A matter of honour: Boost for battle against female infanticide

A tradition-bound village institution in northern India, notorious for regressive honour killings, has done a sharp turnaround by joining the country’s battle against female infanticide. Haryana’s ‘khap panchayat’ is in the news, and this time it’s not for the wrong reasons. Worried about the skewed sex ratio in Hind district, the khap panchayat, quasi-judicial bodies that pronounce harsh punishments based on age-old customs and traditions, of a cluster of 20 villages has banned sex determination and female foeticide. A fine of Rs 11,000 would be levied on violators of the ban and they would be socially boycotted if offence is repeated.

Some would call it a belated awakening, but nonetheless it’s a welcome move, especially in a state which has the worst sex ratio in the country. As per the latest census of 2011, there are 850-900 females for 1,000 males.

The ‘khap’ has also raised its voice against the practice of bride sharing and dowry. At the same time, they are worried about brides leaving their husbands. Addressing all these problems is now top of the agenda for the ‘khap panchayat’. Speaking to the media, ‘khap’ spokesperson Jitender Singh Chhattar said that they had made a commitment to improve the sex ratio in the 20 villages within a year. “It is a social problem that has assumed enormous proportions,” he said.

Interestingly, a year ago, a ‘khap mahapanchayat’ attended by leaders of over 300 ‘khaps’ from Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan had called for a strict action against female foeticide. They had pledged to launch a campaign against the social evil. It was pointed out to the participating members that the decreasing ratio of women was the consequence of female foeticide and hence, it had to be stopped.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has also voiced concern over the issue. He had described female foeticide and infanticide as a “national shame” and called for a “crusade” to save girl babies. The Haryana ‘khap panchayat’ is expected to meet the Prime Minister, President and Union law minister to submit their proposal.

Even though pre-natal sex determination was banned in 1994 under the Pre-conception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, female foeticide is rampant in the country. A study published in the reputed medical journal The Lancet, stated that half a million girls are killed every year through pre-natal sex determination and selective abortion. The figures supported the Indian Medical Association’s estimate that five million fetuses are killed in India every year.

The only other country which can draw parallel with India is China where families prefer a boy to a girl. This has more to do with the country’s single child policy.

All this boils down to the way women are treated in India. The unwanted girl child is harassed and ill-treated at every stage of her life. But there is a ray of hope as awareness spreads and more and more people raise their voices against such social ills. Says author Kishwar Desai, “I am very optimistic that things will change, but I am afraid that they will take a long time to do so as we simply do not have the leadership, both political and social, to ensure that there is a constant scrutiny of what is happening on issues related to gender. We need a constitutional body, perhaps like the Election Commission, independent from the government to monitor the status of women in this country and ensure that justice is delivered to them whenever required.”

The small but significant step taken by the Haryana ‘khap panchayat’ is the much awaited beginning.

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