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Girls' Lives Matter - India Bring Back Our Girls

29/12/2014 02:26 GMT | Updated 27/02/2015 10:59 GMT

It's that time of year: between Christmas and New Year's Eve - when we look back on the year that was. And what a year it was. 2014 was a year of maybe unsurpassed technological advance and progress: for the first time in the history of computing, a machine, based in Russia and pretending to be a 13 year old boy in Ukraine, passed the Turing Test. Technopathy became a real thing when Japanese researchers enabled people to turn their heating on or off, or change their television channels using just their thoughts. Robot waiter staffed restaurant chains opened in China. India sent a mission to Mars. Astronauts in orbit on space stations routinely tweet pictures of sunrise over Earth as seen from space.

But, 2014 gave us plenty of jarring, and painful reminders that humanity is not yet the advanced civilization we may appear to be becoming. It showed us without mercy that huge swathes of our human family are at risk of being buried by archaic ideologies struggling for legitimacy in the modern world. Amongst a sea of violence on an unsteady planet, gender continues to be the site of some of the most brutal primitivism practiced, and sadly it's practiced by even the most educated and empowered in a society. In 2014 over 1m people were rightly motivated to speak out for 276 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria. How would we have felt if we had known that in India, in 2014 alone, around one million girls were killed by their parents or families for no reason other than that they were girls.

One million girls being disappeared only because they are girls is a gendercide. And it's an annual occurrence in the world's largest democracy that will happen again in 2015, and perhaps grow in numbers by 2016 and future years without pressure for change. So here's a hashtag to start a conversation: #Indiabringbackourgirls

The world is still largely writing science fiction scenarios about a society that selects its children on the basis of their genetics. But in India a terrible version of the future has arrived, and the defining preferred feature of a human baby has been narrowed down to Chromosome 23 specifically. In the last decade alone an XX there has been enough to illegally terminate up to 12m girl fetuses: monied, educated and tech savvy Indians want boy babies, and illegal sex selective terminations are how they make sure they get what they want.

Whilst sex selective terminations are illegal in India, medical staff in clinics break the law by taking the name of God to indicate to expectant parents their future child's gender: Jai Sri Krishna, the name of the god who wrote Hinduism's most sacred text, the Bhagavad Gita, means a baby boy; the phrase 'Jai Mata Ki', which ironically enough refers in Hinduism's cosmic lexicon to the Divine Creative Feminine principle that underlies all creation, is used as code for 'it's a girl' - words that signal to expectant mothers that they'll be visiting the operating theater for an illegal termination.

A 2011 study published in the Lancet found that increasing wealth and education are both contributing to an increase in illegal sex selective termination by India's relatively privileged. Across India, the report said, in the last two decades, women from 'higher income, better educated families were far more likely than poorer women to terminate a pregnancy if the child is a girl, especially during a second pregnancy if the firstborn child was a girl.'

But this is not just a story about the illegal extermination of girls before they're born. It is also a story about violence against women in Indian society. There are strong indicators that vast numbers of these illegal terminations are forcibly performed on women who are reluctant and unwilling to have them. These are women being forced by their husbands and in-laws, often physically beaten, burned or threatened with their life for refusing to terminate their babies that are girls. Dr. Mitu Khurana's story reported that after failing to persuade her to abort her girl child pre birth, her in laws tried to kill her four month old daughter; Nirmala Devi said in 2008, 'My husband beat me a lot and my mother-in-law tortured me' - she died during a forced illegal termination. Amisha Bhatt told the Times of India in 2009 'In the past nine years, they have coerced me into aborting five female fetuses.' The Lancet study reported that there were 500,000 illegal sex selective terminations happening a year. Exact numbers of how many women are being coerced into these procedures is not known but they're unlikely to be low: like Indian culture at large, even educated, qualified, economically secure Indians feel comfortable in violating female agency, in this case producing results that combine violence against women and the eradication of the girl child.

But male child preference is not the preserve of the affluent in India. The rich may have adopted technology to disappear unborn girls without getting their hands directly dirty, but the poor have - for thousands of years - rolled up their sleeves to get on with the dirty business of murdering their little girls.

Girl child infanticide comes at the hands of mothers, mid wives, fathers and grandmothers.Their methods display a full spectrum of barbaric ingenuity: from stuffing a baby girl inside a clay pot and sealing the lid with fresh dough (dead in two hours); to feeding her sweets laced with unhusked rice guaranteed to puncture her organs and bring about death; to squeezing the toxic milky sap from the pretty oleander plant, adding it to milk or castor oil and forcing it down a baby girl's throat. Sometimes midwives are less inventive but just as brutal: snapping a little girl's spine, or strangling her with a rope, forcing a lump of black salt or fertilizer down her throat.

In 1990, Amaryta Sen, India's only Nobel Laureate in economics, estimated that 100m girls had been either illegally terminated, or murdered as infants, or neglected to death by their parents or grandparents, or other family in India. These estimates are reflected in tragic real world statistics - India's sex ratio is now officially skewed: the 2011 Census showed that the Child Sex Ratio for the country as a whole is lower now than it has been for the last fifty year, falling from 976 in 1961 to 927 in 2001 and down to 914 in 2011.

The reasons for a social practice so difficult to comprehend are actually well documented.

For the poor, a son is a potential income generator and future care giver. In a country where a 2009 UNICEF report indicated that 47% of its girls were forced in to child marriages, a girl is perceived to be born for marriage and service to her husband and her husband's family. As such she can never bring resources or caregiving to her natal household. In addition, although also illegal, dowry is still commonly practiced throughout India: for a girl to have a chance on the marriage market, she needs to be accompanied with expensive accessories. Boys and their families demand fridges,TVs, cars and cash. Without them she'll most likely be either unchosen which will mean humiliation for her birth family, or if she does manage to marry, there is a high risk she will be tormented if not tortured or murdered by her in laws. In all these ways, a baby girl brings to poor families an unwanted and simply unmanageable expense. The estimates indicate that maybe as many as 600,000 little girls are murdered like this a year.

For the rich, the decision is not made of necessity but is an economically calculated free will choice, determined by gender bias: giving away a portion of accrued family wealth to another family via dowry at the time of marriage is unattractive. That combined with the leverage a boy child brings to acquire new material prosperity via dowry goods, as well as the domestic and caregiving support that an acquired daughter in law can provide, conflate to a set of reasons good enough for many to illegally terminate a girl fetus's life.

Either way, amongst rich and poor, what India reveals itself to have is a culture with the capacity for a rare type of ruthlessness: one that would see people turning to illegal methods of disposing of their born and unborn girl children simply to uphold and maintain a current social order and custom, rather than daring to, or even wanting to, challenge it.

And a challenge to the social order is what is desperately, urgently needed.

India's skewed gender ratio has serious implications for future generations of girls. Trafficking of young girls from parts of the country with denser female populations to those areas with scarcer female populations to be used by men for sex, often through the vehicle of marriage, is on the rise. There are increasing cases of polyandry in rural areas where the skewed gender ratio is at its worst, with reports of girls being forced into marrying as many as five men. Consent of women to marriage is seldom sought in India. 47% of India's girls are married as children in forced marriages. Once 'married', in another shocking state of affairs, marital rape is still not recognized by Indian law.

This is perhaps the bitterest pill to swallow in an already unpalatable situation: for those girls that do get to live to adulthood, the haunting consequence of the absence of 100m illegally terminated or murdered girls, is that the living are even more vulnerable to being trafficked and being sexually and physically abused because of the sheer numbers of those that have been illegally disappeared.

So here's what the #Indiabringbackourgirls is for: it's to raise awareness of one million girls a year being disappeared from India, not by armies at war, religious fundamentalists, or militant separatists, but at the hands the free citizens of an economically advancing democracy. It asks of India and Indians:

  • Every Indian with a voice, with access to education and resources, to challenge the current social order - shaped by millennia of of wrong thinking and rooted in a marriage to misogyny, that has reduced female life to worthlessness. They must demand change and commit to change.

  • A woman's absolute right to complete bodily integrity at all times to be recognized socially, culturally, and in law. Women who are being being violently coerced into these illegal sex selective terminations by husbands and in laws must have access to legal protection, support and resource, as well as a social and societal network of compassionate support and care.

  • Statutes and sentences must be introduced specifically for those that threaten, assault and attempt to harm or coerce women into any kind of procedure about their body.

  • Medical associations must prevent and bar medical professionals and clinicians who violate the much needed and carefully laid existing laws designed to ethically and legally afford women the right to choose an abortion legally.

  • And, for the poor at least, achieving change in this practice, means a real, actionable plan from the monied rich minority in India to ending poverty, so that the value of any human life is not measured by its economic potential.

Sixty seven years after Gandhi led an independence movement that enshrined equality for all in its constitution, India remains the fourth most dangerous place on the planet, after Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Pakistan, to be born female - and a country with a violence against women problem that often starts before a girl is even born.

From the outside looking in, we as a world can only say that we have noticed, and are unwilling to turn a blind a eye to cultural practices that permit a brutal combination of violence against women and a quiet gendercide against girl children. We ask for 2015 to be the year of progress: to be the year that it stops.

Like every new year, all over the world, 2015 represents another chance for humanity to demonstrate that we recognize that the true measure of being advanced lies not in economic or material status, but in whether or not we're getting better at being human.

Girls' lives matter. #Indiabringbackourgirls.