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Biggest non-story of the year: Our 21 million 'unwanted' girls

Author: Amrit Dhillon
Publication: The Times of India
Date: March 4, 2018
URL:      https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/sunday-times/all-that-matters/biggest-non-story-of-the-year-our-21-million-unwanted-girls/articleshow/63150656.cms

I was asked last month by one of the foreign publications I write for to cover the 'story' being carried in the Indian press about the '21 million unwanted' girls in the country, in addition to the 63 million girls 'missing' from the population owing to female foeticide.

Editors love these nice round figures. The 63 million figure was well known. The first one was new, and the editor was itching to use it in a headline. India always makes for a nice punching bag. Yet another story showing Indian depravity. "Please write it up. About 600 words," I was told.

After looking up the information, I told the editor that the so-called story wasn't worth covering. It is based on the Economic Survey of 2018, which says that Indians are afflicted by a 'meta' preference for boys which means that, after giving birth to one girl or two, or three, they keep trying for a boy. This, the survey said, effectively means that the girls who come before the boy are 'unwanted'.

 Note the huge leap of logic from observing that a couple are trying to have a boy (a 'complete' family) to presuming that the girls are unwanted and unloved. The word 'unwanted' is loaded. It implies that the girls are getting less love and attention and, presumably, less food, less medical care and less schooling.

 I yield to no one in my loathing of the way Indian women are treated but I refused to write the story because it seemed like codswallop to me. Is the government seized by masochistic cravings? Isn't the figure of 63 million aborted female foetuses enough to be whipping itself with? Is it so anxious for mortifying shame that it needs to conjure up another figure and a dubious one at that?

 Leaving aside the weird psychology behind the section of the survey that comes up with this figure, the conclusion is far-fetched. The survey said: "There is another phenomenon of son meta-preference which involves parents adopting fertility "stopping rules" - having children until the desired number of sons are born. This meta-preference leads naturally to the notional category of "unwanted" girls which is estimated at over 21 million…. A son "meta" preference - even though it does not lead to sex-selective abortion - may nevertheless be detrimental to female children because it may lead to fewer resources devoted to them (Jayachandran & Pande, 2017).'

 Note the weaselly 'mays'. Rather like the health advice that says that merely looking at a slice of bacon once a week 'may' up your chances of contracting bowel cancer by 0.1%. Note too the reductive reasoning. Simply because couples try for a boy does not, ipso facto, signify that the daughters who came earlier are 'unwanted'. It is undoubtedly true that girls and women tend to have poorer health and diets compared to boys and men but if that is the case, what is new about this finding then?

 Moreover, have government economists been inside homes for months on end to observe how the 'unwanted' girls are treated? Are all Indian parents likely to treat their daughters as surplus to requirement? Who is measuring emotions and love? Who is observing the internal dynamics of a family? How can we use the loaded word 'unwanted' without specifying in what way they are unwanted, and that too over the entire span of their childhood? People in other countries too often have 'accidents', unwanted babies conceived after their family is complete, but they are loved just as much.

 And, here's a minor point which the headlines eclipsed - at least the 21 million girls were born! Just the other day, everyone was bemoaning the female foeticide catastrophe and when this starts improving, the first thing the government laments is that, though they are being born, they are 'unwanted'!

 And this tragedy is dutifully broadcast across India and around the world. With so many millions being killed in the womb, surely the 21 million being born - even if they do get one chappati less for dinner than their brother - are cause for great celebration?

 It's the 'being born' that's important, not the discrimination. A bit of discrimination never killed anyone.

 My brother came after three girls and he was the only one, according to family lore, who used to be given milk by my besotted (and hard-up) mother. It didn't harm my sisters, not even emotionally. They loved the brat. They would have given him their own milk if they had any. The point, at the risk of sounding tedious, is that 21 million girls were allowed to come into the world. That's the wonderful, uplifting point that the media, busy imitating a herd of bisons in chasing the big statistic, lost sight of.

 Ironically, some other findings of the survey made for pretty good news. It showed that 74.5% of women are involved in decisions about their own health; 73.4% in large household purchases; 82.1% in decisions about their own earnings; and 91.6% decisions about contraception.

  But what's solid data worth in the face of a sensational statistic?
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