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‘Families want a son at all costs’: Women forced to abort female fetuses in India | Women’s rights and gender equality

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Laali was home alone when she realized her legs were soaked in blood. The bleeding did not stop for eight hours. As she passed out, the 25-year-old thought she was going to die alongside the lost fetus.

She was three months pregnant when she was taken for prenatal sex determination. “When I found out it was a girl, I started to feel like I was suffocating,” she says.

An abortion pill was forced into her throat without a doctor’s supervision, and subsequent complications led to hospitalization. The night she was released, Laali fell asleep crying – and in the morning returned to her work in the fields.

Laali’s unborn daughter is one of 46 million “missing women” in India over a 50-year period, ten times the female population of London. Growing gender prejudices, the rise in sex-selective abortions and female infanticide, means India accounts for nearly half of the world’s missing female births.

“The traditional model of marriage and customs dictate an inferior position to women in Indian societies,” says Prem Chowdhry, gender activist and retired professor at Delhi University. Since girls leave their biological families after marriage, she says, a dowry and the cost of raising a girl are seen as an unwelcome obligation, and gender-selective abortions are common.

Prenatal sex determination was criminalized in 1994, but it is a widely flouted law. The practice has flourished with advances in medicine, spread to more regions, and is still easily accessible in private clinics.

Surrounded by vast fields of sugar cane, the village of Laali is 64 km from Delhi. Social health activists who run an unregistered support group for women here estimate that “one in three houses in the village” has had a fetus aborted because of sex.

“Families want a son at all costs. Any price! “Said Laali.” If I die, my husband will remarry tomorrow morning, hoping that the next woman will give birth to a son. “

Laali was 19 when her marriage was arranged with a farmer in 2009. Over the next three years, she gave birth to two daughters. During her second pregnancy, she was regularly drugged by traditional and religious healers in order to “make” a boy.

When her baby girl was born, no one from her family came to see them at the hospital. The return home was worse. “My mother-in-law refused to see my daughter’s face,” Laali said. “She refused to take care of me, saying, ‘You’re giving birth girl after girl. How far can I take care of you? ‘ “

Every evening, as she sat down to dinner after a day of work in the fields, someone would taunt. “When someone had a son in the village, it was a nightmare for me,” she recalls. “My family abused me in front of my daughters.”

The Indian government does not seem prepared to act. A recent government survey hailed the fact that there are more women than men for the first time. However, activists on the ground and experts are skeptical of the data. “The main objective of the survey was to examine data on reproductive health and family well-being indicators and not on the sex ratio of the population,” said Sabu George, Delhi-based researcher and activist. . “All the trends at the state level show a different picture. “

Dr. Prabhat Jha of the University of Toronto, who led the Indian Million Death Study, agrees: “The United Nations Population Division, the most careful demographic work, estimates that the number of “redundant men” is increasing in India.

‘Families want a son at all costs’: Women forced to abort female fetuses in India |  Women’s rights and gender equality

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A poster campaign in Delhi encouraging parents to embrace the birth of girls. Prenatal sex determination was criminalized in 1994, but the practice is still common. Photograph: RAVEENDRAN / AFP / Getty

The estimate by the Registrar General of India suggests a similar trend.

A 2021 Lancet research article, co-authored by Jha, claimed the situation had worsened, with missing female births increasing from 3.5 million in 1987-96 to 5.5 million in 2007-2016 .

The prejudice of the male child has crossed class and geographic divisions. In August, a 40-year-old woman from a wealthy, upper-class Mumbai family said she had been forced to abort eight times to satisfy the family’s desire for a son. She received over 1,500 injections of hormones and steroids before filing a complaint with the police. Last year in Karnataka, southern India, a 28-year-old woman died of complications from a third forced abortion.

Endless harassment prompted Laali to seek psychiatric help and she is currently on medication. Two abortions and surgery later, doctors advised her not to become pregnant again. “My uterus has weakened and my body cannot bear another child,” she said.

Family interference can cause tremendous stress for women. Bhavna Joshi, 39, from Chittorgarh, Rajasthan, has had eight pregnancies in her 11 years of marriage and finds her experience so painful to share that she only wants to share the basic facts: she was taken to a number “Countless” of traditional healers. , had three abortions and lost two infants while they were babies. It didn’t stop until she finally gave birth to a son, now five years old.

After two abortions, Laali also wants a boy. “I want this to end. They drug me and I can’t eat or drink for days, ”she said. “I just wanna get out of it, really.”

Over the past two decades, trends in gender-selective abortions have changed. Lancet research has found that as more families in India go nuclear, abortions are more common with the third pregnancy. “Families let nature decide twice, but then – for the third time – they make sure it’s a boy,” Jha said. “Violence against women is a cultural thing in India. The problem will get worse before it gets better.

After having two daughters, Meenakshi, 36, was taken by her in-laws for a prenatal sex test when she became pregnant for the third time. “The area was completely deserted and hidden,” she said, hiding in another house for the interview. “I was scared. It was not a normal clinic.

Meenakshi, currently seven months pregnant, was not directly informed of the outcome. “My husband and his mom looked happy so I figured it would be a boy,” she said. “Otherwise, they would have killed him [before the birth]. “

In India’s deeply patriarchal society, the full sexual and reproductive rights of women are still a distant dream. Women like Meenakshi fight to be accepted into the family. Meenakshi’s parents raised her to expect freedom after marriage. But everything is worse, she said sobbing.

For Laali, harassment is part of her daily life. By the age of 15, her mother had aborted two female fetuses and her younger sister aborted at least three.

“You are brought up in an environment where this violence against women is very acceptable and normalized,” says George. “The question is: how do you resist this on the ground? And it is scary.

Both Laali and Meenakshi were isolated in society, without any emotional support. Talking about their experiences, hidden in their bedrooms, makes them cry, and their daughters, all teenagers, console them with hugs. Laali and Meenakshi are desperate that they will not be able to protect their daughters from a similar trauma, but as of now, the girls are mostly unconscious.

Meenakshi’s eldest daughter jumps with joy when she sees a plane pass overhead. “She wants to be a pilot,” Meenakshi said, wiping away her tears. “When I cry, she says to me: ‘Mum, it will be better, and one day we will fly together, in a plane that I will pilot.'”

In the UK, call the National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247 or visit Women’s Aid. In the United States, the domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org

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