Union Woman and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi suggested that child sex determination during pregnancy be made compulsory, the gender of the child registered right from that moment, and the birth be tracked. She said this at the All-India Regional Editors Conference in Jaipur on Monday, while responding to a question about people employing different means to detect the gender of an unborn child, in contravention of the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act.
After her statement generated a substantial debate, Maneka's office issued a statement clarifying her stand and said: "Some of the newspapers have reported that the Minister referred to a Cabinet proposal about tracking female foeticide and registering the sex of the foetus. This is factually incorrect. What was discussed by the Minister was that effective implementation of the PCPNDT Act is one of the ways to check falling child sex ratio."
Statement and clarification aside, the fact of the matter is Maneka Gandhi did say that female foeticide can be checked by making sex determination compulsory and tracking the mothers and which is where the problem lies.
India is among the countries with the worst child sex ratios in the world. The 2011 Census showed that the child sex ratio has dipped from 927 girls in 2001 to 919 girls in 2011. Child sex ratio shows the number of girls per 1,000 boys between the ages 0-6. The data proves that India has an abysmal record when it comes to reining in the cases of female foeticide. Latest Census numbers also cast a shadow on the adequacy of measures which are helping in educating people to not prefer sons over daughters. Reports said that with 919 girls per 1000 boys, child sex ration in India has reached its lowest levels since 1961. Hindus, who make up 80 percent of the population of the country, saw their child sex ratio come down from 925 to 913 between 2001-2011, in line with Muslims, Christians and Buddhists.
Now, let's revisit what Maneka suggests.
The Union minister said, "Hamari ek raai hai… we've even read in newspapers about a blood test which tells the gender immediately, so till when will we make criminals of people? Better still, we change the policy and make it compulsory to tell a pregnant woman if it is a boy or a girl, and get her registered. Then you will be able to monitor it, whether she is born or not."
The idea is brilliant and there's no denying that. Whenever a family tries to abort a girl child, the system cracks down on them. We will need a system which will diligently track and honestly monitor the mother and the child and not only till the delivery but a year from the birth of the baby. But is it too good to be true?
In a country as vast and as corrupt as ours, the suggestion, if practiced, will be counter-productive and riddled with holes. First of all, by making sex-determination compulsory, 'diagnostic centres' which perform these services will mushroom out of control. They will be legal and hence thrive better. And how will tracking the mother help at all?
Who will track the mothers and what their families are putting them through in a country over populated like India where patriarchal system is deep-rooted and sex-selective abortion is rampant.
"The concept is extremely catchy but you cannot find an easy solution for such a difficult and a deep-rooted problem," Varsha Deshpande, Satara-based social activist who is also national inspection committee member of Health and Family Welfare Ministry in the government of India, told Firstpost over the phone. Deshpande said that a person like Maneka who is extremely sensitive about issues relating to women needs to be more careful of the statements she makes. "There is a lobby of doctors and corporations who are using her to make their ends meet. This is not Beti Bachao, this is doctor/technician bachao. Maneka is committed to the cause, but how is it possible to track all these women and their children. That apart, if this rule really comes to effect, the government will be attacking abortion rights of women," Varsha added.
Social and women rights activists maintain that it is a much smarter idea to track the diagnostic centres, its doctors and technicians rather than the mother and the child. However well-intended Maneka's statement be, the minister's suggestion could overthrow what she intends to achieve. The police and the system will then go after the mother, who in this setup, has less or almost no say on whether to give birth to a girl child.
"There is already a system in place which is more or less working, it is at least picking up, but Maneka wants to uproot this system and replace it with a new one which is riddled with holes. Who will track the child? Who will track the mother? Who will track those million centres? Delivery happens in public hospitals, homes and even roads and fields — where all will the government go and track these deliveries?" asked author, women's rights activist and legal scholar Flavia Agnes.
"The statement is a sensational one and that's all the purpose is. She (Maneka) does not realise what she has said and I don't know how she is going to undo it. But it is an irrational statement," Agnes told Firstpost.
Mitu Khurana, a Delhi-based paediatrician, who is hoping to set a legal precedent after taking her husband and in-laws to court for 'conspiring to kill her twin daughters in the womb', said:
"This is an attempt to take away the responsibility from the doctors and shift the blame on the women. See if you cannot monitor a few thousand doctors, how do you plan to monitor millions of deliveries? Who is going to monitor that. This is just going to encourage female foeticide. How about the spontaneous abortion? Will you put the blame on women for spontaneous abortions? Everytime the abortion is not induced, it can happen by itself also. So how do you differentiate if the woman had gone for an abortion or it was a spontaneous abortion. It is against the basic women's right of abortion. Even the UN has said that abortion is a right of a woman. They are taking the onus from the doctors who are doing illegal gender determination and putting on the poor women. Also, if a family finds out it is a girl child, the expectant mother would be subjected to several forms of atrocities. If a woman, identified carrying a female child, is beaten up she will suffer a miscarriage."
Speaking to Firstpost, Mitu said that it seems like the idea of making sex-determination tests mandatory has been floated by the doctors who want to get rid of the PCPNDT Act. "Till 2008, no such ideas were floated. In the past two to three years the government has become a bit serious in implementation of the PCPNDT Act. Since then the doctors have been objecting to it. As far as my knowledge is concerned it has come from the doctors lobby as they want to escape the punishment." Mitu reiterated what Varsha Deshpande said, "It is like renaming Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao to Doctor Bachao Paise Kamao."
Even though Maneka's suggestion on paper sound ingenious at the first instance, the government needs to improve the existing system which is falling apart. Under the PCPNDT Act, trying to determine the unborn child's sex is a punishable crime, but people are still doing it and getting away with it. How will the new suggestion by the Union Minister make any difference? Instead, it will open a Pandora's box of new issues and a higher rate of sex-selective abortion.
And now, it's your turn. Tell us what you think:
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