The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Union Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi’s proposal to make sex-determination tests during pregnancy mandatory to save the girl child is a radical idea.
It tells us that the minister takes her job seriously and is actively engaged in out-of-the-box thinking. She is challenging cultural norms and is trying to work around those to achieve results.
But merely tweaking a law and trying to get a quick fix for a socio-economic problem rooted in patriarchal mores may not be enough in a country where sex-selective abortion, the worst form of gender discrimination, is rampant.
In absence of a holistic approach, the minister’s suggestion, if implemented, may become counter-productive and completely subvert her cause. Instead of addressing the issue, it could end up shifting the risk from the unborn child to the woman who is carrying her.
The minister rightly reckons that the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act that bans medics from revealing the sex of a foetus has miserably failed to curb female foeticide.
In many parts of India, and not necessarily in the economically backward states, instances of pre-natal sex-determinations remain high. Short of arresting the errant sonographers, the Act has achieved precious little.
“This PCPNDT Act is not under me, but with the health ministry. But till when will we keep arresting people? In this country, if a person goes to an ultrasound owner and asks the gender of his (unborn) kid, who will dare say no?”
“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. So it becomes a completely different way of looking at it. You will be able to solve this entire problem”, the minister said on Monday during a All India Regional Editors Conference in Jaipur.
That the Act has been a failure is also backed by statistics. India’s child-sex ratio is among the worst in the world. The 2011 Census showed that there are 914 girls to 1,000 boys.
So the minister’s contention isn’t wrong. But her idea to solve the issue is. By merely focusing on the law, we are barking up the wrong tree.
If a male-dominated society takes as axiomatic that sons are bread-earners and women are a liability, there will always be a way of working around any law.
As long as dowry demand exists; as long as the society believes only sons can perform last rites, lineage and inheritance runs through the male line, sons will look after parents in old age it will be impossible to remove the scourge of female infanticide.
If sex-selective abortion is not treated as the causal effect of a society grappling with related malaises such as dowry, poverty, women’s unemployment, sexual exploitation, early dropouts, lack of proper education, to name just a few, then no amount of changing of law is going to work.
That Maneka Gandhi is looking at the problem in isolation is clear from her statement that she wants the would-be mother and her unborn child to be registered, monitored and tracked till the baby is born.
It will be almost impossible to handle the logistics of registering every pregnancy and tracking every birth in a billion-strong nation. It could still be theoretically possible among the educated and informed class, but the suggestion omits from its ambit the vast number of women in rural areas who for various reasons adhere to the cultural norm that favours a male child.
The minister’s suggestions are also fraught with other loopholes.
For a family which doesn’t want a girl child, the focus will shift from the unborn girl child to the mother once the sex-determination takes place.
Even if there is registration and tracking, which involves taking a massive leap of faith, the mother may be subjected to various forms of physical and/or mental torture.
The suggestion may also lead to penalising women who fail to or don’t carry their pregnancies to the full term if she is carrying a female foetus.
The minister’s suggestion also doesn’t take into account a woman’s right to safe abortion. These instances will be thrown into ambiguity and the law may be subjected to frequent abuse.
Maneka Gandhi’s intention seems to be noble but her suggestion, if followed, may lead us quicker to hell.