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Female Foeticide: A Curse of History


Outlook, Feb. 27, 2006

Photo: Khushwant Singh

Long ago, girls were killed to protect them from Muslim invaders. Now, it's dowry.

Punjab has a long history of doing away with newborn girls. The preferred method today is foeticide after a sex determination test, but centuries ago the practice was to bury them. This tradition perhaps goes back to the days of repeated invasions by Muslim armies from the northwest, who used to carry off girls as booty for their own pleasure or to be sold in the slave markets of the Middle East. Today, it is the extortionate dowries that parents of girls have to provide upon marriage. The custom of polyandry in Punjab probably arose out of the shortage of girls - the eldest son of a family would take a wife, his younger brothers would also have access to her.

One of Guru Nanak's oft quoted hymns condemns the denigration of women: 'We are born of women and nurtured by them, we fall in love with them and they bear us sons and daughters. How can you belittle women who give birth to kings?' His words had little impact - the killing of newborn girls continued as before, though practised more among the land-owning zamindars than by the common folk.

At the end of the first Sikh war, when the British annexed half of the Sikh kingdom, the Sikh zamindars of the region met John Lawrence, who had been appointed commissioner, to confirm their land holdings. He insisted on their signing pledges that they would not bury lepers alive, refrain from burning widows and stop burying newborn girls. The zamindars protested, saying Lawrence had promised that the two sides would not interfere with each others' religious customs. Lawrence agreed that he had indeed done so, adding that British religious custom was to hang anyone who followed these practices. That put an end to sati and the murder of lepers, and though female infanticide was checked it probably continued surreptitiously.

After Independence, and the passing of the Hindu Code Bill giving equal rights to inherit ancestral property to sons and daughters, things again took a turn for the worse with the murder of newborn girls gaining momentum, especially in propertied families. With medical science able to detect the sex of the child in the womb, the practice has become much more widespread, resulting in a situation today where the ratio of females to males in Punjab is the lowest in the country.

Religious leaders and institutions like the S.G.P.C. and the Akal Takht make only feeble attempts to put down this criminal practice and their efforts have failed miserably. Kuree Maar (daughter-killer) is a common abuse in Punjab - an abuse that those who indulge in the practice have learnt to take in their stride.