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Men without women

The recent imposition of the two-child norm as eligibility criterion for panchayat members may lead to a skewed sex ratio, argues MANIPADMA JENA, comparing this to China's one-child norm.

WITH the Government planning to introduce a two-child norm with serious disincentives attached for violators, it would do India good to look at what China's one-child norm did to its demographic profile.

The two countries, which between them are home to a sizeable chunk of the world population, have one other thing too in common: their traditional bias against women. However shameful India's treatment of the girl children may be, China, after its stringent one-child norm, has a worse record: it has the world's most imbalanced gender ratio.

China's census in 2000 shows there are 20 per cent more boys than girls in the group zero to four. The balance is even more extraordinary in seven provinces of China, which have 28 to 36 per cent more boys than girls in this age group. Against the previous record of 100-107 boys, the sex ratio has presently fallen to 107-120 boys per 100 girls. This serious imbalance has worsened during the last two decades, says Judith Banister, a demography specialist working in China.

One of the major causes of the low count of girls in China, she says in a study, is the one-child norm, combined with the bias against girls. This results in unchecked abortion of the female foetuses and the death of girls from health and nutrition neglect. Isn't this a familiar story in India?

The consequences of the "missing girl syndrome" have not yet been felt, in its entire enormity in India or in cultures in East and South Asia where a strong anti-girl bias exists.

But Valerie Hudson, professor at Brigham Young University, United States, has interesting predictions of societies where there would, in due course, emerge a large surplus of men. Studying the unintended fallout of family planning policies in developing countries, she says that when the State limits the number of children and where sex selection tests are easy to access, the sex ratio will turn negative in course of time. In 2000, China's sex ratio was 944 and India's in 2001 was 933 (compared with 1,029 in the U.S.).

The reason for this abnormal demographic phenomenon is apparently simple enough, according to Hudson. When couples were free to have half a dozen children there was a natural mix of boys and girls. When they were restricted by the State or by economic compulsions to one or two, they made sure they produced only sons. In China, sex selection test centres are available easily and without taboo, as in the Punjab and Haryana.

Let's look at what experts say are the social repercussions when there are not enough women for the larger number of men. Societies with a large number of men tend to experience more crime, unrest and violence, as predicted by security experts a year ago in The Economist (June 22, 2002).

Very soon they said, China will have an estimated 30 million "unhappy, unmarried" men; but their unhappiness would be of a different kind than that of unhappy married men. These unhappy, unmarried men could be kindling a political revolution at home. Deep, large-scale unrest could well have an impact outside, they warned — the Chinese government may decide to use these surplus men — these men without women for military activism.

Nearer home, the recent marriage practice adopted by the Gujjar community of Rajasthan could well spread into the larger context, if States like Punjab, which has 793 girl children in the zero to six age group, to 1,000 male children, Chandigarh (845/1,000), Haryana (820/1,000), Gujarat (878/1,000), Maharashtra (917/1,000) and Orissa (950/1,000), fail to check the free fall of the female to male population. Not many parents of girls in the Gujjar community are willing to give their daughters in marriage to Gujjar males owing to various reasons.

Shadow of things to come...

The practice adopted by the Gujjar males to counter the unavailability of women is to have the most eligible brother bring home a bride who could be from a different community. Eventually the woman is shared by up to four brothers. She keeps house for all of them and bears their children too.

For two decades, the Haryanvis aborted female foetuses or poisoned and starved female infants or deliberately neglected their health to let them die.

Today, their youth cannot marry due to a scarcity of brides. The situation is so grim, news reports say, that families are resorting to buying girls from Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal and passing them off as members of their own biradiri (community). Though the families do not admit to it, neighbours assert that these women are treated no better than bonded workers. Communities here, which consider a man is ready for marriage as soon as he has touched 18, are seeing men of above 30 still searching for wives.

Having fewer women does not mean the premium on them increases. The market theory of demand and supply does not quite work in the man-women context in biased cultures.

On the contrary, women are being subjected to more violence than before and families are being forced to keep them cloistered inside their homes, say social workers in Haryana.

In countries like India, where the social status of women is low, their diminishing numbers will lower their status further. Polyandry and the Draupadi syndrome would again become a modern-day reality.

The sex composition is an important indicator and a measure of the equity between males and females prevailing in a particular society at that point of time. Changes in the sex ratio reflect the underlying changes (for better or for worse as regards women) in the socio-economic and cultural patterns of a people.

There is now no escaping the fact that the negative sex ratio in States and districts with higher literacy and economic levels is not an anachronism, but the reality. It rubbishes our pet theory that education is the panacea for all social evils, particularly those against women.

According to Banister, in China, low education levels were not found to be a determinant factor for anti-girl attitudes. Neither was poverty.

It is now clear from the declining sex ratio among the zero to six age group, as found in the 2001 census, that economic and social development has not reduced but could actually be worsening anti-daughter discrimination in India.

In fact, the dramatic changes in dowry practice — in the nature of dowries given and demanded as well as in its dramatic rise, has been responsible for the leaping phenomenon of female foeticide. Also being seen lately is a marked process of effeminisation among women.

In Orissa for example — one of the few States to offer a 30 per cent reservation for women in engineering and medical colleges, parents are spending lakhs of rupees to take not merit but payment seats — not with a career in view but to brighten the marriage prospects of their daughters. Dowry maintains its high seat, now the added condition is that brides must also be good students, preferably from the science stream. With the sea change that our society has undergone, the root of the dowry problem too has shifted. The growing economic vulnerability has intensified the son preference as a tool to benefit economically.

The dynamics of the new dowry — so called because of the "demand" element dominating it — was initially centred on the economic vulnerability of one class as against the newfound riches of the other.

Now, of course, dowry has spread to all classes — rich and poor, including those societies where not long ago, brides, not grooms, commanded a price. The other reason for dowry continues: a woman's right to inherit her share of paternal property remains elusive and hence dowry remains the main vehicle to security. Not to mention the new age goddess called consumer goods, which is silently feeding mass greed.

But there are ways to rein in the malaise. In reality, an outright ban has not worked.

A combination of individual ideals as displayed by two young brides who rebelled against the system recently and socio-legal measures could work. Is it possible for us to imagine this futuristic scenario: sons and daughters have the same opportunities for education and job? The daughter does not lose her inheritance rights. She receives her full share at the same time as her brother and not at her marriage. Both are equally responsible for their aging parents.

In short, inheritance laws should be the same for both sons and daughters. Second, implement and expand social security systems for the elderly in rural and urban areas too so that parents do not have to depend on sons. Publicity, propaganda and consciousness-raising that values the contribution of women at par with men, highlighting their human rights, is underway, yes, but needs to be done on a war-footing. NGOs need to get into the protest-dowry mode in large numbers.

Society needs to internalise what feminist Simone de Beauvoir asserted long ago that women are not born they are made.

Only then perhaps would the two-child norm stabilise the population and not skew it.

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