Girl power

Naunidhi Kaur describes how the success of policies to improve the status of women in the Indian state of Kerala is being felt even in the orphanages in the state.

IN Sreekariyam, in the southern Indian state of Kerala, childless couple Josy and Neera have spent more than a year awaiting news from a local adoption centre. Since their application was approved, the agency has thrice offered them a baby boy - yet the couple have decided to hold out for their first choice.

'Both of us have agreed that we will wait for a girl,' the future father says. Their determination is not unusual in Kerala: recent statistics from the state's main adoption centre reveal that Keralites prefer girls, with the adoption ratio in favour of girls as high as 5:1 in 1994-1995.

A social worker at the adoption agency concurs: 'Couples would rather not adopt boys, although they are available at much shorter notice.'

A few thousand kilometres away in the Indian capital of New Delhi, the attitudes of adopting couples couldn't be more different.

'If we adopt a girl she will have to be married off with a huge dowry,' says Shivagi, a prospective parent who expects a boy to support her in her old age. 'We cannot afford a girl.'

Gender bias

Data from the Co-ordinating Voluntary Adoption Resource Agency, which oversees eight adoption centres in Delhi, confirms the gender bias - boys accounted for nearly 58% of adoptions between 1988 and 1992.

'There is always a long wait for baby boys,' says agency president Vinita Bhargava. 'Most families want to adopt only one child - a boy.'

While thousands of girls languish unwanted in most Indian orphanages, they are at least alive and have a future. Out the preference for sons in most of South and East Asia, including China, Korea and Bangladesh, often leads some parents to take desperate and violent measures against their daughters.

Rooted in the perception that only a boy will grow up to provide economic security for elderly parents, particularly vulnerable widows, female infanticide is still practised in rural India and China.

In India, nearly 300,000 more girls than boys die annually in childhood because they are neglected when ill and denied enough food. Although banned in many states, sex selection testing (amniocentesis) has been widely available for the past 20 years, leading to the practice of aborting female foetuses.

While exact figures are unknown, researcher Govind Kelkar estimates that 78,000 such abortions took place in India between 1978 and 1983. A 1990 study of amniocentesis in a large Mumbai (Bombay) hospital found that 95.5% of female foetuses were aborted compared to a negligible number of male foetuses.

Twenty-five per cent of the approximately 12 million girls born in India each year do not survive to see their 15th birthday because of the low value society accords them.

Based on 1981 and 1991 census figures, experts from the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation in southern India report that despite improvements in the economy and provision of basic services, every sixth female death is due to gender discrimination.

Kerala, an exception

But Kerala, ruled by a coalition of left-wing political parties, remains the notable exception.

It is the only Indian state with a historical absence of sex bias: its gender ratio is 1,036 women to 1,000 men (the national figure is 927 women); life expectancy is 69 years for men and 72 for women compared to the national average of 62 and 63; the infant mortality rate is 13 per 1,000 births compared to India's 65; Keralite women marry later than other Indian women and have fewer children.

High female participation in the labour force, women's right to inherit land and other family assets and near-universal literacy among girls and women have also helped erode the stereotype that only men can be breadwinners and support elderly parents.

'In Kerala it is not unusual to find housewives pursuing doctoral degrees,' says Sugatha Kumari, chairwoman of the state's Commission for Women.

By contrast, in the northern state of Punjab, with one of the lowest female sex ratios in the country, patriarchal traditions rule, reinforcing son-preference.

Here, only men can inherit property. They also acquire wealth from wives' parents through dowry. Daughters are considered transitory household members since their marriage means the unilateral transfer of considerable wealth from the family coffers.

The above article appeared in Developments (Third Quarter 1999). Naunidhi Kaur works with the NGO, PANOS.