our ranting and breast-beating about 'missing girls' and skewed ratios, we (the media and/or concerned citizens) have shrugged and sighed and let go of the issue. The hue and cry has subsided into a sulky silence.

There has been some government intervention by way of a crackdown on pre-natal and ante-natal clinics - they're asking for birth records; a wildly skewed ratio there will be taken as a sign of guilt, it seems. They're also releasing spot ads on radio and plastering posters on walls in villages.

But as far as I can see, we still aren't thinking of solutions. We aren't thinking 'why', and we aren't digging up the problem from the roots.

Don't you ever wonder 'why'?
Is it dowry? Is it that girls can't light funeral pyres? Is it just deep-seated prejudice against the female of the species?

I don't think so.

Mommy always told me that girls have only themselves to blame for the 'male child preference', especially in educated, middle-class families.

It is the male child who shoulders the burden of finances. And everything in this world ultimately boils down to economics, doesn't it?

The boy brings home the bread. The boy brings home a bride, who will provide other services, which need not be paid for. The boy takes care of the old. His bride will serve the old and the very young.

The girl, on the other hand, is a drain on resoures.
She eats, plays, takes an education, takes a dowry, and finally, leaves the family-of-origin forever: never to shoulder any major responsibilities in her parental home.

A girl, in most middle-class families in India, is not an investment.

Other people have told me things like 'even a dog stays loyal to the hand that feeds it, as long as it lives.... a girl-child; she is not yours to begin with...'

So, if you can afford to, you had better have a girl, and dispatch her to her 'real' home as quickly as possible, with minimum damages (little expenditure on her education and a one-time dowry send-off, as opposed to an equal share in family property) .
If you can't afford it, well.... well then, you'd better not have any girls.

Mommy says that as long as we have girls who 'take, take, take'; girls who get married and don't look back; girls who don't fight for an education, milking it for every paisa it is worth; girls who do not plough back a part of their earnings to ensure their parents' security and well-being in their old age - we're going to remain second-class foetuses.

Of course, there are related issues as well. Issues like security and the bizarre concept of 'honour' and virginity.

Nobody wants a creature that must be guarded all the time. Nobody can afford it!

Imagine the amount of time our fathers and brothers waste, trying to keep tabs on the comings and goings of young girls, keeping track of suitors who might be unsuitable... The kind of suitors who would take the girl's virginity (leaving them with lesser to bargain against, in the marriage market) and yet, do not her off their hands.

But, like I said before, it is all about money.

When women earn enough to support themselves and their families, if need be, they are no longer a liability. They need not be taken off anyone's hands.
Their virginal status need not be bargained against, or for.
They need not marry at all, unless they absolutely choose to. And oh! Then, they could actually choose. They needn't settle for a 'settled' boy.
For all we know, the parents would actually fight to KEEP their girls!

There are tribes where this happens, even today. Warrior-like, men have to foricbly carry away the women they want to live with. In other tribes, they've got to pay compensation by way of property, cattle, money or all three, when they do manage to get a willing girl.

We have a history of wanting to keep our girls.
Our myths and legends are full of tales where women have the power to choose their mates (at Swayamvars, or during village/tribal festivals), and where women have to be carried away by force (which is not such a bad thing, I think, because that also implies that nobody's begging a man to take away the burden of a girl-child).

In cultures where these traditions remain alive, women play important economic roles.
Actually, women play important economic roles in all societies and cultures. It is only a very tiny segment - the educated, upper classes - that first allows, and then coerces, a girl to be economically dependent.

For, ultimately, it all boils down to money.

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