In order to battle the ancient scourge of female infanticide (that is, the abandonment or killing of unwanted baby girls), the government of Tamil Nadu in southern India has operated a program for the past two decades -- "The Cradle Baby Scheme" -- under which young mothers can quietly and anonymously hand over their newborns to the state, with no questions asked.
Under the scheme, parents -- usually poverty-stricken couples or single mothers -- can leave their infants in government offices, welfare centers or cradles at local hospitals. In some cases, the parents actually hand over their unwanted babies to state welfare officers in person. Then, officials register the infants with orphanages, hoping the children will be adopted.
In Tamil Nadu, as in virtually all other parts of India, female offspring are considered a financial burden -- partly due to the patriarchal system, widespread poverty, the prohibitively high cost of dowries and the culturally ingrained low status for females -- which often leads to families discarding or killing their own female infants.
"There is a very high incidence of female infanticide in these parts," A. Devaki, a government child-protection officer in Tamil Nadu’s Salem district, told Reuters. “Often babies are found in ditches and garbage pits. Some are alive, others are dead. Just last week, we found a newborn baby girl barely breathing in a dustbin [trash-can] at the local bus stand.” Devaki added that most poor families can tolerate one baby girl, but no more than that. “That's why we introduced the Cradle Baby Scheme,” she explained.
Tamil Nadu officials claim the project, which commenced in 1992 and now operates in 32 mostly poor districts, has saved the lives of more than 3,600 infant girls -- who have been placed in orphanages, in foster homes or into adoption -- who otherwise would have been destroyed. Typically, these children find homes with middle-class childless couples in the province. The program, the local government cites, has also raised the ratio of girls to boys in several districts of Tamil Nadu.
However, some human right activists charge that the scheme has produced a tragically unintended consequence -- that by providing an ‘easy way out’ of getting rid of unwanted baby girls, the cultural practice of female abandonment and oppression has only intensified in the region. “The government is legitimizing the dumping of girls,” said M. Shankar of the Development Education and Environment Protection Society, a Tamil Nadu-based gender rights activist group. “They are saying, ‘It’s okay if you don’t want a girl baby. We will take care of it for you.’ Girls are still being killed. Authorities should be working on supporting families which are expecting babies with counseling and immediate financial support so they can look after girls as soon as they’re born.”
Indeed, the wholesale disregard for the life of baby girls is widespread across India -- literally millions have been murdered, often by their own parents. The numbers are terrifying. A study published in the British science journal Lancet in 2011 determined that some 12 million girls were aborted over the past three decades (and this figure does not even include the killing of infant females who actually emerged from their mothers’ wombs to breathe some life). On top of an already-disturbingly high mortality rate of female babies (estimated at 52 deaths for every 1,000 live births in 2009; versus 49 for boys); untold more female infants are killed shortly after birth.
Among other things, this is skewing the sex ratio in the country. Overall, according to the Indian Census, as of 2011, there were 919 girls for every 1,000 boys, down from 976 girls for every 1000 boys in 1961. In some parts of the country, there are as few as 780 girls per 1000 boys. “I had initially thought [the skewed gender ratios] was primarily [the result of] female feticide, even though I suspected that a large number of girls were getting killed after birth,” said Rita Banerji, the founder of the @50millionmissin campaign, which raises awareness about the falling numbers of girls in India, to Reuters. “But what has come as a shock to even me is that most of the girls that go ‘missing’ do so after birth. I think it means that we, India and the world, are looking on as the genocide of a human group continues to escalate unchallenged, and unabated.”
Indeed, the preference for boys is deeply rooted in ancient customs, and remains prevalent in traditional rural areas. Dhruv Sanghavi, an Indian activist based in Delhi told HETQ Online, an Armenian news agency: “I have a few friends that come from the state of Rajasthan which is a northwestern state in India which borders… Pakistan. In that state, there are villages which are famous for having not a single girl child at all and so there are only male children in villages. In Rajasthan there are numerous reports every year that the girl child as soon as she is born is killed.”
Female infanticide also occurs among India’s wealthy classes. While using ultrasound tests to determine an unborn child’s gender is illegal in India, affluent families sometimes pay for such medical examinations. If the fetus is a female, an abortion often ensues. Sanghavi added: “These aren't unique cases. I do not think that when you have villages with only men and only boys, this can be called to be unique. Of course, if you look at the whole population of India, there are few cases that come to light. But these cases do show that these practices are still prevalent. Of course, they are not a majority. But the fact that it still happens in some rural areas as a matter of practice is shocking indeed.”
For poor couples who cannot even afford ultrasound tests, they often resort to more primitive, low-tech measures to murder their unwanted issue -- for example, earlier this summer, as Reuters cited, local media in Tamil Nadu reported on the horrific tale of a father in Dharmapuri district who already had four girls and is suspected of killing his fifth daughter, only three weeks old, by poisoning her milk. Such killings are rarely prosecuted -- even if a case of female infanticide is provable, criminal prosecutions are rare or very slow.
Sanghavi explained: “Whenever these cases come to light and whenever it is brought before the judicial system, they are brought to justice. Of course, there is lot of manipulation that can be done with the judicial system, as well, but most definitely our judiciary is strong and independent and does take action whenever possible.”
Dr. Anita Raj, Professor in the Division of Global Public Health, Department of Medicine at the University of California in San Diego, told International Business Times that, unfortunately, abandoned girls are very vulnerable in India and elsewhere to many forms of abuse and exploitation, and from a variety of perpetrators.
“I think we would do better to improve girls' value in families and safety generally than to trade one set of risks for another, with the hope that a lesser evil will be gained,” she commented.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.