Female Infanticide

Another paper I wrote for a class, this time, about eight months ago.  The majority of it was written in an airport in California because I procrastinate.  A lot.


Young women in India seem to be disappearing.  There isn’t a date that can be pointed at to show when it started, but it is clear that the sex ratio in India is not what it should be.  For example, in Dehli there are only 821 women for every 1,000 men (Spinelli 17).  This is startling when compared with the 1,029 women per 1,000 men found in the US (Spinelli 17).  According to the Azad India Foundation, over 5 million girls have “disappeared” from India over a period of 15 years (Gray 4).  In nature there are generally more males born than females, but the ratios found in India are well beyond what one would find naturally (“The war on baby girls”).  Given these statistics, one could only assume that the dwindling of the female population in India can only be cause by unnatural events.

Infanticide is the intentional killing of infants (“Female Infanticide”). When a specific gender is targeted, these acts can be referred to as gender-selective killing, gendercide, or (when females are targeted) femicide (“Female Infanticide”).  The latter terms are more broad, however, and do not specify age.  Therefore, the widespread killing of female infants, and the reason for such distorted sex ratios in India, is generally referred to as female infanticide.

It’s difficult to determine who is really at fault in cases of infanticide in which a person’s entire culture accepts and facilitates the killing of infants – specifically girl infants – as completely normal (Spinelli 19).  In a manner of speaking, these people could be considered victims of their own upbringing, having been taught from a young age that girls aren’t as valuable as boys and that’s simply that way things are (Gray 5).  There isn’t a specific group of people that consistently engage in or abstain from committing infanticide (“The war on baby girls”).  Some would argue that the leading cause of female infanticide is poverty (Gray 4).  It could also be argued that it isn’t necessarily poverty, but the fact that having a girl forces her parents to part with a significant portion of any wealth they may have attained in the form of a dowry.  Generally speaking, no matter how wealth one becomes, one does not want to part with what defines his or her wealth.

In Western culture, parents would never dream of killing their own child and, for some, abortion bears the same weight.  One might find it difficult to understand why a parent would willingly murder a child for the sole reason that she just happened to be a girl.  In basic terms, the reason for such high prevalence of female infanticide in India is the simple fact that girls are undesirable (Spinelli 17.)  As a human rights issue, the complexity of female infanticide lies not in how it is done or what can be done about it, but rather in the way the conditions in a culture form so as to make it an acceptable practice.

Modern female infanticide is the product of an ancient preference or boys and an increasing preference for smaller families – a preference imported to India from the West (“The war on baby girls”).  Boys are preferred for financial reasons: because they bring money into the family in the form of their brides’ dowries (Vargas).  Even though dowries have been made illegal, it persists as a part of Indian tradition (Gray 5).  A dowry, which is paid to the groom’s family by the bride’s family, may typically cost around US$35,000, which is ten times the typical yearly income for an Indian family (Gray 5).  This, coupled with the fact that families (especially of the lower class) will not readily go into debt for their daughts to marry clearly shows a significant aspect of why boys are preferred (Gray 5).

As was mentioned above, one of the forces at work is the growing desire to have smaller families and fewer mouths to feed.  This is seen as a contributing factor in gendercide because, in societies where having many children was common, eventually at least one or two boys would come along (“The war on baby girls”).  With parents less willing to have six or eight children, they have fewer chances to have boys, so they eliminate the daughters to keep their numbers low but still have boys (“The war on baby girls”).  Similarly, in China parents are forced to limit the number of children they have with apparent consequences to the sex ratio.  With a similar preference for boys, the number of Chinese girls being born also appears to be shrinking.

Along with dowries, the Indian government has also made it illegal to use as ultrasound machine to determine the sex of a fetus (Vargas).  Also, just like a dowry laws, sex-determination test laws are ignored and clinics operate in the open where a woman can go to find out the sex of her unborn child (Vargas).  The sex-determination tests are ususally done by those who would seek an abortion upon discovering their child will be a girl, which is the very reason they were made illegal.  The tests were made illegal in the hope of making the sex ration more balanced, but only served to increase the incidences of infanticide and abuse as unwated girls were born into families that could not afford them (Mohanty).

Not all parents so willingly kill or abort their girls.  When she was six weeks pregnant, pediatrician Mitu Khurana and her husband (who is also a doctor) were told they was having twins and then the pressures began coming from her husband’s family to have an ultrasound to determine the genders.  When she refused, her husband’s family gave her a cake baked with eggs, knowing she was allergic.  After she was rushed to the hospital, they convinced doctors to do an ultrasound against Mitu’s wishes.  The family found out that she was carrying two girls and told Mitu that she should have an abortion or have one of them kiled because the family could not afford to have two daughters.  In an attempt to get her to miscarry, Mitu says her husband and his family tortured and starved her until she finally left for her parents’ house and gave birth to her two daughters (Vargas).

However, Mitu’s story doesn’t end with the happy birth of her twins.  Mitu’s mother-in-law tried to kill one of her daughters when she was four months old by throwing her down a staircase.  Her husband wants a divorce because she didn’t give him a son.  In Mitu’s own words, “He hates me” (Vargas).

With both Mitu and her husband being in the medical field, one can assume that they aren’t impoverished – which illustrates that the desire to have sons rather than girls isn’t just limited to the poor and uneducated (Vargas).  One would also wonder why, if Mitu’s husband is a doctor, he blames her for not giving him a son when it is the male contribution that determines a child’s gender.

As was already pointed out, the Indian government has attempted to take steps to prevent further imbalance to the sex ratio, but it hasn’t been enough.  A newer strategy is the idea of baby hatches, or baby boxes.  Baby boxes are a crib or a small room where a parent can leave their unwanted children.  The parent is not persecuted and the child is not killed or left to die.  Baby boxes have existed in various forms in Europe and sometimes also called a foundling wheel.  These babies are not orphans because they’re parents are still alive – they are called foundlings because they were found.  In the city of Tamil Nadu alone, 2,400 baby girls have been safely placed and found in baby boxes, as well as 390 boys.  These children will be in the government’s custody and, if possible, adopted (Mohanty).

Baby boxes seem to be a step in the right direction; however, there are critics that are against baby boxes.  One of the arguments is that these boxes or hatches will encourage parents to continue having children and abandoning them, which could cause rapid population growth (Mohanty).  Others critics argue that baby hatches infringe the child’s right to know its identity (that is, to know who their parents are) as set forth in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (Mohanty).  At that point, the right to know one’s identity has to be balanced against one’s right to not be killed.

There is a surprising amount of resistance to India’s implementation of baby hatches.  The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child is advocating to completely ban the use of baby hatches on the premise that they only encourage parents to give away their children.  Maria Herzog, a member of the committee “argued that the boxes are a bad message for society, and that children may be abandoned by males relatives or pimps, against the mother’s wishes” (Jones).

Segments of the international community do, in fact, show solidarity with India’s use o the baby boxes and many countries have them or similar legal mechanisms.  Roughly a dozen European countries and Russia have baby boxes in some form. The US has safe havens where parents can hand their children over to the government without being prosecuted.  Two dozen politicians from the Czech Republic even signed a letter defending the use of baby boxes by saying “the primary aim of baby hatches is to protect their right to life and protect human rights” (Jones).

Even with baby hatches in place, it doesn’t address the problem of discrimination against women and girls.  In India, women’s organizations demonstrate against sex determination tests and gendercide, but the cultural structures that encourage it still persist (Spinelli 17).  If taking in the unwanted girls isn’t enough and the preference for boys lies so deep within the culture, it begs the question: What is there to do about it?

South Korea has been in a situation like India and China in the not-so-distant past.  In the 1990s, South Korea’s ratio of girls to boys was almost as dismal as what is seen today in China, but today, they are heading toward a more balanced ratio.  More importantly, it wasn’t exactly deliberate.  The culture and the way women were viewed changed.  Women became more educated, discrimination cases were brought to court, and equal rights laws were enacted.  All of these things led to a sort of empowerment of women, making the preference for sons fall out of style, so to speak.  It’s difficult to say with certainty if the change that happened in South Korea happened from the top down or from the bottom up, but this case should give some insight as to what may need to happen in India if female infanticide is to be stopped (Mohanty).

There are a few specific things that could be done to help the situation in India, the central issue being education.  If girls are more educated, their status will be raised from a financial burden to a monetary contributor to their family.  The idea that a girl can contribute to the wealth of the family may be enough on its own to keep her alive and valued.  Another major issue that needs to be addressed in India is the reluctance of law enforcement agencies to actually enforce the law – meaning enforcing the illegality of dowries and ultrasound clinics and investigating reports of sex-selective abortion or infanticide (Gray 13).  One of the more obscure reasons boys are preferred is that, since traditionally they remain with their parents and bring their wife into the house, the parents don’t have to worry about being alone in old age if they have sons instead of daughters.  Therefore, it is suggested that India implement a program similar to the American Social Security system as a way to provide for the elderly without requiring a boy child for that same sense of security (Gray 14).

In many human rights issues, the victims have some sort of way to be heard – they have a means of communication with people that can help them, are able to organize a group, or have friends and family that can speak on their behalf.  The girls in India don’t have this option.  Leaving aside the issue of abortion, the girls that are killed after their birth for simply being girls are usually killed by those individuals that are generally supposed to protect them.  They can’t speak out for themselves and have no one to speak for them.  If the people of India are to end the killing of young girls, change in the government structure is necessary, but not sufficient – the view of the woman as a second-class citizen needs to be challenged.  No amount of education or wealth alone is sufficient, either.  To quote Mitu, “The more educated and sophisticated we’ve become, the more educated and sophisticated our ways of getting the girl eliminated becomes” (Vargas).

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