It’s not surprising, really, that after Mandy’s brief lecture, most of the questions were about sex, contraception, abortion, women’s bodies, and the socio-legality around them. What seemed to trip most of them–immersed as they are in a religio-political culture obsessed with the social life of the fertile womb–was that abortion in India is common and fairly non-controversial and provided for by the government, despite India being an unabashedly “conservative” country. But the thing that appeared to really pull the carpet from under their feet was that fact that the Indian government spends a great deal of time and money on anti-abortion campaigns… as part of their progressive agenda.
Diversity, eh? It’s a conundrum like no other.
For the sake of mildly narcissistic self-documentation, here is my consolidated response to their questions:
“Those are very interesting questions, actually. Especially since they highlight all the things I’m sure Mandy has spoken to you about. Cultural difference, cultural understanding, and how the same legal ‘rights’ can function very differently in different societies. What I’m going to add to this is a little bit of an ‘emic’ (or a cultural insider’s) perspective.
The Indian government and reproductive rights
Mandy got nearly everything abortion-related neatly packed in to her answer above. As she points out, the pro/anti abortion debate does not really exist in India. Abortion or contraception aren’t issues at all at any political level (though certain religious leaders from different communities do occasionally mention that it is people’s duty to be fruitful and multiply). Indeed, free public distribution of contraception and providing free tubal ligation/tubectomy and vasectomy for the people has long been on India’s public health agenda. This is the only reproductive matter around which there is some political debate, because people fear that these programmes might be used to stop poor people or the minorities from procreating as freely as the rich or the majority groups.
Why women support female foeticide, or agree to female infanticide
There was, for many years, a belief that ‘only the illiterate poor people from villages’, or ‘the barbaric tribal/native people’ follow such customs. The 2011 Census of India, however, showed very clearly what activists and researchers already knew, that female foeticide/infanticide is actually almost exclusively a middle-class and above phenomenon. It exists only in those poor areas where people try to be ‘respectable’ by copying middle-class social behaviour, or are too culturally conservative to allow women to work.
On an average, the communities which have the most ‘natural’ male:female sex ratio in India are the tribal communities. They happen to be both amongst the poorest communities in the country, and the community with almost 100% female participation in paid work.
So, if the parents practising female-specific abortion and infanticide can afford to raise a girl, why don’t they?
It’s a question of culture and resources. A girl born into a poor family is an asset as long as she’s strong enough to work. A girl born into a conservative rich or middle-class family, however, is a liability. It will hurt her family’s ‘honour’ to have a woman go out and earn money, because in a conservative household, women only work for pay when the men are incapable of making enough for the whole family. In other words, a working woman is a sign that the men of the family are failures. It is a matter of shame not just for the men, but also for the women, because the whole community or neighbourhood will now see them as the mother/wife/daughter/sister/niece/grandchild of a ‘loser’. So, if a girl cannot be raised to be financially independent, what is she raised to do?
She’s raised to become a domestic person, ideally a wife and a mother. To find partners for your children is almost a social imperative in India–people believe that to be happy and fulfilled, both men and women need a spouse, and so it is the duty of their extended families to find them suitable matches (‘love’ is somewhat underrated in India, even now. There is a very firm belief that two well-matched ‘good’ people, living together, will find ‘true love’ with each other automatically).
Thing is, how would you convince people to marry your daughter, if you’re discounting love? Well. You have to educate her and endow her with as many domestic skills as you can, and then sweeten the pot with large gifts/presents or dowry. In other words, if you have a daughter, you will have to bear the cost of raising her, and then spend even more money giving her an expensive wedding and a dowry. After the wedding, she will go live with her husband or his family, and will not benefit your family in any way.
On the other hand, raising boys also cost money, but this cost can be recouped when he gets married (by way of a huge dowry). He will also keep contributing to his parents well-being because he will have a job, and his will take over the responsibility of the household.
What happens when the families actually don’t mind having working women?
That’s even more interesting. See, the thing with traditions is that they start for a specific reason, but they soon assume a life of their own. People started eating turkey on holidays because they were easily available and cheap, but a few years down, eating turkey on those holidays became a tradition, irrespective of its availability and price. American expats sometimes pay rather steep prices for turkey in countries it’s not easily available, because it’s a holiday tradition they don’t want to break. It has become part of their culture.
This is exactly why in India, we hear of otherwise educated and ‘modern’ people practising sex-selective abortions. The original context of why men are more valuable than women have stopped mattering to these people, but the idea that a girl child is somehow ‘bad’ for the family’s happiness has remained. This is also why mothers are sometimes prepared to abort their female foetus–they know they will be shamed and devalued by their families if they give birth to a child of the unwanted gender.
Sex-selective Abortion as ‘Prevention’
There is another reason for women choosing gender-specific abortions, or even infanticide. “I saved her from a life of shame and fear”, a woman who had escorted her daughter-in-law to the abortion clinic once told me. “In poor families like ours, my granddaughter would have been undereducated, overworked and beaten by her family. Maybe even I would have cursed her whenever I thought of her marriage costs. A woman’s life is so hard.”
This is actually a painfully frequent reason for certain women choosing not to have daughters. It’s almost, they say, an act of love. I personally find it hard to understand that point of view, but then I have never walked in their shoes.
Are there support groups for survivors?
Finally, the matter of support groups. The idea of support groups is still fairly alien, even in urban, metropolitan India. Despite western ideas of privacy and individuality coming in for years now, we’re still a very community and family-centric culture. When people feel the need to talk, they talk to their families or friends. The idea of sharing troubles with complete strangers feels ‘wrong’, because we think that to understand our problem properly, people will first have to understand us and understand where we are in our lives at the moment. A therapist might patiently listen if we tell him or her, but why bring an outsider and a stranger up to speed when we have so many people close by who know us (and our lives) intimately?
The aim in India, therefore, has always been community awareness rather than focus groups or support groups. Making people aware of the problems in their cultural ideas, so that they can be more supportive of their families and friends–that has been our model so far. Of course, this isn’t to say considerable legal measures haven’t been taken–determining the sex of the foetus is illegal, for example, and there are special sections of the Indian Penal Code that deal with sex-selective abortions, whether or not the pregnant woman chose it for herself.
But, our government also works on the principle that if a whole society is complicit in a certain act, then no amount of law-making will stop it. It has to be done on the long term, by activists, government health workers and other people deeply rooted in the community, whom the community trusts, respects and listens to. So I suppose, if we speak of support groups, these are the people who function as such.
Thank you for letting me speak to you. I spoke an awful lot, I know, but it has been a pleasure 🙂