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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

India's ultrasonic patriarchy: technology and sex-selective abortion

"India is missing about 10 million daughters since the widespread use of ultrasound, estimates a new study," according to an article from NewScientist.com.
Over the last 20 years, about 10 million female fetuses may have been selectively aborted following ultrasound results in India, suggest [Dr.] Prabhat Jha at the University of Toronto, Canada, and colleagues.

Their study of 1.1 million households across India reveals that in 1997, far fewer girls were born to couples if their preceding child or children were also female. “There was about a 30% gap in second females following the birth of any earlier females,” Jha told New Scientist.
If the eldest child was male, the chance of the second or third child being female was 50 percent. However, if the first child was female, the ratio of female to male children born next was 759 girls for every 1000 boys.

A woman's right to control her own body is fundamental to her ability to assert the rest of her rights in society, and anti-abortion activists will probably use this study for their own ends, but I bring it up here because, if accurate, it offers us an interesting insight into the intersection between two systems of domination: patriarchy and technology.
“Female infanticide of the past is refined and honed to a fine skill in this modern guise,” says Shiresh Sheth of the Breach Candy Hospital in Mumbai, India, in a commentary accompanying the study in The Lancet.

Sheth notes that in India’s patriarchal society, daughters are regarded as a “liability”, as she will belong to the family of her future husband.
Gendercide.org explains the phenomenon this way:
The bias against females in India is related to the fact that "Sons are called upon to provide the income; they are the ones who do most of the work in the fields. In this way sons are looked to as a type of insurance. With this perspective, it becomes clearer that the high value given to males decreases the value given to females." (Marina Porras, "Female Infanticide and Foeticide".) The problem is also intimately tied to the institution of dowry, in which the family of a prospective bride must pay enormous sums of money to the family in which the woman will live after marriage. Though formally outlawed, the institution is still pervasive. "The combination of dowry and wedding expenses usually add up to more than a million rupees ([US] $35,000). In India the average civil servant earns about 100,000 rupees ($3,500) a year. Given these figures combined with the low status of women, it seems not so illogical that the poorer Indian families would want only male children."
The site also confirms the general prevalance of sex-selective infanticide and abortion in India.

To be clear, selective abortion and infanticide ought to be kept distinctly separate in our minds, and conflating the two tends to undermine vital abortion rights. Right wing rhetoric aside, aborting a fetus is clearly not the same as killing a baby. Nevertheless, the spread of ultrasound gives us an opportunity to see how an old practice changes with the introduction of new technology.

As gendercide.org suggests, female infanticide is often thought of as a backward practice that takes place in rural areas where poverty, cultural and patriarchal norms, as well as the need for labor, put pressure on couples to have male children. Surprisingly, however, the new study found that educated and urban women with higher incomes were twice as likely as their poorer, illiterate and rural counterparts to engage in selective abortion based on sex. After all, it requires resources to afford the multiple trips to ultrasound clinics and the hushed-up abortions. The evidence strongly suggests that the practice has adapted to the new technology quite fine.

At the same time, the lower female to male birth ratio in urban versus rural areas perhaps offers an alternative gauge of the dim view women and couples currently take on the likely social status of future women in India - a point I find especially interesting given the better relative economic position of the women most likely to have sex-selective abortions. According to an article in the Christian Science Monitor,
Karuna Bishnoi, spokeswoman for UNICEF in Delhi, says it shouldn't come as a surprise that educated women are among the most likely to use prenatal sex determination.

"I personally believe this as a failure of society, not a failure of women," says Ms. Bishnoi. "Women who choose this technique may be victims of discrimination themselves, and they may not be the decisionmakers. Nobody can deny that the status of women is very low in India. There is no quick fix to this.
Looking at higher income parts of the country, CSM reports, the numbers stand out starkly.
In the prosperous farming district of Kurukshetra, for instance, there are only 770 girl babies for every 1,000 boys. In the high-rent Southwest neighborhoods of New Delhi, the number of girl babies is 845 per 1,000 boys.
The numerical conclusions of the study do not significantly differ from Indian government census data, but some experts dispute the final numbers. The 178,000 member Indian Medical Association, which has a professional and institutional interest in defending it's members from charges of performing illegal procedures, says the practice has decreased since Indian courts ordered a crackdown in 2001.
Madhu Gupta, a leading gynecologist in the country's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, agreed that couples still abort female foetuses, but insisted the practice has diminished.

"Its rate has definitely come down. Small-time doctors do it, but there is drastic reduction," Gupta said.
However, the evidence is clear that a disparity exists, and that it's worse in urban centers than in the country. Merely because the law may have attempted to curtail it doesn't change the effects the technology has had.

Ultrasound was introduced in India in 1979 and has since spread all over the country, to every district. In that same time period, according to to an article in the Independent, hosted at peopleandplanet.net,
Population censuses in India show that the number of girls has been falling steadily for the past 20 years relative to the number of boys. For every 1,000 boys up to the age of six the number of girls dropped from 962 in 1981 to 945 in 1991 to 927 in 2001.
Despite the denials of the IMA, while sex-selective abortion has been illegal in India since 1994, it isn't hard to get.
Few doctors in regular clinics offer the service openly, but activists estimate that sex-selection is a $100 million business in India, largely through mobile sex-selection clinics that can drive into almost any village or neighborhood.
Ironically, the smaller families that urban, educated living makes possible under industrialism may have exacerbated the problem. Further, the Indian government, like China, has offered financial incentives and through educational campaigns advocated for smaller families, putting pressure on couples to limit family size.
"More educated women have more access to technology, they are more privileged, and most educated families have the least number of children," says Sabu George, a researcher with the Center for Women's Development Studies in New Delhi, who did not participate in the study.
There is a familiar and disturbing tendency in patriarchal society to blame women for the trend. However, women's rights advocates point to another source:
The main cause for the "girl deficit," they say, is the arrival of ultrasound technology and the entrepreneurial spirit of [mostly male] Indian doctors [my link].

"This is not a cultural thing," says Donna Fernandez, director of Vimochana, a women's rights group based in Bangalore.

"This is much more of an economic and political issue. It has got a lot to do with the globalization of technology. It's about the commodification of choices."
Rajesh Kumar, of the School of Public Health in Chandigarh and co-author of the report, agrees:
"This problem started when these ultrasounds were introduced, this new technology came and people became aware that even before the birth of the baby they could know the sex of the baby and then if its a female baby then for social reasons for other reasons they do not want that there should be a female birth in the family [sic]."
Interestingly, this goes against a trend in the United States, where right to life groups have been running "crisis pregnancy centers," pre-natal screening clinics where ultrasound is routinely used to humanize the fetus in the hopes that women will not seek abortions. One program, for instance, called Option Ultrasound and linked of the Family.org website (a right wing site), uses the slogan "Revealing life, to save life." Because of these believed effects, anti-abortion groups often sponsor or gift ultrasound machines to these centers. One testimonial from a worker at the LifeNetwork pregnancy center in Colorado Springs reported:
Jane's face reflected her changing emotions as each image appeared on the screen. Tears intermingled with smiles as the light turned on in her heart. She was indeed carrying a baby, and a very playful one at that. She could not abort then, not after she’d seen the image of her child so clearly.

[...]

As a recipient of one of the first ultrasound machines in the Option Ultrasound™ Program, we want to let you know that this incredible "window to the womb" has already begun to save lives in our community.
Clearly, anti-abortion activists, generally enemies of progressive women's rights worldwide, have high hopes for the technology in the first world. Among other places, the anti-feminist right wing agenda in the United States and the anti-girl selective-abortion trend in India intersect where patriarchy and ultrasound technology meet.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Alia said...

Interesting post. I had a right-wing high school teacher bring up this trend to me as as a "plea to my feminist heart-strings." I still wonder now, as I did then, if the population of females continues to decrease in India, will their worth in society thus increase?

Wed Jan 18, 03:01:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Phoenix Insurgent said...

'Jha warns that the preference for boys is likely to have “profound long-term consequences”. In China, the cultural preference for boys and restrictions on family size are already having effects. Some reports suggest there are 40 million bachelors unable to find brides.

But there could be other serious consequences, Jha speculates, such as an impact on the spread of HIV. “If there are fewer females to marry and form stable sexual partnerships then males may resort to the use of paid sex,” he suggests.'

From the New Scientist

That quote above shows one possible answer, anyhow. It seems to me that since women are not in a position of power in India now, for the most part, that even if their net value, to be crass, were to go up, it would not necessarily transmit into bargaining power (or any other kind of power) for women themselves. It would be nice, and it would seem to offer opportunities for organizing. But it seems quite possible that bargaining power would accrue to the same folks who control women now.

With workers, let's say, bargaining power might make some more valuable through reduction in numbers (like stevedores, for instance, as we saw with the recent dockworker strike), but while smaller numbers can make a group more critical, it can also make it easier to gang up on. And, in the end, the surplus value still accrues to the capitalist.

Stevedores are powerful in this country because they have critical skills and can withold those skills, plus their point of exploitation is also a natural place to organize en masse. These all may not be the case with women in India, who may find themselves isolated and vulnerable in urban apartments, or in cities away from extended family, thus obviously making their vital skills harder to withdraw, not to mention that they will be withdrawing them from children and loved ones.

It seems entirely possible that reduced numbers and higher value might result in increasing restrictions and authority in women's lives, in order to keep them in line. Perhaps rising fundamentalism or state attacks on women's independence. It seems like a lot of very authoritarian systems (for women) have placed great social value on submissive female roles while severely restricting women's autonomy outside that realm.

Of course, the hope is that what you suggest would be the case. I would be interested in seeing any news or information that points one way or the other. I would say that the articles I read for this piece provide an unclear picture at best, especially since the phenomenon manifests specifically among those women who appear to be doing the best in the New Indian economy, and you would think they would experience increased independence as a result. That appears not to be the case, from what I have read so far.

Wed Jan 18, 03:40:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am incredulous. The commentors think that selectively reducing the number of women in society via abortion is GOOD because doing so makes women more scarce and therefore more powerful?!?!?!? Power is not achieved through wholesale reduction in numbers....and those who have been killed certainly have been dis-empowered. Permanently.

Wed Jan 25, 06:22:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Phoenix Insurgent said...

I assume by your use of the plural "commentators" that you include me in your criticism, so I will respond for my part.

I don't think anyone said it was good for that to happen. Alia above speculated on how the reduced numbers might impact women's power. In my opinion, you are inferring a value yourself that neither of us endorsed ourselves.

I certainly don't think it is good to reduce the number of girls, hence the reason I wrote the original blog entry in the first place. The whole point of it was to highlight two different ways that ultrasound technology was being used to attack women and girls and thus as an instrument of patriarchal domination.

In fact, I suggested several more ways that, setting aside the obvious disadvantage of not being allowed to exist in the first place (as you correctly point out), women may well find in this attack not liberation, but further oppression and degredation of their position and power in society.

I think one would be hard pressed to find any silver lining at all in such an obvious attack on women (future and present). Speculation, however, should not be mistaken for endorsement, in my opinion.

For instance, in another context, one may speculate that layoffs may lead to increased demands for workers power and militancy even as the numbers themselves may decline. One may also speculate that a reduced workforce may increase the bargaining power of remaining workers. This isn't the case most of the time, but sometimes, since capitalism does reward scarcity in some ways, reduced numbers can lead to increased value for some.

Such consideration is not the same as endorsing the reductions or the desire of the boss for those reductions, though, so I think it's unfair of you to assume by our discussion that we think the trend is positive for women.

Wed Jan 25, 01:57:00 PM 2006  

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