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Self-help groups campaign against infanticide

By Ramya Kannan

CHENNAI, APRIL 9. In the villages of Tamil Nadu, a quiet revolution is taking place. In societies with a clear son-preference, awareness is creeping in and families are now scared of killing girl children.

That ultimate hurdle, prejudice, has perhaps been finally crossed, the mindset slowly changing to accommodate hitherto unwanted girls in families. Maybe not so much with longing and love as with fear. The agents of change have been an ubiquitous group of women, whose strength comes from networking into self-help groups (SHG).

Though the gender balance has not yet been restored, there is a sincere attempt to do away with female infanticide. Groups of women, 15-20 in each village, are the champions of the rights of the girl child. Their message has come home. Now in-laws and husbands are coerced, cajoled, counselled and cautioned against trespass, and even threatened with the stick — arrest and conviction — by neighbours, women they have always known.

Each SHG especially in Namakkal and Salem districts, where infanticide is acute, has a roster of all pregnant women in its area. The members talk to the pregnant woman and her family, urging them to appreciate girls and also threatening them with dire consequences if they resort to murder.

This way, the SHGs claim, they have prevented a number of `murders.'

One example is the Kurinji Magalir Iyakkam, Kadayampatti, Omalur block of Salem. The members believe they have saved at least five girls and registered two complaints against offenders. Rajam, a member of the SHG, who herself killed her girl child under pressure from the in-laws, says it was fear of the police, more than anything else, that convinced the villagers.

Endorsing the SHG approach, P.Phavalam of the Campaign Against Sex Selective Abortion says, ``in-laws force the woman to abort the baby if it is female or kill the baby girl. If she does not comply, she will be thrown out of home and will have nowhere to go. Therefore, any change will have to focus on the family; the in-laws, and erode their bias against girls."

According to statistics, out of 2,600 cases of female infanticide reported in the State, offenders have been brought to book in only 16 cases.

``In a study we did in 1995, we were able to document the practice of female infanticide even among tribals, Dalits and Muslims in Salem and Namakkal, though it originated in the Kallar community,'' says V.Ranganathan of the Village Reconstruction and Development Project. Ms. Phavalam says the practice, first documented in five districts, has spread to 13 districts.

While the SHG initiative has proved that change is possible, the sex ratio continues to indicate a bias against the girl child. Awareness at that level can possibly save some infants, says Ms.Phavalam.

There is also the danger of foeticide that the awareness campaign has merely sent underground. Scan centres covertly declare the sex of the child. For the positive sign, generated by SHG involvement, to translate into balanced sex ratios and for awareness to concretise into action, ``civil society must take objection to the continuance of the practice, otherwise we are lost,'' says Sabu George, who petitioned the Supreme Court for implementation of the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act.

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