Book Review: Disappearing Daughters: The Tragedy of Female Foeticide by Gita Aravamudan

A shocking and chilling study of systematic extermination of women

Some books are shocking, some are provocative and some are outrageous. However, there are only a few that force the reader out of passive reverie; Disappearing Daughters lies in the category of those few.

True to its title, page after page, the author makes the chilling and horrendous discoveries fostered and encouraged by men and women alike with a collective aim of exterminating women from the face of earth.

What comes out is a frightening and terrifying truth, “Female infanticide is akin to serial killing. But female foeticide was more like a holocaust. A whole gender is getting exterminated. It is a silent and smoothly executed crime which leaves no waves in its wake. It is happening while we, as a nation, slumber.

Deploying the tools of investigative journalism, the author systematically proceeds to uncover the truth behind the claims of female infanticide and foeticide; however, what she discovers in her quest is more unnerving than she had initially thought of. The longing for a son is not isolated to any pocket or region, caste or class but is found across the length and breadth of the country, “Killing girl children also seemed to be a kind of pan national ‘tradition’”.

As the author delves deeper into this social evil, she realizes that women are helpless victims and have no control over their own bodies, let alone the choice of keeping the girl child, “When a woman killed her own daughter, who was the victim and who the perpetrator?

As Lakshmi puts it so succinctly, “What power do you think I have over my womb? None. Do I have any right to decide if I can keep this child if it is a girl? No.” Women are acculturated to “internalize this gender bias in favour of male children and kills her own female children in secret, even at the cost of endangering her own mental and physical health.

In Disappearing Daughters, the author traces the shift from female infanticide to foeticide with the advancement of technology. As “Killing a baby after it was born might generate a sense of guilt and invite punishment, but aborting a child in the womb was an unseen and comparatively safe act”, the extermination of a girl child has become more widespread with the advent of new technology as evidenced by the figures recorded in the 2001 census. “In 1991, in India, there were 945 girls to every 1000 boys…However, by 2001, this number had fallen to an abysmal 927.” As the situation continues to worsen, the child sex ratio has plummeted to 919 females according to 2011 census.

Deflating the myth that it is the uneducated and illiterate who indulge in the gruesome practice of killing a girl child, the author shocks the reader with her finding that “Sophisticated Delhi with its large urban educated population was the city where most girls were going missing…The worst hit was south Delhi, home to the rich and elite and presumably most educated.” As the author probes further, she discerns “As the education levels of the parents went further up, the SRB amazingly decreased…Such highly educated parents in fact seemed to prefer to have just one single male child.

With grave sadness, the author asks, “Were women always so unwanted in a country which is supposed to revere them?” Tracing the tradition of killing female infants to Atharva Veda, “’Let a female child be born somewhere else. Here, let a male child be born’”, the author realises that since Vedic times, women are branded as burdens and the property of men.

So, in a society where women are relegated to the status of a commodity; will the status of women ever improve?

As the medical science advanced, the child sex ratio plummeted. The ultrasound scan machines came as a boon, “a kind of miracle machine”, aborting female foetuses was projected as a method of population control, an act of “family balancing”. Even after the implementation of PNDT Act, the ultrasound scanning has become a Rs. 500 crore industry by 2005, a weapon of “organized genocide”. As the women disappeared, communities started purchasing brides from outside which paved the way for another gruesome form of sexual exploitation, polyandry. As these brides are never accepted as a part of a family and denigrated to the status of domestic slave, they are shared by brothers so as to keep the other male members of family from getting married and further division of property. “Forced polyandry, purchasing women as sex slaves and household chattels, female infanticide…could the status of women be worse?

As a son hungry society marches forward with determination to eliminate women, the womb is ravaged again and again, “The ravaged womb is no longer a sanctuary for the unborn daughter…Daughters have no place to hide any more because even the safest place on earth has been invaded.

Even the traditional matrilineal societies where females enjoyed better status than men traditionally have started feeling the tremors as well. However, the female infanticide and foeticide cannot be tackled in isolation as it is attached to the bigger monster, Dowry, “Boys were assets because they brought in money. Girls were liabilities because they took it away. Like all good business people, families wanted more assets.

Renuka Chowdhury, the erstwhile Minister for Women and Child Welfare said in 2006, “‘Indian women are more endangered than tigers” and the rate at which the situation is plummeting from bad to worse, the day when the women will be exterminated from India is not far behind. The author sadly concludes, “…that no amount of legislation could take this away.” When the mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers are determined to kill their own flesh and blood, who should these unborn foetuses turn to? Certainly, law makers cannot stop this holocaust. There are no answers let alone easy, especially not when “women were inferior had become ingrained in men and women alike across the country.” Although the end of a tunnel is dark, the author concludes with a prescription, “Society needs to accept them as vital members of a family unit. Not as dowry-bringers. Or as son-bearing machines.” But will it happen, if at all, ever? As the author says, “It should have happened yesterday. It ought to happen today. Because tomorrow may just be too late…

It’s been more than eight years since the publication of the book, no change is in sight yet, if anything the situation has worsened. Will the change happen in my lifetime? I certainly hope so.

Title: Disappearing Daughters: The Tragedy of Female Foeticide

Author: Gita Aravamudan

Publisher: Penguin Books India

Genre: Non Fiction

Pages: 187

Rating: 5/5

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About the Author

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Gita Aravamudan was born in Bangalore. She started her journalistic career at Hindustan Times, New Delhi, at a time when there were very few women in journalism. She has also worked with and written for Indian Express, India Today, Sunday, Filmfare, Femina, Illustrated Weekly and Sunday Midday. Her first book, Voices in My Blood, was published in 1990. Her second book, Disappearing Daughters: The Tragedy of Female Infanticide, was published in 2007 and became an instant bestseller. The Healing is her first novel.

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