Inconvenient Truths

“Invest Rs.500 now and save Rs.50, 000 later” are advertisements still seen in Indian cities for gender biased sex-selection and elimination. Writer, Patralekha Chatterjee catches up with Mitu Khurana who had made legal history by prosecuting her doctor husband for illegally making her go through a sex-determination test but her fight is far from over.


I have been writing about  gender biased sex selection and sex selective elimination for years. I filed my first report on the subject in 1988. It was about a notorious doctor couple in Amritsar who openly ran an anti-natal sex determination clinic.  “Invest Rs.500 now and save Rs.50, 000 later”, they advertised. The blatant message that  elimination of a female  foetus could save parents the expenditure on dowry earned them huge notoriety, also customers. The doctors viewed their work as ‘social service.’


“We are saving the mothers and the unwanted daughters,” the wife told me without the slightest trace of remorse. I remember my visit to their clinic. It was a week-day evening. A row of young women were waiting patiently outside their chamber. Many were newly married. All looked tense, distraught. I remember one woman in an advanced stage of pregnancy. She was all too aware of the risks of an abortion in her state but the fear of what would happen to her if she gave birth to a baby girl came through as she whispered.


That distressing image has stayed with me.


Over the years, I have filed more reports — interviews with intrepid activists fighting to get culprits punished, with doctors who were willing to critique their own community and so on.


India has changed. But the deep-seated cultural preference for sons remains as strong as ever. Earlier it was seen as an obsession confined to some parts of the country – the north and the west. Today, the diabolic coming together of prejudice and misuse of technology has spread the problem across the country.


Sex selective elimination of a foetus is easy.


The data is all too well-known. The child sex ratio, which shows the number of girls per 1000 boys between the ages 0-6, plummeted to 918 for India in 2011 from 927 in 2001, according to the latest Census data.


Arguably, forty nine  of the 100 districts of the country where the Narendra Modi government’s ambitious ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’ campaign to save and empower the girl child was launched have recorded some improvement in the   sex-ratio at birth as Union Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka  Gandhi told us earlier this year.


The big picture, however, remains alarming as Dr.Sabu George, one of leading advocates against sex selection  and member of the National Inspection and Monitoring Committee of the PCPNDT Act never tires of telling us. He is very worried because he says that while there has been this delusion of things getting better in the last few years, the reality is something else. Populous states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar which could really make a difference are not showing any improvement.


Why is this so? The key issue is lack of commitment. Why has the law banning prenatal sex determination  not been effective in most parts of the country?


Mitu Khurana’s story tells you why so few women seek justice under the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act, 1994, enacted to stop gender biased sex selection and arrest the declining child sex ratio in India.


Mitu is a professional woman, a medical doctor. She married another doctor. Both are educated, upper middle-class. But none of that helped.


Mitu made legal history by being the first Indian woman to actually prosecute her husband for illegally making her go through a sex-determination test and pressuring her to   go for sex selective elimination when it was discovered that she was carrying twins, baby girls. Unlike the vast majority of women in this country, Mitu  fought back. She left her husband, alleging abuse both from him and his family, and with the support of her parents launched her legal challenge. Despite the intense pressure on her by her husband and in-laws, she resisted having a sex selective elimination . Today, eight years after she moved the court, this 39–year-old mother of two lovely eleven-year-old girls, continues to wage her legal battle.


Why have not we had more Mitu Khuranas despite all the high-decibel talk about Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao ?


I tracked her down last month to listen to her story. We met at her lawyer’s chamber in a South Delhi neighborhood. Khurana was hugely apologetic for being a few minutes late.  One of her daughters was sick. She got held up in Delhi’s tortuous traffic. She showed  me photographs of her daughters. They would not have been alive had their mother not been the fighter she is.


As she spoke, I could feel the two distinct strands of her story – the legal one and the emotional one. Mitu is fighting separate cases in separate courts against her husband (the divorce is still not through) and radiologists who carried out  sex determination test on her without her knowledge in collusion with her husband.


The basic details of Mitu’s case have been well-documented in numerous articles. But I was curious about one particularly troubling angle. What explains the reluctance of educated Indian women who have faced the kind of pressures that Khurana has from moving court?


Mitu’s testimonies underline an inconvenient truth.  Education did not protect Mitu and education did not inoculate her husband against prejudice.


According  to an India Spend analysis of Census data, young graduate mothers gave birth to 899 girls per 1,000 boys, lower than the national average of 943.


Higher education levels have helped in better family planning, but they do not eliminate the preference for boys, the analysis shows.


“The educated are the worst. They have the money. They know how to access the latest technology for sex-selective  elimination. They also know how to circumvent the law. They have social contacts, they know doctors who are happy to oblige. What works in their favour is the appaling lack of convictions. The guilty know they will get away. The doctors who do this are also encouraged by the increasing amounts of money they make. So the rising levels of literacy and education have not been deterrents,” says Mitu.


Despite all the loud talk, few women actually know where to go to register a complaint if they are being pressured to undergo a sex determination test or  eliminate a foetus after sex selection, she adds.


Take her own case.


“I first went to the police… I was completely mistaken. Under the PCPNDT Act, the Appropriate Authority to receive a complaint is the chief medical officer of a district, not the police. Little is done to actually publicize this basic fact. The police did not even advise me. I wasted a lot of time. When I finally got to the chief medical officer in 2008 to file  a complaint, the officer  told me to go back to my husband and give him a son. Imagine!  But I was not going to be beaten so easily. I still filed a complaint,” she says.


That did not lead to any action. “Finally, I had to go to court.”


“When a woman decides to come out and fight,” she says, “society takes a position against her. Many times, even her parents don’t back her. Luckily I did not have that problem. I left my husband when I was 20 weeks pregnant. Many other women go through the same experiences but they don’t want to talk about it. They are afraid and have no support.”


I keep in touch with Mitu. Last fortnight, when I spoke to her again, she was fearful about what lay ahead in her difficult journey. She was most afraid of her daughters being snatched away from her. But the fighting spirit remains.


Mitu says if India’s child sex ratio continues to be so pitiful it is because there is a complete lack of political will to implement the Act. “I have been fighting this case for eight years. You need physical and financial resources to keep up the fight.”


Mitu doesn’t agree with those who say the PCPNDT Act is useless. “Implement the Act in letter and spirit, let there be a few good convictions, spread awareness. A woman should know where to go if she wants redress under the PCPNDT Act. Police have to be sensitized to guide those who come to the police station first,” says Mitu.


For years, policy makers and activists have worked on the premise that improving women’s education was the way to combat  gender biased sex selection in the long run. Since that is not working, we have to ask why. The answer lies in the kind if education we have in our schools and colleges. Proficiency in memorizing text books does not lead to broadening of the mind. For that, our young people have to be taught how to question everything, especially prevailing social practices that are clearly evil. It’s going to be difficult and will take time, but a start has to be made without any further delay.


 Photo courtesy- SHRADDHA JAISWAL for Girlscount


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