Gita Aravamudan’s book Disappearing Daughters: The Tragedy of Female Foeticide was recently published by Penguin Books. A scorchingly honest and compelling account of female foeticide in India, the book is an important and valuable study of the problem. Aravamudan has used investigative reporting to explore different aspects of female foeticide, its beginnings and its backlash, the ways it grows and how it can be stemmed. Disappearing Daughters combines interviews, case studies, analysis of statistics and history to present a comprehensive and very human face to this “holocaust”. The book also busts myths and suggests ways forward that that may save future generations of daughters, even if is too late for the present.
Born in 1947, Gita Aravamudan has been writing on gender issues for 27 years. Great strength of conviction lies under her unassuming surface and her voice takes on urgency as she talks about the fate of the girl child in India. She is deeply concerned—and with good reason.
When and how did you first think of writing a book on female foeticide?
Three years ago, I was in talks with Penguin about a book on female infanticide. I started looking at census figures and that was a major revelation. I realized that infanticide happened in pockets, among the poor and disempowered but foeticide happened among the rich, the powerful, the educated, those who were aware of family planning! I started delving and was shocked by what I found. There was a deep link between female foeticide and factors like wealth, education, success of family planning, and medical progress. All these factors actually worked against women; this shocking realization was the genesis of the book.
It must have been a very difficult book to write. What affected you the most during your research?
What bothered me the most was that women were forced to undergo abortion after abortion. In their heart of hearts, they didn’t want to abort their babies but social and filial pressures, the fear that they would be thrown out of home otherwise, made them do it. It had affected the health of so many women. Women were inflicting such injuries on themselves; they were ruining themselves—and nothing was in their hands.
You have talked about the link between education and female foeticide in your book. Can you elaborate on this?
I talked about a study, which clearly brings out an adverse link between education and the gender skew. The more educated a women is, the more likely she is to actively choose a boy if she decides to have one child. Educated housewives are also more likely to abort daughters, probably because they are very unhappy with their own situation. The only educated women likely to keep daughters are the very independent minded. Not those who are just financially independent but those strong enough to say ‘this is what I want’. Educated men, especially in the business class, also want to have sons to carry on their business.
Can you talk about some of the measures you have suggested for tackling the problem?
In states like Punjab and Haryana, there is a multi-pronged approach but as long as sex-selective abortion is big business, things are not going to change. I have suggested that we address doctors. There should be a lecture series on the subject in medical colleges. Doctors should be made aware that aborting female babies is a crime. We need to shock them into understanding what is happening. Also, the self esteem of the girl child needs to be increased at a very early age. Girls must be taught to value themselves and boys taught to value girls and women at the primary school level. The only hope lies with the future; present and past generations are not going to change.
What role do you think the media can and should play in ‘stemming this dike’?
Media can play a very proactive role. The more this problem is emphasized and exposed, the more people will be aware of it. It has to be a multi-pronged attack from the print media, television and cinema. Cinema has a very strong impact on society. If only cinema and television could address this issue and talk about the value of the girl child! What we need is a popular attack. Academics and intellectuals are aware of it and many papers have been written about it but all this has had no impact. The thrust has to come from somewhere else. It has to come in a language that people can understand.
What are you expecting the book to achieve?
I want the book to reach out to educated, young people in the midst of having families. I want them to understand the gravity of the situation. They are the most likely to abort girl children due to social pressures. If they set an example, the less educated will follow. The middle class is a trend-setter for society. I also want it to reach doctors, who don’t understand the gravity of the situation. They are playing with lives. Instead of helping to stabilize society, they are creating the skew. I don’t want the book to remain in a rarefied, academic atmosphere. I want it to be read, commented upon, understood.
There will be a panel discussion based on the book at Oxford Bookstore, Leela Galleria, tomorrow evening at 6.30 pm. Panelists include Gita Aravamudan, Jija Hari Singh (IPS), Donna Fernandes from Vimochana, gynaecologist Jaya Bhatt and eminent journalist Vaasanthi.
A version of this was published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine. Interestingly, they toned down my suggested headline “Gender and Organised Genocide” to “Targeting the Girl”.