Updated: June 5, 2012 02:43 IST

The mystery of the missing girls

Brinda Viswanathan
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DAUGHTER DEFICIT — Sex Selection in Tamil Nadu: Sharada Srinivasan; Women Unlimited, K-36, Ground Floor, Hauz Kaus Enclave, New Delhi-110016. Rs. 595
DAUGHTER DEFICIT — Sex Selection in Tamil Nadu: Sharada Srinivasan; Women Unlimited, K-36, Ground Floor, Hauz Kaus Enclave, New Delhi-110016. Rs. 595

Nothing can get gorier than the recent reports of a three-month old girl battered by her father for being unwanted finally succumbing to cardiac arrest or the feeding of aborted foetuses to dogs by a doctor couple. These and several such micro-incidents add up to the macro facts when 2011 census ushered in that the sex-ratio among 0-6 year olds in India has worsened in the past decade. The crux of the issue and of the book under review is the denial of the right to live or to be born for some girls by their families and often assisted by medical professionals. Sharada Srinivasan examines the context and mechanisms that sustain daughter elimination focussing on the district of Salem in Tamil Nadu. This book covers social, cultural, economic and political processes that have surrounded the phenomenon of — as the author refers to — daughter aversion and son preference (among some families) in Tami Nadu leading up to either its murderous forms: sex selective abortion and killing of female infants; or the neglect of female child if they are lucky to survive. Outlining the parameters in the opening chapter the author's choice of this state for her enquiry was that daughter elimination was noticeable since mid-1980s compared to its observance since early 1970s in northern India. More importantly, it has been happening in a state with better human development indicators including women's status and was also the first in India to acknowledge the presence of daughter elimination and leading the way in bringing in measures to curb this practice.

The following chapter details the state's performance in terms of women's well-being in the last four decades contributed by its socio-political framework. However, it also concludes that this same structure and despite the idea of radical feminism of Periyar — the originator of Dravidian political vision — has not succeeded in dismantling the patriarchal view of according to women the status of wife or mother.

The analysis of the state's spatial and temporal features using various official statistics in the next chapter captures certain contrasting features of daughter deficit. The state as a whole shows a decline in 0-6 sex ratio since the 1990s with urban ratio being far better than the benchmark values but some districts in rural areas alone show a further decline. An equally important finding is the transformation in the source of daughter elimination from post-birth to pre-birth excess female mortality.

The broad socio-political and quantitative analysis lends its way into a micro-study of a distinctly agrarian set-up in Koviloor village of Salem district. The chapter is an interesting documentation of the caste-class nexus in this region that has led to the spread of sex-selection which was hitherto practised only by the Gounder caste, even though to a lesser extent and that too mainly in the form of infanticide. Improved economic status of this dominant caste group arising out of access to canal irrigation in the region since mid-1980s resulted in increased economic inequality with the other two dominant caste groups in this region — Vanniyars and Dalits among whom there was also an emergence of wage labour and non-agricultural self-employment.

Male dominance

The decline in kinship marriage, larger sums of dowry for daughter's marriage, greater preference for smaller family size, and higher emphasis on the continuance of family lineage by one son were changes in practices that came to be noticed among the upper caste Gounders. These were in turn emulated by many others in this region. paving the way for a widespread environment of girl aversion and son preference. Further nuanced aspects that sustain an atmosphere of daughter elimination are presented in two subsequent chapters using narratives and personal discussions with individuals further highlighting the role of both male dominance and a better use of scientific technology by the local medical community. The final chapter highlights that since the problem is contributed by several factors and hence multi-pronged interventions both by the state and the civil society seems to have brought some success in curbing infanticide but the more private and modernised nature of female foeticide makes public intervention very challenging. Overall the book takes us from the broad picture to the narrow confines of the issue with a good dose of both quantitative and qualitative analysis though one may have wanted to know some more about why urban Tamil Nadu is able to hold on while urban India as well as parts of rural Tamil Nadu are slipping away. Attempts including the opening episode of ‘Satyameva Jayate' are being made to create awareness and yet facts from parts of the U.K. and Canada show distorted sex ratios among immigrants.

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