Saving India's Missing Girls

November 24, 2008
Somik Raha

In the second piece of the Gems of the Planet series (the first was My Friend, the Landlord), we continue with the same criteria for our gems:

  • Feel the suffering of others as their own and cannot rest until they've done something to alleviate it
  • Have compassion for all, especially those they seek to transform
I found this gem in an unexpected place - a film screening at Stanford of India's Missing Girls, a documentary made by Ashok Prasad of the BBC. The documentary portrayed a grim picture and dispelled several myths:
  • Several women interviewed preferred male babies and would prefer to terminate female foetuses of their own accord.
  • Educated women too do this, especially in business families to ensure that the fortune remains in the family
  • In some cases, when the woman is unwilling, the family puts a lot of pressure, and sometimes forces the mother to abort
  • The director presented statistics after the film screening. The highest number of female abortions are done by Jains, followed by Sikhs, followed by either Buddhists or Hindus (I forget which). I remember being shocked by this statistic, because I expected Hindus to be at the top. Nothing can prepare one to accept that Jains are the #1 offender as Jain philosophy is the pinnacle of non-violence. I guess I am too naive to believe that people follow the philosophy they were born into.
  • The fact that women were electing to abort foetuses confounded the pro-choice people in the audience (should they say: we want women to have choice, but not that much choice?)
However, in the middle of all these depressing facts was a shining gem. The film revolves around a remarkable woman, Sandhya Puchalapalli, who founded the Arti Home in Cuddappah, to save female foetuses from abortion. Sandhya studied the circumstances that lead people to abort their female children, and she tackled several problems. First, she has a crib outside the nursing home that allows families to anonymously place babies whom they'd otherwise kill or abandon (with the same outcome). This takes care of the fear of legal repercussions, and saves the life of the baby who is then raised in the home in a loving environment with a focus on nutrition and education. Second, she keeps a strong connection with the community around her and knows who is pregnant. She then connects with them to talk about their aspirations for their baby. When they tell her that they will abort if it is a girl, she reasons with them in a remarkably non-judgmental way. I know many who'd hit the parents if they heard something like this. Not Sandhya. She goes back on a regular basis, explaining that a girl child is not useless and deserves a lot of love, the same as a boy child. The film follows the interaction with one couple and how the mother comes around from a position of fear to one of joy where she eagerly waits for her daughter and does not abort.

What makes Sandhya stand out from all the other activists I know is that, time after time in the film, she has only compassionate words for parents who decide to abort, particularly to avoid dowry. She says, "Just imagine what the parents must be going through to have come to this decision?" Even when she is face-to-face with the parents, she has no anger or hatred, but understanding and compassion. A poignant moment of the film is when Sandhya receives a baby who is born premature. After getting the baby medical help, Sandhya goes to the local temple to pray for the child's life. When the child does not make it, she is heartbroken. Even then, she has no harsh words for the parents who abandoned the baby.

Caring for unwanted children, feeling their pain and doing something to save their lives beyond yelling and criticizing in media platforms is rare. Generating compassion for the parents who feel compelled to abort their children and not seeing them as the "other" is rarer still. While one miracle is documented in the film (the change of heart of one family), I am sure she works many such miracles with her attitude. I sincerely hope I get to meet this remarkable lady in person.

If you are in Cuddappah and meet her, do share your stories with me. Arti Home is supported by the Vijay Foundation Trust.

Somik Raha is a Ph. D. student in the field of Decision Analysis. He believes that you can believe what you like. So he believes that people in this world are good. He believes that in a free society, peaceful and honest people should be left alone.
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November 26, 2008
11:10 AM

You will also be interested to know that it is primarily the middle class who opt for this cruel practice- rarely the below-the-poverty poor.

November 26, 2008
12:34 PM

Hmmm, I would need more convincing to believe that it is jains doing most of this kind of thing.

I would buy that the below the poverty line poor are not, simply because most do not get ultrasounds done or have prenatal care at all! But then I would want to see the numbers of how many baby girls are abandoned or left to die after birth or fed less then their male siblings.

The whole thing is a big freaking mess. I do not much care who is at fault "the most". All of it is frightful.

November 27, 2008
03:24 AM

Issues never get solved, when people have "hard points of views".

We are being fed with the "reasons of these issues" and even forced to accept "the right solutions".

The unfortunate story is that these so called "right solutions" by some bunch of idiots at high places do not just work for years and decades.

Yet, the morons stick to their point of views with shear arrogance even after their solutions and models have miserably failed.

We are being told time and again that dowry is the main issue of female foeticide. We are told not to question it. At the same time, the govt does not want to solve dowry or extravagant marriage issue as it increases GDP of the country. In a year, 50,000 crores of Rupees are spent of dowry articles and marriage expenses. Some idiots even argue about "choice" here.

In the meanwhile, our great minds (in media and activists) picture girls as burdens and victims using one sided statistics.

Chauvinistic Men also love to see women as victims to justify their own identity as protectors.

Now, do you want a burden-victim to be born in your house?

(I am not forcing a point of view here.)

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