India’s Surrogacy Industry and The Gendercide of Women: A Discussion on How They Are Connected
Today India is one of the top most destinations in the world for couples and individuals seeking a surrogate womb. Does this actually benefit poor Indian women as many in the surrogacy business argue or is this a deeply misogynist trend in India? And what is the connection between surrogacy and India’s female genocide (gendercide)? Roxanne Metzger, The 50 Million Missing Campaign’s French Coordinator, discusses these issues with the campaign founder Rita Banerji. This interview was originally published in French on Sisyphus.org. To read that version click here
Roxanne: Was surrogacy a common practise in India before it was legalised?
Rita: Historically there isn’t much to indicate it was a common practice in India. This is because of India’s obsession with “purity” of caste and clan, and the mistaken assumption of its connection to human blood.
Roxanne: I also meant, that in recent years, before surrogacy was medically legalized in India, was it being illegally practiced in hospitals and clinics?
Rita: I wouldn’t be surprised if it was. Often when the medical lobby pushes to open the “markets” on a technique or procedure, it means they are already practicing it, and simply need the legal go signal to exploit it freely on a large, commercial scale. That’s also what happened with the abortion laws in India. The push for the legalization of abortion in India, in 1971, came not from the feminist movement but the doctor’s lobby. The law is sexist and patronizing, and does not affirm a woman’s right over her own body, because a woman can have an abortion in India only if a doctor determines that there is a medical reason for her to do so . Soon as the law came into force doctors were freely advertising for families to come abort their daughters. There were huge public hoardings saying things like – “Get rid of your daughter now for Rs. 500, and save Rs 50,000 later.” Their ‘medical’ justification was that given India’s traditions it was ‘therapeutic’ for married couples to abort female fetuses. Business boomed. And even though sex selection has been illegal for 20 years , the selective abortion of females is another billion dollar industry in India. Recently in 2012, there was a TV show, Satyameva Jayate, where Indian women talked about how they are abused physically if they refuse to abort their daughters, and how the decision is made between their husband, in-laws, and the doctors, almost as if the women don’t even matter . One woman talked about how she was beaten and forced to go to the clinics, where the doctor gave her an injection to make her unconscious and performed the abortion. She was put through 6 such abortions in 8 years. Yet, a woman in India, single or married, cannot legally get an abortion because she wants one!
Roxanne: In your opinion, has the legalisation of surrogacy in India benefitted Indian surrogate mothers? According to the UN, the practise generates around $400 billion yearly in India. Could one argue that it is therefore an element which has helped to empower at least some Indian women?
Rita: I think it is very important to recognize that all billion dollar industries that are in the business of buying and selling women’s bodies, whether for surrogacy, sex-trade, porn or even fashion, are never meant to benefit women. Their goal is to rake massive profits for corporations, governments, and the under-world. And in reality they don’t benefit women, because women are only the commodities in these businesses. Of course there are select women who are in league with the big bosses and running these businesses too. But surrogate women in general, like other commodities, in these businesses are bought, sold and trashed, depending on market demand.
Yes, most surrogate women in India are poor and illiterate. But that is because they are the easiest to deceive and exploit, and not because these businesses are philanthropic. In India, laws against dowry murders, rapes, honor killings, female feticide are barely implemented and provide almost no protection for women. Surrogacy laws in India are so weak they actually allow the medical institution to abuse women’s bodies . There is no medical or life insurance for the risks these women take. In fact the woman is forced to sign documents saying she assumes all medical, financial and psychological risks . There is no monitoring of the impact on these women’s health, or how many times which woman is getting impregnated where, and what happens in cases where the women are medically crippled or die during the procedure . There are cases where doctors are freely experimenting, implanting and aborting without the knowledge or consent of these women . Surrogate women in India don’t even have the same rights to opt to claim the child as surrogate women in the west do .
What is interesting and also informative, is that most surrogate women in India are married. If this was an industry that ‘empowered’ poor women, then we’d see a large number of single women, who’ve been widowed or abandoned by their husbands, who are struggling to raise their children. There are millions of such women in slums and villages. This is because when women have a choice whether or not they want to rent out their bodies, as in the case of the poor, single women, they are choosing not to even if very poor. So why are poor, married women renting out their wombs? Married women across all class boundaries in India are increasingly viewed as a monetary resource for their husband and his family. The demand for dowry, in cash and kind, on women continues for years after their marriage. Women keep giving because they fear the stigma of divorce. If they don’t keep bringing in the cash, they are subject to violence and even murder. There are more than a 100,000 women killed in one year , because they stopped giving in to the demand for dowry money from the husband and in-laws.
There are cases coming to light where women were forced to donate their kidney in dowry , or forced into prostitution for extra money by their husbands when they couldn’t bring in more dowry. In a recent survey 80% of Indian women said they cannot go out of their homes without their husband permission, even to visit the doctor. 90% of women said that their husbands make the decision on all major monetary spending in their household. More than 80% of women do not legally co-own the house they live in with their husbands, even if their money has gone towards it. I should add that particularly in the case of poor, working women in slums and villages in India, what you find repeatedly is that husbands often won’t work. They make their wives bring in the money which they forcefully take away and waste on alcohol, drugs and prostitution.
This is why I would not use the word ‘empowerment’ even where surrogate women bring money into their families. In a culture where a woman’s husband owns her body and decides what can and cannot be done with it, where a woman’s husband owns the money that she earns with her body, how can we say “empowerment” of women happens through surrogacy?
The term “Empowerment” is a scam promoted by the billion dollar surrogacy business to mask its exploitation of women’s bodies. You notice, I don’t use the phrase ‘surrogate mothers?’ I use the phrase ‘surrogate women.’ Because the term ‘surrogate mothers’ is another deception. A mother has rights on her own body and on the baby she carries. The reason people flock to India is because not only can you shop around and bargain for a cheaper ‘womb’ to rent, you don’t have to worry about the violation of the rights of those women, and you are guaranteed that poor, Indian women will have no rights of claim on the babies they carry, the way the laws allow in the west.
Roxanne: So your argument is that women in India are perceived and treated as commodities whose function is to produce sons and bring dowry to their husbands’ families, as they are killed when they cease to or do not serve such purposes. This you have also argued before, is one of the underlying causes of the female genocide in India that has exterminated almost 20% of women. So should the practise of surrogacy in India be analysed within this context, or does it play no part in India’s female genocide?
Rita: Surrogacy absolutely needs to be viewed in context of India’s female genocide, because the billion dollar global surrogacy business in India is able to flourish only within the context of the social mechanism that is driving female genocide in India. In any genocide, there is a systematic dehumanization of the victimized group. The victimized group is seen not as human but as a commodity that needs to be exploited for profits by the larger system, and then discarded like trash. Like what was done with the Jewish people in concentration camps. These are the parallels that we cannot afford to ignore:
1) The homes, property and wealth of the Jewish people were grabbed as if the Nazi society was entitled to it. Similarly, women’s wealth in India whether from their parents or their own earnings are grabbed in the form of dowry by the patriarchy like it’s an entitlement.
2) Even as the Jewish people were starved and abused, they were made to slave often to their deaths to extract money from them. Once they were killed their bodies and belongings were sorted through for hair and teeth filling such that the system extracted everything from them before ‘trashing’ them. The same thing is done with women in India. Whether pushed into prostitution, surrogacy or multiple abortions to rid female fetuses till they bear a male, the women’s bodies are worked to death so the patriarchy can extract from it whatever it wants before trashing it.
Roxanne: Since its legalisation, has surrogacy been exclusively practised legally, or are there instances of illegal trafficking of women for surrogacy like there is the widespread trafficking of brides in [link] this article?
Rita: Given the unimaginable horror stories regarding girls and women that emerge from different corners of India every day, I would not be surprised to hear of cases where women have been trafficked and held captive for illegal surrogacy businesses. However, the trafficking of thousands of women, often teenage girls, as “brides” to parts of India where the sex ratio of girls has dropped so much that men can’t find women to marry, is in fact a kind of home-grown “surrogacy” practice. This is essentially trafficking of often teenage girls for sex and child-bearing. They are sometime ‘bought’ from their parents or kidnapped, and then sold to a family where the husband, his brothers and even father ‘share’ the woman . If women resist they are beaten and sometimes killed . Once she bears sons, she is sold to another family of men for their sexual and reproductive “use.” And the odd thing is that this system of gang rape, and sexual and reproductive violence on women is perfectly legal in India. The police don’t arrest because they say they are “married.”
Roxanne: Is there a big demand for surrogacy in India, or are commissioning parents mostly from Western countries?
Rita: There is so much stigma attached to the idea of surrogacy even among the educated middle and upper class in India, that the demand for it is still miniscule. A lot of Indians don’t even want to adopt because they question what kind of “blood-line” the child contains. They have this strange idea that a child may be of a “contaminated” caste or clan, or of another religion. Those who adopt often still opt for a close relative’s child, or will ask a close relative to be a surrogate carrier. For e.g. Bollywood’s superstar Shah Rukh Khan had a surrogate child recently which one of his close relatives in England bore, and the whole transaction was done is absolute secrecy in a secret location. No one even knew about it till the child was brought to India from England. Though there are urban Indians seeking surrogacy service, the bulk of the surrogacy customers, are from outside. Indeed, doctors and the government probably saw this as a hugely lucrative form of what they now call “medical tourism” and that’s why they’ve hurriedly legalized surrogacy in the first place.