Why are daughters so unwanted?

Daughter elimination is very much prevalent in Tamil Nadu even if not as intense as in other parts of the country. Sharada Srinivasan, assistant professor in International Development Studies at York University Toronto, has spent a considerable amount of time researching this subject. Her book Daughter Deficit: Sex Selection in Tamil Nadu (Women Unlimited) explores this issue in depth. She talks to Meenakshi Kumar on how widespread the practice is and why daughters are unwanted.

Punjab and Haryana have made headlines for a dismal sex ratio and hair-raising stories of daughter elimination. What made you focus on sex selection practice in Tamil Nadu?

I had come across articles in the newspapers about this practice, which was first reported in the 1980s. During the mid-1990s I had the opportunity to visit a NGO working to prevent female infanticide in Usilampatti in Madurai district. That brought me face to face with the issue. I wanted to find out more. At that time, Madurai and Salem were the two districts which were highlighted in the media. In the case of Tamil Nadu, despite the relatively high status of women, the State has recorded a steady decline in its 0–6 age group sex ratio. The ratio has fallen from 985 in 1961 to 942 in 2001 and some of the districts with the most unequal 0–6 sex ratios in the country lie within the State. Thus, while the level of the 0–6 sex ratio in Tamil Nadu may be higher than the national average, the temporal patterns in the ratio suggest that the State is experiencing a trend that is similar to the rest of the country. This intrigued me and led me to ask why this happened, what the consequences were and what could be done to prevent daughter elimination.

How widespread is the practice? Which are the communities that have been practising it?

Even though Tamil Nadu has a short history of daughter elimination when compared to other parts of India, it is quite widespread in the State. A 1997 survey pointed out that female infanticide was far more widespread than it’s believed to be and occurred in several districts and across several castes. Evidence from Tamil Nadu as well as from other States clearly establishes that the practice emerges from among the well-off, propertied/ land-owning families in the dominant castes. Certain castes such as the Kallars in Madurai, Gounders in Salem and Gounders in Vellore district were found to be practising female infanticide. Now daughter elimination occurs across all castes.

Would you say that it’s more a rural phenomenon and can be directly linked to poor and illiterate people?

No, not at all. The practice clearly emerges from wealthy land-owning families who now are well-connected to the modern, urbanized world. My research and travel in Tamil Nadu have shown me that it’s not the poor or illiterate who initiate this practice. The bulk comes from well-off families. Interestingly, I found that among land-owning families in Punjab, the trend of having only one son (one child) is growing as they don’t want the property to be divided or fought over among several sons. This is similar to the pattern observed among the land-owning families of Salem — if the first one is a son, the couple will not try for another child. But if the first one is a daughter, the second one will be a son and then there will be no more children. Many such communities have begun to report bride shortage and have had to marry from other sub-castes or regions.

Why are daughters so unwanted?

Property is one main reason, at least among the propertied groups. Traditionally, daughters don’t inherit ancestral property. Besides, a daughter is seen as a liability and not an investment. Also, in the absence of social security and their own source of financial support, parents hope to live with a son in their old age. Most parents in Tamil Nadu like elsewhere in India do not expect to live in their old age with their married daughters. In addition, a huge dowry has become inevitable. Also a daughter can be a huge emotional burden in case something goes wrong with the marriage. Women in general and daughters specifically carry the family honour and can be another reason why too many daughters are not preferred.

Do you think government intervention can help?

Yes, it can to a large extent help to change a social norm such as daughter elimination. While in the long run fundamental changes in social norms and attitudes are necessary to create an environment favourable to daughters, good policies can be useful in bringing about change especially in the short term. In the case of Tamil Nadu, the child sex ratio has improved from 942 in 2001 to 946 in 2011 — for the first time since 1961. The increase of four points, seemingly small, has come almost entirely from five districts — Dharmapuri, Salem, Theni, Namakkal and Madurai — which have had some of the highest daughter deficits. These districts were the focus of intense efforts by the government and NGOs to prevent female infanticide and female foeticide. The government launched the cradle baby scheme, girl child protection scheme and stepping up of legal action in the 1990s to prevent female infanticide.

Such efforts were intensified following the 2001 Census. The results were dramatic; female infanticide reduced significantly. For example, in rural Salem, female infant mortality fell from 121 over the period 1996-99 to 45 in 2003. In Dharmapuri the corresponding numbers were 111 to 49 and in Theni 81 to 42. Thanks to the efforts of NGOs, in many districts it is difficult for a scan centre to operate without being registered and has increased the risk of offering sex selection tests. Still, an environment favourable to daughters is a distant prospect. It is quite possible that a reduction in government and NGO interest in preventing daughter elimination could reverse the pattern.

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