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by Rita Banerji
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.
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.
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.
This article was first published on OpenDemocracy 50.50 under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. It was published under the title ‘A Deadly Politics of Wealth: Femicide in India’
Rita Banerji is an author, feminist and founder of The 50 Million Missing Campaign, a global campaign to end India’s female genocide. Her book ‘Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies‘ is a historical study of the relationship between sex, power and female gendercide in India. She tweets at @rita_banerji
More than 106,000 young women are burnt to death in India every year. Uma, who was only 23 years old was one of them. We are sharing the following letter and photo that we received from Uma’s brother, Rajesh. Please CLICK HERE and sign and support his petition for justice for his sister. Anyone who can help the family legally or in any other way, please contact Rajesh at email@example.com; mobile: 7895980071.
Mr. Narendra Modi (Prime Minister of India) and Ms. Maneka Gandhi (Woman and Child Development Minister),
I am writing to beg for your help with my sister Uma Kumari’s dowry murder case.
My sister Uma was married to Omprakash on 12th June, 2012. Omprakash is the younger son of Mr. Baijnath of Kanpur district which comes under the Mushanagar police station. For the wedding my family gave Rs.3,50,000 in cash and Rs. 7,50,000 in jewelry and household items as bridal gifts.
However, soon after the wedding, Uma’s husband and in-laws began to pressurize her for dowry and would verbally and physically abuse her. They wanted a Rs. 400,000/- four wheel vehicle and a house that my family had built. When we did not give in to their demands, all of Omprakash’s family including his brothers, sisters-in-law, and uncles began to beat and abuse Uma and threatened to kill her. My family complained about this dowry abuse to various offices, including the National Commission of Women. However, Uma’s in-laws would bribe the police and get away.
Then they hatched a plan to murder Uma. Since they have more influence on the police and locals in their village than in the city, and can easily escape the law, they planned to murder Uma in their village house. So they first moved my sister from the town to their house in the village. Then on 25th November 2016, Omprakash and all his family members gathered there and began to beat my sister and attempted to kill her. When she didn’t die, they poured 4 liters of kerosene on her and set her on fire. Uma was in the hospital for 20 days and every second there she suffered tremendous pain. She died on 15th December, 2016.
Uma’s in-laws did not care what happened to her. They’ve only been trying various means to escape the law and protect themselves. My mother has not stopped crying since Uma died and my family has been extremely distressed not just by the terrible and painful death of my sister but the fear that her in-laws will once again influence the police and locals and escape the law. We want justice for Uma, and we won’t rest till all the members of her husband’s family, including—Ompraksh, Kisingopal, Rambabu, Baijnath, Ramkhilawan, Guddan, Durga, Ramvati—are all arrested, jailed and hanged. Please, please help us get justice for Uma.
From a grieving brother,
Rajesh Baboo Nishad
by Rita Banerji
As a feminist activist who has worked on systemic violence on Indian women for over fifteen years, I have long waited for India to produce a film like Parched. Directed by Leena Yadav with a strong, all-female, central cast, there is a cinematic beauty and integrity to the film’s narrative that undoubtedly are among the factors that have earned it eighteen international awards and a place in the Oscar library. But what makes this film particularly memorable, is how without cringing it makes a number of explicit and discomforting statements on how women need to deal with male violence which, even if presented within an Indian cultural context, have universal relevance.
Parched is the story of three women, Lajjo, Rani and Bijli, in an Indian village and how their friendship helps them triumph misogyny and male violence in their personal lives. Lajjo (played by Radhika Apte), is a talented seamstress whose drunken husband grudges her being barren, and beats her up daily. Rani, (played by Tannishtha Chatterjee), was widowed young and spent all her life supporting her mother-in-law and unruly son. She takes a loan on her house to buy a child bride, Janaki (played by Lehar Khan) for her son. And then there’s Bijli (played by Surveen Chawla), who works for the local adult entertainment company as a dancer and a prostitute. She seems the most worldly-wise and resourceful of the friends, and in control of how she negotiates her life.
Below I share my five favorite feminist takeaways from Parched in no particular order:
- Men who are sexual predators outside are the same men who are predators at home.
Rani’s hooligan son who roams the streets with his male friends stalking and sexually harassing women, and soliciting prostitutes he can’t pay, also violently rapes his child bride whenever the mood suits him. One-third of the world’s child brides live in India, and this is perhaps one of the very few mainstream Indian films that unflinchingly shows the kind of sexual and other abuse under-age married girls are subject to. However, even in adult marriages about 60% of Indian men admit to physically abusing and raping their wives. Indian women are also particularly vulnerable to sexual violence from other family men, as shown at the start of the film where a woman begs the village to not force her to return to her husband, as her brothers-in-law and father-in-law were sexually abusing her.
- Women often unthinkingly or as a survival strategy, perpetuate the system that enables male violence.
Rani who was herself a child bride robotically perpetuates the cycle of violence she endured by buying a child bride for her son, silently witnessing his sexual abuse of her, and justifying it through her own passive abuse of the girl. Rani is initially resentful of her friends being critical of her son’s behavior, but eventually she makes the connection between the violence she has endured and the violence she is perpetuating. In helping her daughter-in-law escape, Rani finds the courage to seek her own path of freedom. She also recognizes her own role in the perpetuation of an oppressive, patriarchal system in how she raised her son. In a parting shot to her son, Rani delivers one of the most important lines of the film “Don’t try to be a man. Learn to be human first.”
- How men and women define their individual sexual identities directly impacts on their response to male violence.
Men whose individual identities are invested in the collective, hierarchical, patriarchal order, are more likely to use sexual violence as a weapon of power. Often it’s a means of establishing their position in the pecking order by asserting their ‘malehood.’ Rani’s son and his gang of friends who stalk and harass women, and find their entertainment in porn and prostitution, bond by asserting their sexual prowess over each other. Conversely, women are socially conditioned to define their sexuality in terms of how they serve the patriarchy’s needs, and so they are virgin, wife, mother and whore. The more aware a woman is about sex as her personal identity, need, expression and choice, the more likely she is to reject behavior that reduces her to an ‘owned good’ to be labeled, used and abused at will. We see Lajjo routinely and silently enduring extreme physical brutality from her husband who faults her for being barren. However, when Bijli convinces Lajjo that likely it’s her husband who is infertile, it’s an eye-opener for Lajjo. When Bijli arranges her meeting with a certain mystic lover, Lajjo not only gets pregnant but for the first time experiences sexual ecstasy, and discovers a confidence about her own needs which helps her stand up to her husband. Similarly, Rani as a young widow, in keeping with social expectations has long squashed her libido. She owns a mobile phone which the village committee had objected to for all women. Through the phone Rani connects with an unknown admirer who she never meets, but through whom she experiences an awakening of her sexuality which she secretly relishes. In a subtle act of symbolic sexual rebellion the women giggle over their use of that mobile as a vibrator. While mobile phones have been banned in many Indian villages because the men believe it ‘ruins’ women, it is a pointer to how social restrictions set on women through clothing, behavior, movement and laws are always a means of controlling women’s sexuality, and thereby a revolution.
- It is an illusion for women to assume they can exert bodily agency and choice within the framework of a patriarchal system for which women are commodity.
At the start of the film Bijli, who works for the local adult entertainment company as a pole dancer and a prostitute, is shown to be in control of her life and choices as she negotiates the terms of her work with her boss. She refused clients if they didn’t suit her liking and asserted that it did not matter if they had good money, as her shop was ‘closed.’ This is shown in sharp contrast with Rani’s daughter-in-law, who has no choice but to submit to her husband’s sexual abuse as he believes that by having paid a dowry he has bought the right to use her as and when he wants. Bijli though understands only too well that for the men, she, as all women, is only a sexual product. But even as she regards this view with contempt, she’s confident of her ability to hold her place in their misogynistic world. However, when one of the company’s workers who she assumed was in love with her, turns out to be only interested in stealing her from the company to become her pimp, she decides to chuck the system and strike out independently. When her new client subjects her extreme sexual violence, she realizes that her belief in her agency and choice was only an illusion. Her protection was guaranteed only as long as she was a product whose use was negotiated between men.
- Freedom from male violence should never be a lonely and frightening journey for any woman. When women connect and pool their resources, they’ll be able to combat male violence and break free of its prison.
If one goes through stories of women who struggle against gender violence and injustice, from any part of the world, we often find these women to be alone and vulnerable. This is particularly true for when that violence happens within a family or community. The film puts the onus on women to reach out to each other, share their stories, and pool their energies and resources to fight the system of male violence. The final segment of the film shows the three women driving off into the open space in a quirkily painted open, three-wheeler, discussing their plans and options, as they leave their houses and village behind.
This conclusion was particularly interesting to me, because it almost inverted the classic approach of the feminist movement. Much of feminist outrage today is outwardly directed. We take our slogans out onto the streets demanding safety in our public and work spaces. But the message of the film that women everywhere need to heed is that we must, first, bring the feminist revolution into our homes where male violence is bred. If women cannot be safe from male violence at home, they cannot expect to be safe from the same men outside.
Nov 28, 2015
Aradhana is a 30-yr-old woman from Noida in northern India who recently wrote to the Indian Prime Minister about the distress she felt each time a prospective groom turned her down because her family couldn’t give him the dowry he demanded. She wants the Prime Minister to give her financial help to ensure she gets married on Dec 02, as planned, or else she has threatened to commit suicide. Aradhana because of her family’s poverty could not study beyond class 10, and had to help by doing menial jobs. In her letter to the PM she wrote:
“My wedding was fixed several times in the past few years, but it never happened as my family could not meet dowry demands. With great difficulty, my father (a gardener) found a match for me about 10 months ago. He is a driver and lives in Dankaur, Greater Noida. However, I am afraid that this time too my wedding may not take place as it has already been postponed once. If this time something goes wrong, I will kill myself as I don’t want to be a burden on my family. I am trying to educate my siblings but it is tough.”
The question is how should the government help Aradhana? Should the Indian government give her family the dowry money, even though dowry is illegal in India, and the demands keep escalating and thousands of women get killed even after paying dowry? Or should the government take legal action against this and all the prospective grooms and their families for making an illegal and criminal demand? If Aradhana is bent on paying dowry to get married, will either of these steps prevent her from getting killed?
26 Nov, 2015, UP,
26-year-old Pinki was burnt to death for dowry by her husband and in-laws in Rudauli village. A case has been registered against Pinki’s husband Ram Samujh Nishad and his mother by the victim’s mother at Aserwa police station. Police say investigations are on. http://www.business-standard.com/article/pti-stories/26-year-old-woman-burnt-to-death-over-dowry-115112900774_1.html
More than 106,000 women were estimated to be burnt to death for dowry in one year. Most of these cases are dismissed as accidents and suicides and the women never get justice. Read the report here: https://genderbytes.wordpress.com/2011/10/02/video-murder-by-fire-100000-women-a-year/
Maharashtra, 4 Nov 2015
35 year old Sakhu Dangda was beaten to death by her husband for refusing to cook the mutton dish he wanted for dinner.
An Indian college student, Nikita Azad, started an online campaign ‘Happy to Bleed,‘ to protest against extreme cultural taboos that menstruating girls and women are subject to in India. She launched the campaign after a temple announced that women would be allowed to enter only after the invention of a machine to detect whether or not they are having their periods! Many young women have supported this campaign by posting photos of themselves with menstrual pads or tampons and signs with the hashtag #HappyToBleed. Some Hindu temples in India have notices displayed prohibiting menstruating women. Of course there is no way to tell whether or not a woman is menstruating, and many Hindu women voluntarily don’t enter when they are menstruating. A few years ago, a prominent actress was arrested and taken to court, because she confessed to someone that she had on one instance entered a temple while she was menstruating. Read that post here https://genderbytes.wordpress.com/2010/12/17/is-it-a-crime-to-menstruate/