Gender Violence
"It is one form of patriarchy."
Baby Neha Afreen in hospital with her mother

A two-year-old girl wrapped in bandages, her face bruised black and blue as several tubes connected her body to the life support machine at the AIIMS Trauma Care in New Delhi. Four years ago, these pictures of Baby Falak stirred the collective consciousness of the country. Abandoned by her mother, passed on from stranger to stranger until she was brought to the hospital battered with injuries including bite marks on her body, Baby Falak’s story and her tragic death in March 2012 was mourned by a nation outraged by the abuse of a girl child.    

But Baby Falak was far from being the last victim. Weeks later, three-month-old Baby Neha Afreen died of a cardiac arrest at a government hospital in Bengaluru. Brutalised by her father, who wanted a boy, she had been admitted with a severe head injuries, dislocated neck and bite and burn marks on her body. Shock and anger followed across the country.

Four years on, female infanticide is real and alive in India. On Tuesday, three-month-old Jyothilakshmi was flung against the wall of her house in Kavarapet near Chennai by her father, reported Times of India. Damodaran, a daily wage worker had wanted his wife to hand over the baby to an orphanage as she was the third daughter. Enraged that his wife had to refused to give up the baby, Damodaran grabbed her by the head and flung her against the wall. Baby Jyothilakshmi died within minutes.  Her crime, like Baby Falak’s, Baby Neha Afreen’s and many other, was that she was born a girl.

But these horrifying incidents that are reported are no longer from villages, far removed from public’s imagination. Families are killing their daughters across metropolises in India. Data from the 2011 Census provides a grim picture of the missing girl child in urban India.  Child sex ratio for the age 0-6 stood at 918 girls per 1000 boys in India, down from 927 in 2001.   According to Scroll, the numbers are the lowest in 50 years. A closer look at the data shows that the shameful numbers, in fact, come from urban India, where child sex ratio is 905 girls per 1000 while rural India is 923 per 1000.

Gita Aravumudan, journalist and author of “Disappearing Daughters” points out that female infanticide and sex selective abortions are responsible for the falling child sex ratio. “It is one form of patriarchy. The basic problem is that Indian families want sons and they feel having a son is very important,” she notes. The foundation for her 2007 book, she says, was a story she covered at Usilampatti in Madurai in the 1990s, where the killing of baby girls was openly practiced. A poor community of landless labourers used gruesome methods to murder their daughters including placing a grain of husk into the mouth, slitting the new-born’s throat. But once the arrests started, people started thinking of innovative ways to kill their girl babies without being found out.

Infanticide, Gita says, has taken on silent forms in the cities. In Salem, she reported cases where a new-born baby girl would be swaddled in a wet cloth so that she would develop a cold. “The family would get a doctor’s prescription and not bother to give the baby the medicine. The baby would eventually die of pneumonia,” she says. The prescription, she remarks, is the evidence the family needed to evade suspicion.  Negligence of the female infant is another aspect - starving baby girls and refusing treatment are some of the other methods employed.   

Gita says the villages she had visited more than a decade ago, no longer practice infanticide. To eradicate the practice, states incentivise having a girl child. In Tamil Nadu, the state deposits an amount of Rs 50,000 in the name of the girl child with the money including interest released when the child turns 18.  Besides this, several governments also incentivise education and provide marriage assistance to “protect the girl child”.

Among the cities, Census 2011 shows that Delhi and Chandigarh are among the highest offenders when it comes to skewed child sex ratio.  A recent AIIMS study found that between 1996-2012, 238 foetuses and new-borns were abandoned in South Delhi, a swanky and posh neighbourhood in the national capital.  Among the live born cases, 77% of the deaths were attributed to murder. Gita argues, “What incentives can you give a South Delhi family that has two Mercedes Benz cars?”  

Gita argues that sex selective abortions are high in the cities, especially among the educated and well-off, who have access to clinics that may offer sex determination at exorbitant rates. But it’s not just urban Indians, the diaspora is also practicing female foeticide, as shown by recent studies in Canada. “We carry our prejudice wherever we go,” she laments, “It’s so entrenched in our psyche. That’s what we have to address.   

Rattling off statistics Gita notes, “If the first child is a girl, there is some hope of survival. If the second child is also a girl, she is mostly done away with. The third girl child has no chance of survival.”  Baby Falak and Baby Jyothilakshmi paid the price for being born the third daughter.