Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Monday, Nov 14, 2005
Industry & Economy - Events
Turning to faith to find the missing daughters
At the initiative of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's The Art of Living Foundation and the UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) a one day conference, `India's Missing Daughters: Faith for Action Against Sex Selection,' was organised on November 8 in New Delhi.
Religious and spiritual leaders came together to focus attention on the alarming fall in the sex ratio vis-à-vis the heinous crime of female foeticide and infanticide. In the sea of saffron that surrounded the white-clad figure of Sri Ravi Shankar, there were Hindu, Jain, Sikh and a couple of Muslim religious leaders.
The endeavour was to get their support and patronage in ending the practice of killing female children, either in the womb or soon after birth.
Concern and anguish were expressed by various speakers on the alarming fall in the sex ratio.
In the age group 0-6 years, this ratio has declined sharply, from 976 girls to 1000 boys in the 1961 Census to 927 girls in the 2001 edition. In Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and Gujarat, there are less than 900 girls to 1000 boys. The missing girls are clearly linked to their killing through sex selection.
A powerful photo essay by Ruhani Sen highlighted the plight of women in different parts of Punjab, who were under constant pressure to bear sons. Local gurus made a pretty packet by selling all kinds of concoctions that they claimed would guarantee a male child, and quite often the result was a deformed baby.
Doctors too joined the race claiming to specialise in getting couples conceive male babies! The falling sex ratio often necessitated the purchase of a bride from the North-Eastern states and once such a woman had borne a son, she was virtually a prisoner, and not even allowed to visit her home State.
Making an emotional pitch, Mr Subash Mandhapurkar of Sutra, an NGO working in Himachal Pradesh, said that last year he had met a woman in Haryana "who had been bought from Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra and was dying to speak in her own language; I talked to her for two minutes in Marathi and she was thrilled."
There are many women in Haryana and Punjab villages who have been purchased from the Eastern States because there is a dearth of women. "What kind of life do they lead, what is their psychological state and their future? Women are being bought and sold just as in medieval times."
He added that if this state of affairs continued, a time would come when "because I am poor or disabled, I'll not have the right to have my own family because the rich will be buying our women!" He added that at a recent meeting, an MP from Gujarat had related the story of a woman who was repeatedly sold every three years. "After she had borne a male child, she was taken back and sold to a new man. Is this not a gross violation of human rights?" asked Mr Mandhapurkar, wondering if the price of women would go up as that of onions when there is shortage. He added that the falling sex ratio would destroy the social fabric and so should not be looked only as a woman's issue but a pressing national issue.
Sri Ravi Shankar said the dowry evil was one of the root causes for killing of the girl child; "we have to tackle this problem on two counts one, tell people the merits of a girl child and insist on education and granting of equal rights to women." Urging the religious heads to take up this cause he said, "Even today when a religious person says something, people listen; they listen to doctors but more to religious and spiritual leaders. So we have to use the good office of all the saints for this cause."
On the rampant discrimination against the girl child, he said that at a school his Foundation had recently opened in Agra "we found a man who sends two of his sons to a private school, paying a monthly fee of Rs 250 for each. But he sends his daughter to our school because it is free."
He also urged the government to provide incentives for the girl child, and added the Foundation had planned padayatras all over the country to focus on this problem.
What was impressive about the meet was the co-opting of senior religious leaders such as Swami Chidanand Saraswati, head of Rishikesh's well-known ashram Parmarth Niketan; a senior leader from Ajmer Sharif; the Ramakrishna Mission and several other maths and ashrams.
But while all the leaders mouthed platitudes on how Indian tradition had always respected a woman, their own limited thinking was often reflected when they talked about a woman being great "because she is the bearer of sons", or "without her a man cannot be born". One would have been more comfortable to hear the hailing of a woman's greatness because she gives birth to life, of both boys and girls.
Also disturbing were cliches such as "only a woman has the power to convert a home into a heaven," because it was the same old story of putting a woman on a pedestal rather than treating her as an equal.
It was also amusing to find some of the leaders suggesting that just as Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan had been brought in to spread the polio drops message, film-stars should be involved in the campaign against sex selection.
Film-star and Rajya Sabha MP Hema Malini, who was present, and had come appropriately dressed in a bright red sari with a huge `Om' symbol embroidered across the front, volunteered to coax her fraternity from Bollywood and not Parliament to take up this cause.
As expected, there were some fireworks too at the conference. A representative of Sehat NGO was worried that throughout the conference the religious leaders had condemned abortion because it. meant the destruction of life
"When you spread this message, it can be a double-edged-sword. When you talk against female foeticide, will you tell people that you should not do abortion because it is jeev hatya?
"Because if you describe all abortion as murder and a crime, then such a religious stance will be misfire, because abortion is a woman's right and she should have access to legal and safe abortion when she wants it."
To this Swami Chidanand responded: "We are clear that abortion is a crime." When she said that abortion in India was legal, he said, "It may be legal and laws have their own importance.
But then there are a lot of laws against crime that are not observed." He viewed abortion more as an issue of morality than legality.
Mr Sabu George, who has been an activist against female foeticide and infanticide for nearly 20 years, did not mince his words and also had the last one when he said that though involving religious leaders in this fight was laudable, "on the issue of abortion being a woman's right there cannot be any negotiation or compromise.
"I don't think we should campaign with those religious leaders who cannot come together on certain common concerns of the missing girls without brining in abortion."
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