Ultrasound used to eliminate female fetuses in India

December 29, 1991|By New York Times News Service

ROHTAK, India -- Jagmati Sangwan, her daughter at her side, leafed through the ledger at a sidewalk clinic in this dusty, rundown town in Hariana state recently. A sign on a lamppost read: "Ultrasound. Healthy Boy or Girl." The word "healthy," though, was so minute that the sign appeared to read: "Boy or Girl."

"These are the names of the women who come here to make sure they aren't pregnant with daughters," said Mrs. Sangwan, closing the ledger and emerging from the clinic into a harsh, sunlit afternoon. "If the test says girl, then she will have an abortion.

"No one wants girls," Mrs. Sangwan said. "Girl babies get worse attention than boy babies. They get worse medical care. If it is a serious illness, for a girl they may ignore it. There is discrimination in giving food to a girl. They do not get as much. We want to make these sex-determination tests illegal. We think it is an attack on the existence of women."

The preference for male children in Asian societies is well known, but in India, and particularly in Hariana state, census data are revealing a dramatic skewing of sex ratios. Cheap, available technology has made it possible, even in rural areas, for people to select the sex of their children.

The situation has become so serious that the United Nations Fund for Population Activities commissioned a study of the condition of women in this state, which lies on three sides of New Delhi.

It is the second-richest India state, but also the state with the second-highest percentage of its population below the poverty line. In Hariana, a state of 16.3 million people, there are 874 females for every 1,000 males, the lowest ratio of any of India's 14 major states.

"It is generally recognized," the report for the United Nations said, "that adverse sex ratio occurs not because fewer girls are born (or conceived) but because fewer are allowed to be born or to survive."

Mrs. Sangwan, the 31-year-old secretary of the state branch of the All India Democratic Women's Association, has been lobbying the legislature for five years to outlaw sex-selection tests, but the legislature has ignored her and the group of women with whom she works.

"When a boy is born, the neighbors will gather after six days to celebrate, to sing folk songs," she said. "Never with a girl. A bell is made from a metal thali dish and rung for the birth of a boy. There is no banging for a girl.

"In rural areas, women are not even considered people," Mrs. Sangwan continued. "They are not even called by their own name. They are 'the wife of,' 'the mother of.' "

Over the last decade, the availability of compact ultrasound machines has changed the way in which many of the state's doctors have treated pregnant women. The machines, used in the developed world to evaluate the health of the fetus, are used almost exclusively here to determine the sex of the unborn child.

"The doctors who are doing this have stopped all other kinds of medicine," said Dr. Jaswant Singh, who teaches at the Rohtak Medical College. "This is all they are doing. They are making a lot of money. They import these machines, and there is no duty because they are essential, needed medical machines. And these tests are in fact very crude. They can only really be certain of the sex after 16 weeks, which is a bit dangerous for an abortion."

In many cases, Dr. Singh said, a woman will be told her fetus is female, but after the abortion it is found that the fetus was actually a male. "She is never told," he said.

Much of the pressure on women here to submit to the ultrasound tests, he said, comes from the husband and relatives. "We know of many cases where the woman was not keen on this test, but their family pressured them," Dr. Singh said.

Dr. Mohinder Kumar Vishnoi, who runs the General Hospital here, approaches despair when he discusses the plight of women.

"The female child is a liability here," he said, explaining the predominant attitude among both rural and urban dwellers toward women. "They feel that they have to look after her from birth. At the time of the marriage they have to give a big dowry, even if they are poor. Whenever a daughter has a child, they have to give something. So they think a daughter is a liability for life."

Conversely, women who fail to produce a male child are frequently abandoned, or the man simply takes a second wife. According to the report for the United Nations, 39 percent of the women surveyed said that it was common practice in their villages for men to engage in bigamy.

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