News & Current Affairs

August 20, 2008

Struggling with India’s gender bias

Struggling with India’s gender bias

The number of female foetuses being aborted in India is rising, as ultrasound is increasingly used to predict the sex of babies.

What would you do if your husband’s family did not want you to have daughters – and insisted you took steps to make sure it did not happen?

Would you walk out or would you stay on and take a chance?

What if the bias against girls is reflected across society? Would that mean you could not make it on your own?

Vaijanti is an Indian woman who says she faces this dilemma.

She lives in the city of Agra, home to the Taj Mahal, perhaps the world’s most famous monument to a woman, the wife of a Mughal emperor.

“I had a lot of dreams in my heart,” Vaijanti says, “just like in the movies… but now I think of love as a betrayal.”

Vaijanti has taken her husband to court, saying he and his family insisted that she have an abortion because a scan showed she was expecting a girl.

Having already had one daughter, she says the pressure to abort the second child was intense.

So Vaijanti moved out of the marital home and now lives apart from her husband – with her two girls.

Gender skew

Testing and aborting for gender selection are illegal in India and Vaijanti’s husband and in-laws deny the charges against them.

Despite the obvious bitterness between her and her husband’s family, reconciliation is still possible.

Girl child

Girls still face discrimination in modern Indian society

But Vaijanti was unsure of what to do next. We wanted to find out if she thought India really is a country biased against young girls.

Despite the law, some Indians clearly are using ultrasound techniques to scan for female foetuses, in order to abort them.

Figures suggest as many as a million such foetuses could be aborted every year in India.

It is unlikely nature alone accounts for this gender skew – in Delhi, for instance, only 821 girls are born for every 1,000 boys.

Many Indian families regard daughters as a liability.

Expensive dowries must be arranged for their weddings and they frequently move into their husband’s households – making it less likely they will support ageing parents.

As Vaijanti had never travelled beyond Agra, director Nupur Basu took her on a whistle-stop tour of India.

In Rajasthan, she meets Jasbir Kaur, who left her husband after facing a similar predicament.

Told she should abort her girl triplets, she decided to go ahead and have them anyway.

She is a potential role model for Vaijanti, telling her: “You must educate your girls. Don’t lose courage. Don’t feel alone.”

Although millions of Indian girls are still left out of formal education, Jasbir Kaur’s three girls are doing fine in the local school.

Icon of globalization

In Delhi, there is good and bad news. Vaijanti meets women who have come into Delhi filled with hope, but end up begging on the streets.

In many places, boys are unable to agree to find girls to marry. Because of this, the nation will soon face an unimaginable crisis
Renuka Chowdhury
Minister for women

She also visits a disco for the first time in her life – no den of iniquity but a place where she meets some bright young women with good cheer and strong advice.

In Bangalore, there are also two sides to the picture.

This is the city that is world famous as an icon of globalisation and woman’s empowerment.

It has young girls working in IT, making good careers, and scooting around town on mopeds, listening to their iPods.

But there is another Bangalore – where some families still demand the expensive dowries traditionally given by a bride’s family to the in-laws.

And while Bangalore’s senior managers may encourage women, younger men may still question their qualifications and their right to work.

Finally Nupur also takes Vaijanti to Mahatma Gandhi’s retreat, where she hears that the revered leader was concerned about the bias against women.

Writer Tridip Suhrud says Mahatma Gandhi “would have been deeply perturbed with this entire social surge of… civilization to acquire this hard militant, masculine self-identity”.

He adds: “He would have fought it with femininity.”

‘Grave situation’

We wanted to make this film after a leading development expert, Kevin Watkins, suggested India had a curiously ambivalent role in the globalisation debate.

Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal was conceived as a monument to an emperor’s wife

Its booming economy is cause for hope, and the government is clearly concerned about both gender and economic inequality.

But if huge swathes of the populace do not share the increasing wealth, the whole Indian model of development may be called into question.

Meantime, Vaijanti’s immediate concern is India’s missing girls – unborn because of the desire to have boys.

Vaijanti and Nupur call on Renuka Chowdhury, the minister for women, who says: “This is a very, very grave situation.”

She adds: “In many places, boys are unable to agree to find girls to marry. Because of this, the nation will soon face an unimaginable crisis.”

When Vaijanti left Agra she was quiet but watchful. At the journey’s end, she is calm and eloquent as she weighs up whether to seek reconciliation with her husband’s family.

“I feel at peace… I will go back to Agra now and think about what I should do for my daughters and myself. I will go back and think about my decision.”


A selection of your comments on this story:

Nowadays females are doing much better in many fields. I think it is time now that men pay a dowry to see how it feels. We as men would not have been here without women. In our family women have studied at a higher level than the men, so where is the difference? I have daughter and son, and as my daughter is older, I have explained to her that she will be the head of the household after us in all aspects.
Ganesh, Vijayawada, India

How very sad and so short-sighted to consider abortion because of gender. Some parts of China already face a serious shortage of women for the very same reason. Why can’t people recognise that both genders are valuable but for very different reasons? As someone who strongly advocates a woman’s right to reproductive choices, it seems to me that the worldwide problem is not gender, but rather overpopulation.
Lisa, United States

The practice of dowry-giving by the bride’s family devalues women in society and is responsible for the widespread practice of aborting female foetuses. The skewing of boys to women born to families represents a social time-bomb. The law in India must be rigorously enforced with immediate effect.
Shouvik Datta, Prague, Czech Republic

I don’t understand why in Indian and European cultures, the tradition of the woman’s family paying a dowry to the man’s came about. In Chinese culture, the dowry or “bride-gold” is paid by the man’s family – which makes a lot more sense considering how much labour and other economic benefits a housewife ends up contributing in an old-fashioned family.
Shi-Hsia Hwa, Penang, Malaysia

This article creates an impression that the cause of all the gender bias in India are males. That is not what I saw when growing up in India. Several of the discriminatory, abusive practices against females are carried on by females themselves. Many times men have no part in this, nor do they have such intentions.
Kamal, Portland, USA

India is definitely a country biased against young girls and I am stating this as a fact, being a girl born in India. It is still a matter of pride to bear a male child and people still express their deep sympathy for a girl child. It sickens and saddens me to see so much hypocrisy in our society where goddesses are worshipped in temples and female babies are aborted and killed at homes.
Anisa Chaudhary, USA

My mother was one of these ladies. She was married at the age of twelve and was pregnant by the age of thirteen and a half. My father found out that I was going to be a girl and ordered my mother to have an abortion. When she refused, he and my grandfather beat her. A tourist saw them and stopped them. My mother married this wonderful stranger who brought her here and accepted me as his daughter.
Nia, Johannesburg, South Africa

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August 8, 2008

Kosovo lives: Not gone with the wind

Kosovo lives: Not gone with the wind

Courtesy BBC

Sani, Lili and Dani Nikolic in their room at the Greek K-For camp

The three women thought they would be left alone in Urosevac after the war because there were no men in their house

In the fifth and final piece by BBC journalists on life in Kosovo today, Patrick Jackson meets three Slovenian-Serb women who intend to be the bane of K-For’s life until they regain their ancestral home.

Their great-grandfather built Urosevac, the Nikolic daughters like to say, so how can they leave it now?

Sani (Santipa), the very image of mildness and physical slightness, beams mischievously at the memory of how she floored a US soldier with her karate skills, the day K-For came to evacuate her family.

I am not saying she is over 60, because her disabled younger sister Lili (Liljana) reminded me, when I inquired, that you must never ask a lady her age. A smile of assent crossed the mask-like face of their blind mother Dani (Daniela).

However, the soldier’s commanding officer was certainly impressed by Sani’s resilience, telling her she was “as tough as a Texan lady”, according to Lili.

The Americans evacuated them from Urosevac (Ferizaj in Albanian) on 18 March 2004, to save them from Albanian rioters, who then destroyed the house.

But the Nikolic women have refused to join the thousands of other non-Albanians who fled (most of them in June 1999).

They argue that K-For failed to defend their property and removed them against their will, so it should take them back.

And that is how they come to be living today inside a Greek army base outside Urosevac.

Sickbay

The sole civilians to live on a base in K-For’s eastern sector have a medical ward to themselves at Camp Rigas Fereos.

The Nikolic family's cooking arrangements in the camp

The facilities in the room meet the family’s basic needs

It is a large, spotlessly clean room equipped with the bare essentials such as a fridge and a microwave oven, but no television set or radio.

From the window they can see only the camp and the mountains in the distance. Some paper religious icons are stuck to the blank white walls.

What personal effects they have seem all to come from charity.

Asked what she misses most from her home, Daniela says her family photographs and her jewellery, including her wedding ring from her husband who died before the war (she had taken it off to wash her hands the morning they were evacuated).

There is also the antique furniture, her library of 1,800 “beautiful books in five languages” and her paintings, especially a 17th-Century Italian Madonna she brought with her from her native Slovenia when she married her Serb husband.

Theirs was a wealthy family in its time, Lili explains. Their great-grandfather helped found Urosevac, a late 19th-Century town that arose around the new Belgrade-Thessaloniki railway, after he persuaded the Turkish authorities to let him build there.

Thessaloniki played a new role in the Nikolic family’s history in 2004, when Greek K-For, having sheltered the evacuees at Camp Rigas Fereos for four months, transferred them to its military hospital.

All three women needed specialised medical help.

A military ambulance parked outside the family's room

Life for the women at the base is punctuated by bugle calls

During the evacuation, Lili, paralysed in one leg since a car crash in her youth, was struck by a rioter’s stone, which broke her bad knee.

Daniela was already going blind and Sani suffered from arthritis.

Nearly five years of constant stress had also taken its toll.

Their house was placed under 24-hour K-For guard in the summer of 1999 after intruders robbed and beat them.

The last time Sani had left the building was in October 2000, when she slipped past the guards to go to the nearby market.

Some teenage boys recognised her as a Serb and started to beat her. She fought back with her karate, but she says she “did not want to hurt them”. She returned home covered in blood.

The boys told the police she had fired a gun at them, she adds, and an Albanian policeman turned up at the house. But when he saw the K-For guards, he just said “no problem” and left, Sani says.

In November last year, the women left the hospital in Thessaloniki and returned to Camp Rigas Fereos at their own request.

Private property

While they were in Greece, new buildings were erected illegally on the site of their property, a prime location in the centre of Urosevac.

Sani Nikolic in her room at the Greek K-For camp
We have just this one card left to play, and we are playing it now. We have nothing else to lose
Sani Nikolic

Sani says she was phoned by an Albanian when she was still in Thessaloniki, and advised not to try to come back because there was “no room” in the town for her family now.

“I said to him: ‘You Albanians want to join the EU and from what I know, the English and the Americans respect private property very much. I don’t want yours, I just want my own back. And nobody can deny me that’.”

The UN refugee agency has offered them a new home in a village enclave near Urosevac but they are refusing.

“What would I do in a village?” asks Sani, an architect by profession.

“I have never lived in a village. I know nothing about agriculture. I am ill.

“If we agreed to be relocated to a village enclave somewhere, we know that we, like the other IDPs [internally displaced persons], would never get our home back.”

The newly elected mayor of Urosevac has taken an interest in their case and visited them at the camp this June. They gave him a file of property deeds.

The mayor pledged to ensure their information was processed through the legal system, K-For says.

Last card

K-For also says the Nikolic family cannot stay on the base indefinitely.

After all the family has suffered, and given their ill-health, age and isolation from other Serbs, I ask the women if it is not better to yield and accept a peaceful existence somewhere other than Urosevac – perhaps in Greece, which has they say, offered them asylum.

How can these three women, so proud and outspoken about their Serbian identity, even think of living again in a town that war turned against them?

They admit themselves that they feel uncomfortable in the camp, ever grateful to the Greek army for its hospitality and ever embarrassed about getting in the soldiers’ way.

Sani accepts the difficulty of returning now but her sense of grievance is greater.

“I will be frank,” she says.

“We know that we are like a thorn in the side for the Greek camp because as long as we are here, we are a problem they have to resolve.

“But this is the last card we have to play. We have nothing else to lose.”

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