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A deadly politics of wealth: femicide in India

Census data shows that poverty and illiteracy are not key factors in India’s female genocide as many assume. The survival of girls is determined by a patriarchal politics of wealth control.

Prime Minister Modi’s ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padao’ (Save the Girl, Educate the Girl) programme, launched in January 2015, was the first time since independence that the Indian government had raised the issue of female genocide in a public campaign. British census data in the 18th century had attributed India’s skewed sex ratio to female infanticide and other forms of femicide, such as sati, but after independence subsequent governments remained bizarrely indifferent to the issue even as it reached epidemic proportions.

Expanding Worlds: mural on the wall of a girls high school depicting career options for women. Photo: Rita Banerji

Modi’s initiative was all the more surprising, given that Gujarat had recorded the lowest Child Sex Ratio (CSR) for girls under his stewardship as state minister.  Mr. Modi’s views on women often infuriated women’s activists, for example when he attributed  the high rate of malnutrition among girls under five in his state to dieting and fashion consciousness.  However, as Prime Minister, his Save the Girl campaign appears to have the imprint of Maneka Gandhi’s (the Women and Child Development Minister) independent thinking on women’s issues.  Mr. Modi observed that female genocide  is a national “crisis” although his plea to let girls live and to educate them was framed as the ‘Prime Minister… begging for the lives of daughters’ rather than in the language of rights.

India’s female genocide is widely attributed to poverty and illiteracy even though data and facts say otherwise. As India’s most recent census data from 2011 shows, the CSR, which is the ratio of girls to boys from birth to six years, is best among the poorest and least educated communities. Globally a CSR of 950 girls to 1000 boys is considered ‘normal’.  CSR in India gets worse in proportion to increases in wealth and education. The wealthiest states have a CSR of 850 and below, much lower than the national CSR of 914 in the 2011 census, itself the lowest since India’s independence. This correlation between increase in wealth and a corresponding increase in the rate of killing of girls in the 0-6years age group is repeated across the spectrum in neighbourhoods, districts, villages, cities and states.  Even a religion wise comparison reveals that the worst CSRs are to be found among the wealthiest communities: the Sikhs and the Jains. Conversely, the highest CSRs are among the tribal and lower caste communities who are also the poorest and least educated.  Yet even among the tribals, when there’s access to wealth through education and jobs, there is a corresponding decline in CSR.  Kerala, with its matrilineal past and no history of female infanticide, had a higher than national average CSR which was always attributed to its high literacy rate (almost 92%). However by the 2011 census Kerala too showed a drop of 8.44% in CSR with reports of rampant foeticide and infanticide. This corresponded with an influx of wealth (almost $20 billion/year) into this historically communist state from Indians working overseas.

What is this driving compulsion to be rid of daughters, particularly with upward social mobility? The answer is dowry - the insidious, misogynist, patriarchal politics of wealth ownership and distribution. The more wealth a family accrues, the more invested it becomes in the patriarchal retention of that wealth and views daughters as a threat to that goal.  Indeed, the more educated a daughter is, and wealthier her family, the bigger the dowry she is expected to bring. Dowry is seen as a way of dispensing with a daughter who then can make no further claims on the family’s inheritance, but because of their education daughters are increasingly fighting for their legal share of parental property. On the other hand, a man not only has an inherent right to his own parents’ property but to his wife’s parents’ wealth too. A son is an easy means of wealth acquisition; the more educated he is, the larger the dowry the family feels entitled to demand. Indeed there are openly exchanged dowry rate charts that list copious amounts of cash, luxury cars, property and gold and diamond jewellery by the kilos.  In fact wealthier neighbourhoods record the highest rates of dowry violence and dowry related murders and suicides.

Nonetheless, this clear correlation of wealth and education with female genocide is anything but an evil-rich and pious-poor divide. The factors that save girls in poorer and illiterate communities, or at least don’t kill them in the same high proportions, are an inverted extension of the same patriarchal system in which women are simply dehumanised and turned into buyable, sellable, usable and disposable commodities. Daughters in poorer homes are allowed to live because as children they can be put to the economic servitude of their families. Poor families use daughters for cleaning, cooking, fetching fuel and water, and for earning an income for the family.  Millions of girls are leased or sold by their families for work as domestic help in urban areas, as labour in fields and factories, and to the sex industry. Another thriving business involves the sale of thousands of girls as ’brides’ through a network of agents to wealthier states with low sex ratios. These girls are kept as slaves, to sexually abuse, to bear babies, and are abused and exploited by all the men of the house, before they are resold as ‘bride’ to another family. In Hyderabad, there’s a flourishing business where wealthy paedophiles from Gulf countries pay poor Muslim families handsomely to arrange a temporary “marriage” with their underage daughters, who they enslave, abuse and divorce before returning to their countries. There are also thriving baby trafficking networks, often operating out of government orphanages, where the babies, all girls, can be bought for as little as Rs 5000/- (approx. £60) from poor tribal communities.

However, there are also numerous tribal communities like the Bedia, the Banchada, Kanjar, Sansi and Nut, where traditionally the sex trafficking of daughters and sisters has been a primary source of income for families and is considered a ‘family trade.’ These communities are also known to openly auction the virginities of their daughters as young as ten, for large sums to the highest bidders. The 2011 census’s CSR for the Bedia population shows an interesting anomaly.  While tribal communities generally have normal CSRs of about 950, census data shows the Bedia community with a CSR of 1276, which is abnormally high.  Investigations reveal that tribal communities like the Bedia and Nut have interstate networks to traffic girl babies, who they  adopt and raise as their own ‘daughters’ and prep for the ‘family trade’ by injecting them with hormones to sexually develop them by the time they are seven and eight.

Although the ‘Save the Girl, Educate the Girl’ campaign is well-funded, its emphasis on rhetoric instead of strategic and well thought out projects puts into question its ability to accomplish its goals. Common sense says that the focus needs to be on the middle and upper classes where census data shows CSR to be the worst. Yet, the campaign focuses on rural and poorer districts, instead of targeting the more powerful classes for fear of a political backlash.

Colour My Life: a mother buys a colouring book for her daughter from a vendor outside a primary school. Photo: Rita Banerji

A popular rural project that’s been massively funded by this campaign is the planting of trees at the birth of a daughter. The logic behind planting trees is that fathers of girls can harvest these trees to pay dowry. Encouraging the custom of dowry, the very factor contributing to female genocide, contradicts the campaign’s aims. Two of the most important and likely to be effective projects suggested at the campaign’s inauguration unfortunately have not yet seen the light of day, and must be implemented.  One of these projects is putting up public boards that note the CSR of every neighbourhood, on a monthly basis, thereby forcing members of communities to be watchful of and accountable to each other. These particularly must be set up in urban, middle and upper class areas in coordination with police and legal cells for effective action.  

The second recommended project that must be implemented is the compulsory registration of all births and deaths of girl children. Additionally, there must be a system of compulsory monitoring of all girls till they reach the age of 15, as 95 % of girls are killed or go missing between the ages of 1-15 years. Indeed, the low CSR is often falsely assumed to be due to sex-selective abortion. The breakdown of the CSR census data shows that more than 84% girls are actually killed from age one to six years.  Less than one million girls were eliminated through sex selection and/or killed as infants after birth and up to age one. But by age six, that number escalated and  7 million girls were exterminated. 

In order to save girls, the implementation of these two projects must be the campaign’s number one priority.

About the author

Rita Banerji is a writer, photographer and gender activist. Her book 'Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies' is a historical study of the relationship between gender, sexuality and power in India. She is the founder and director of The 50 Million Missing Campaign, a global campaign to end India's female gendercide. Twitter handle: @rita_banerji


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