SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Fight for the girl

GENDER

Crusade to save the girl child.

Crusade to save the girl child.  

"THREE days ago, a trader in Nagapattinam who belongs to Usilampatti sent his wife here for delivering her child. `If this child (their second), is a girl, don't bring her back,' he threatened. "We stayed with her, by turn, day and night, for a whole week and managed to save the female infant from being killed," says Pandiamma from the Meenakshi Mahilar Koozhu.

The members of the self-help groups in this area are bonding together to prevent the practice of female infanticide that has made this taluk in Madurai district of Tamil Nadu infamous. Guided by the Association for Rural Development in Chekkanoorani village, Pandiamma and numerous others like her have assembled at a hall to tell me of the progress they have made.

"We are trying to educate the husbands of the women to enable them to accept the female child," say Dr. Daisy Rani and Joseph Vincent of the organisation. "When we know a woman is pregnant, we go to the scanning centres and try to investigate whether they have gone through the process and then we monitor the progress."

Many strategies are adopted to deal with the evil. "The trick is to see that the child is not done away with in the first three days. If we ensure its survival within that period, then the parents become attached to it." The group members make it a point to visit the baby in a celebratory procession carrying gifts for her — frocks, bangles and flowers — to announce her birth. Two coconut saplings and three goats are presented to the family. The income from the trees and the goats will help pay for the daily expenses of the girl later.

"We have managed to save up to 200 children in this manner," claim the members.

Mothers with infant girls are present at the meeting. At first, they are reluctant to tell you the truth. Most of them are wives of agricultural labourers. They slowly admit that much pressure was brought on them by husband and in-laws to have the child aborted or to have it killed after birth.

A few of the women who are now working for the voluntary organisation have themselves escaped this fate.

"I belong to the Kallar community, which practises female infanticide. I would not have been here to talk to you but for the efforts of my maternal grandmother who took my mother to her home when she was pregnant," says the smartly dressed graduate Tilakavathi.

Johnson, who belongs to the community, is engaged in the crusade. A post-graduate, he says his people are wary of him but at the same time they are able to identify with him.

The practice of female infanticide started 50 years ago when a dam was constructed in the area and the village was divided into the well-irrigated and the arid zones leading to a great deal of economic inequality, says Johnson. The poorer ones had to pay a heavy dowry to get their daughters married to those from the better-off lot. From just a few grams of gold and a few hundreds in cash, consumerism has seen the demands grow up to one kilogram of gold jewellery, at least Rs. 1,00,000 and consumer durables. Even a daily wage earner demands a huge dowry. It is usually the girl's uncle (her mother's brother) who has to foot the expense. When a woman in the family dies, he has to buy as many as 100 saris to appease the spirits whereas when a man dies, just 10 saris are needed. All the rituals after marriage — childbirth, the ear piercing ceremony, and later puberty rituals of the girl — cost him heavily financially. "This is why the men force the woman to kill the child."

Some of those who admit to killing their newborn have now turned reformers. "Yes, I did kill my little girl. I gave her erukkam paal (the sap of a poisonous plant. The other methods are turning on the fan full blast in the face of the sleeping child or feeding her hot chicken soup)," says Veliamma (name changed) brazenly. "Not only did I kill my own girl with the aid of the washerwoman but I also persuaded my neighbours to do away with their infant daughters," she admits nonchalantly. "That was six years ago. Now I'm against the practice. But what is done is done," she shrugs. Her emotionless face a reflection of the insensitivity that society and patriarchy have imposed upon her.

* * *

Youthful efforts

"I WAS a member of a fan club of a leading young actor. I even went to Chennai to attend his wedding. Now my friends and I work for the eradication of female infanticide," says Ganesan, a graduate in the taluk of Usilampatti. They belong to the Netaji Youth Group, a wing of the women's self-help group here. There are 20 members in this group, and each one of them contributes Rs.100 when a female child is born. "We collect the sum of Rs.2,000 and then invest it in the name of the girl child so that the interest will pay for her education and marriage .We have brought the practice down by 90 per cent in our village," they claim as you look at them rather disbelievingly.

Sundaram, a post-graduate student, who is doing his masters in rural development conducts street plays to bring about awareness on the subject and also conducts tuition classes for the underprivileged children in his village. The group consists of students and unskilled workers, says the leader Guruswamy. There are two youth groups in this village, which work for this cause.

Does Ganesan feel that, in 20 years, the problem will be solved?

He looks at me in hurt anger. "That is a long time. We hope to do it earlier. We have decided we will not demand dowry."

(Concluded)

The second part of this series appeared in The Hindu Sunday Magazine issue dated August 8, 2004.

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