Fighting for the never born
March 23, 2006 | More from Adrienne Arsenault
Adrienne Arseneault is CBC-TV's Middle East bureau chief. Based in Jerusalem since 2003, she has covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and regional politics, and has travelled extensively to report the news. Before her current posting, she was the Washington correspondent.
Adrienne joined CBC in 1991 as an editorial assistant and has worked in various newsrooms and postings, and on a variety of assignments. She was named the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association's journalist of the year for 2005. She was also nominated for two Gemini Awards and has won awards from the American Society of Professional Journalists, the radio and television news directors association, and the New York and Columbus festivals.
The young girl is shrieking now. "Why did you kill me? Why didn't you give me a chance to prove that I could be as strong as a boy, as good as a boy?"
Adrienne Arsenault on the missing girls of India (Real Video)
Dressed in a costume bought with the few rupees she had, this young actor plays the ghost of a daughter never born; a fetus aborted simply because it was female. She stands over two friends who play the mother and father. They hang their heads in shame as the "ghost" threatens to haunt them forever.
These teenaged actors perform their morality play in a rural Indian village nearly 500 kilometres south of Delhi and seemingly centuries back in time.
Strutting about on a dried mud platform, they are surrounded by about 100 local villagers, squatting in the dirt and watching it all unfold with some bemusement.
Peforming the morality play in a rural village.
These men and women know the play is really a lecture, a scolding. And they've heard the message before. The campaigns to end the aborting of female fetuses have already been to this village, to thousands of villages, but little seems to change.
Girls are still sometimes seen as a burden here. Boys are a gift. They're more financially viable and sometimes more important, according to the Hindu religion.
Girls mean dowries. And in these poor villages it's crushingly expensive for parents to pay the groom's family when their daughter is married off. So, the burden is eliminated, hundreds of thousands of times over. It's just easier that way. Technology makes it so.
Many doctors willingly take bribes then illegally use ultrasounds to determine the sex of the fetus. If it's a girl, they help arrange for an abortion. While abortions are legal in India, prenatal sex selection isn't. Most ultrasound clinics have hand painted signs posted outside warning that it's illegal to disclose the sex of a fetus.
A storefront ultrasound clinic.
Both the signs and the law are largely ignored. Most patients get their answer and few doctors are ever held accountable. The sneakiest of physicians use coded messages to pass on the information – candies if it's to be a boy, stony silence if it's a girl.
But often, we're told, doctors are happy to blurt out the information for a price. In fact, say activists, these dodgy dealings account for a booming, $100-million industry in India.
And the cheaper, and more mobile, the ultrasound machines become, the more ghosts of unborn girls haunt these villages.
There are millions of them, according to a Canadian researcher who recently tried to crunch the numbers for a study published in the British medical journal The Lancet.
Using Indian census data and working with a large India-based research team, Prabhat Jha, director of the Centre for Global Health Research at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, says he discovered as many as 10 million female fetuses may have been aborted in India since 1976.
Ten million missing girls.
It's the sort of figure that makes many in India squirm. The Indian Medical Association says the study has to be wrong and the numbers inflated. But bickering over the study's methodology is seen by many as an excuse not to confront the reality of the missing girls.
And the numbers go further. According to the study, based on 133,738 births, an estimated 13.6 to 13.8 million girls should have been born in 1997 in India. However, just 13.1 million were found.
In 2001, there were 927 girls per 1,000 boys. Ten years before that, there were 945 girls per 1,000 boys. Further, in some regions, there are only 800 girls for every thousand boys.
The imbalance sometimes has deadly dangerous consequences.
Dr. Sabu George, one of India's leading activists trying to stop the aborting of female fetuses, shakes his head when asked what risks there are to having fewer girls. He's frustrated that the answer isn't blatantly clear by now.
"Trafficking will increase, kidnapping will happen. So the immediate future looks dismal," he says. "You see, the drop in sex ratios are the early warning signals."
What really frightens him is what happens to women who do survive the pre-birth selection.
"Already polyandry has re-emerged in certain parts of the Punjab," George says. "Brothers will marry one wife. Think of the fate for the poor woman when she has to serve three or four husbands."
It would be easy to presume that this is a problem exclusive to India's
rural, uneducated poor. Not so.
Jha's study for The Lancet, and a number of other investigations, point in a different direction. It appears that the sex ratio rates are dropping the fastest in places of prosperity.
As Jha puts it: "The educated and elite show a greater deficit in missing females."
He and others say this is all about access to the technology and the means to choose what sort of family you want. If you can afford to buy a refrigerator and a car, many argue, then you can afford to ensure you have a boy.
So, how to turn this around? George looks exhausted by the question.
Government incentives and laws are important, he maintains, but the culture of corruption among doctors and the general indifference within the public can be hard to combat.
"The rest of the world needs to see this as a genocide, needs to see this as a flagrant violation of human rights," he says.
George is a passionate and worried man. His solutions are to keep hammering home the message, keep doing even the most simple things, keep performing those morality plays to even the tiniest crowds, wherever possible. Still, he's pessimistic.
"We are heading towards a million girls being eliminated every year, within the next five years."
Back in the village, the end of the play comes with a request. The young
actors ask the men in the crowd to promise they'll never make their wives abort female fetuses. There is an immediate and strong show of hands.
Some men laugh and wander away, but most stay put and applaud.
One in particular strides up to the actors and our crew with his three-year-old daughter in his arms. He is beaming.
"I love her," he tells us. "I'm proud to have a daughter."
One message received. Millions more to go.