Girls killed at birth in some poor parts of India

February 22, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

JOTHIMANICKAM, India -- Lakshmi already had one daughter, so when she gave birth to a second girl, she killed her.

For the three days of her second child's short life, Lakshmi admits, she refused to nurse her. To silence the infant's famished cries, the impoverished village woman squeezed the milky sap from an oleander shrub, mixed it with castor oil, and forced the poisonous potion down the newborn's throat.

The baby bled from the nose, then died soon afterward. Female neighbors buried her in a small hole near Lakshmi's square thatched hut of sunbaked mud.

They sympathized with Lakshmi, and in the same circumstances, some would probably have done what she did. For despite the risk of execution by hanging and about 16 months of a much ballyhooed government scheme to assist families with daughters, in some hamlets of the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, murdering girls is still sometimes believed to be a wiser course than raising them.

"A daughter is always liabilities. How can I bring up a second?" Lakshmi, 28, answered firmly when asked by a visitor how she could have taken her own child's life eight years ago. "Instead of her suffering the way I do, I thought it was better to get rid of her."

The roots of the stubbornly persistent institution of female infanticide in this hard-scrabble rice and sugar-cane country are numerous and deep: pervasive and grinding poverty, an age-old bias against women, the traditions of some Hindu sub-castes.

"It's a centuries-old practice --women are perceived as a net loss to family wealth," said Krishnaswami Rajivan, chief government official in the district center of Madurai and himself the father of a daughter. "Women take away dowry and don't bring in a bride price. To the father of a child, a girl is net outflow."

To stanch that loss, some Tamil villagers, often the mother's mother-in-law, will kill a newborn if it turns out to be a girl.

Their act is extreme, but these mostly impoverished people are far from being the only Indians who do not want daughters. More affluent residents of Bombay and other cities simply use a more clinical procedure -- the abortion of a fetus if an ultrasound test shows it to be female.

In Jaipur, capital of the western state of Rajasthan, prenatal sex determination tests result in an estimated 3,500 abortions of female fetuses annually, one recent medical college study showed.

Spending money to raise a daughter, traditional Indian logic holds, is as wasteful as watering your neighbor's garden. Consequently, surveys show girls are fed less than boys and given less medical care.

Not surprising, then, that India is becoming decidedly more male: From 972 females for every 1,000 males in 1901, the most recent census showed the gender imbalance has tilted to 929 females per 1,000 males.

In the nearly 300 poor hamlets of the Usilampatti area of Tamil Nadu, as many as 196 girls died under suspicious circumstances last year. Some were fed dry, unhulled rice that punctured their windpipes, or were made to swallow poisonous powdered fertilizer. Others were smothered with a wet towel, strangled or allowed to starve to death.

"Killing isn't a big sin up there," said Francis Xavier Amalraj, head of the Usilampatti office of the quasi-governmental Indian Council for Child Welfare.

Families who selectively kill their daughters face legal risks that usually mean nothing in reality. In Madras, Tamil Nadu's capital, top social welfare officials know of only 11 prosecutions for infant murder in the first 12 months of a state program against female infanticide launched in October 1992. In theory, a conviction could mean life imprisonment or even the death penalty.

Many births take place in isolated villages, with only female friends and the midwife present. If a child dies, the women can always blame natural causes.

Other infants are abandoned and become wards of the state until adoptive families can be found.

Tamil Nadu was slow to react to female infanticide even though it is India's only state headed by a woman. But its program against the practice, now 16 months old, seeks to make it worth a family's financial while to keep the child.

Simultaneously, foreign-funded charities offer incentives for parents to keep their daughters.

Results are mixed. Recent statistics from Usilampatti indicate that the killings continue. But in Tamil Nadu's Salem district, the other locale notorious for the practice, Public Health Department surveys show a sharp decline in the death of babies from "social causes," the euphemism for female infanticide.

The leaders of Tamil Nadu are holding out a tempting carrot to couples in the state with one or two daughters and no sons: If one parent undergoes sterilization, the government will give the family $160 in aid per child. The money will be paid in installments as the girl goes through school.

She will also get a small gold ring and on her 20th birthday, a lump sum of $650 to serve as her dowry or defray the expenses of higher education.

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