The Dutch branch of aid organisation Plan International has launched the Let Girls be Born campaign to combat sex-selective abortions in India. According to recent figures, over half a million unborn female foetuses are aborted as couples prefer a baby boy. “Girls are simply not allowed into this world,” the campaign organisers say.
“Girls are a hassle for many Indian couples,” says Monique van ’t Hek, Plan’s director in the Netherlands. “Many of them are not allowed to go to school or are denied decent healthcare. Once they’re old enough to marry, their parents often have to pay a large dowry of up to 50,000 rupees.”
Many pregnant women turn to modern techniques to determine the sex of their unborn baby. Although selective-sex abortion has been illegal in India since 2003, there are many illegal clinics where women can have an abortion if they simply don’t want a girl.
“These clinics even use slogans like ‘Better to pay 500 rupees now than 50,000 later’,” Ms Van ’t Hek says, referring to the relatively low cost of an echo to determine the baby’s sex. “And many people, especially from poorer classes, easily fall for that.”
The consequences of these practices are far-reaching. The birth ratio in some areas is alarming. Haryana state, near New Delhi, for instance, has a birth ratio of 877 girls to every 1,000 boys. Nationally, the ratio is 914 to 1,000.
“What happens if these young girls reach their adult age?” Ms Van ’t Hek asks rhetorically. “There won’t be enough of them for men to marry. So what you see is a lot of girl trafficking, rape and other forms of violence against women, simply because these men revert to drastic measures to find a wife.”
Plan Nederland, and its international umbrella Plan International, are not the only ones to address this problem. The Indian government is slowly catching up. Last year, a government campaign was set up which uses cash incentives in small, rural communities to convince couples that having a baby girl is neither shameful nor an economic threat.
Plan Nederland has launched a TV commercial which shows images of an echo of an unborn baby. "I hope I'm not a girl", the baby is heard saying, "for I will be raped or circumcised, or I will remain uneducated." You can see the video (in Dutch) here.
But it’s difficult to really bring about change in India’s multi-layered society, Ms Van ’t Hek admits. “That’s why we’re working in small communities to get our message across. We work at local levels, in villages or small urban areas. We help women to organise themselves in local communities where this problem is discussed. They visit young couples or pregnant women to advise them.”
“If women decide to let their baby girl be born, these groups organise a baby shower, or present an official birth certificate, to show that yes, this girl is welcome and that she will be a meaningful member of society.”
The campaigners also point out that girls are invaluable to Indian society which needs to address the consequences of its meteoric economic rise. “Girls can break the spiral of poverty,” Ms Van ’t Hek says.
“If a girl is properly educated, the chances are that once she has girls of her own, they will probably also get a decent education. Their position in Indian society is changing, albeit very slowly.”