infanticide: (in-'fan-t&-"sId). noun. 1. the killing of an infant. 2. Late Latin infanticida, from Latin infant-, infans + -i- + -cida -cide] : one who kills an infant. - m-w.com
Many cultures around the world place a much higher value on the male gender of the human species than the female. This has cultivated a deep-rooted preference for producing boys over girls in many nations, particularly Arab and Asian countries, such as Algeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.
There is no question that society always has been, and - even though there have been improvements - still is male-dominated. The status of women had been raised in many cultures since the 20th century, but in many patriarchal societies they are still considered second class citizens and not privy to the same advantages and benefits men are. One manifestation of this is the dowry system practiced in India. If a son of one family is to get married to a daughter of another, the daughter's family is expected to give large sums of money or other goods to the son's family. Thus, having a daughter is an economic burden on the family as a whole and it can bankrupt a poor family with more than one daughter. Even though this practice has been officially banned by law, the ban is largely ignored and still practiced in all social castes.
One reason women are not preferred over men - and this goes for other societies besides India - is that they are seen as impure because of menstruation and child birth. Also in agricultural societies women are seen as a financial loss because they do not work the fields, whereas the men do. This coupled with the financial burden of having a girl has led to the practice of infanticide in regards to the female babies. Rather than face economic hardship from the omnipresent - albeit illegal - dowry system or face any accusations of dishonor, a large number of infants are killed at birth immediately after it is discovered that they are not male.
The mother often has no say in this. The decision to kill the female infants is in the hands of the patriarch of the family. But he usually does not do it. Midwives are very common in India. In addition to the responsibilities of assisting the mother in childbirth, as most midwives in many other countries and cultures do, for an extra fee will euthanize the female babies shortly after birth. Senior women in the patriarch's family also will take this responsibility on.
There are a number of methods for killing the infants that have been handed down through the generations, much like recipes are. Sometimes the infants are fed milk laced with sap from poisonous plants or pesticides. Others are given paddy (rice with the husks still attached) to swallow which slit their throats. Other methods include feeding them salt to increase blood pressure, being stuffed in clay pots, holding the baby by the waist and shaking it - which snaps the spinal cord - or simply snapping their necks. These methods are all believed to be quick and painless, but invite scrutiny by authorities.
The government cracking down on infanticide has given rise to methods that are not so quick and painless, such as starvation or wrapping them in wet towels so they contract pneumonia. With these methods, obviously, it appears the infant simply contracted an illness and the homicide won't be as apparent.
Sex-specific abortions are another popular method of preventing female additions to the family, whereas the infanticide is avoided altogether. With the increased usage of ultrasound devices in the poorer areas of India the sex of the infant is known well in advance and female fetuses are simply aborted. This is also common in China, whereupon the female-male ratio in births had become so lopsided that ultrasound machines were actually outlawed (but many doctors disregard that fact).
In October of 1992 the Indian state Tamil Nadu sought to eliminate all female infanticides by the year 2000 with a program called "Jayalalitha Protection Scheme for the Girl Child" which gives monetary compensation to poor families in exchange for sterilization, gives money in the name of the female infants not to be accessed until they turn 21, and awards grants for educational expenses of female students (which has not been very effective, as giving women money at 21, or around the time of marriage, in essence legitimizes the illegal dowry practice). In August 1997 the Indian Prime Minister adopted this plan for all of India which became known as the "Cradle Baby Scheme." However, the practice still continues.
In the early years of the 21st century, in India's southern Salem district, an estimated 4,500 female infants were killed. The continued female infanticide and gender-specific abortions has caused the gender birth ratio of 880 females for every 1,000 males. This lopsided figure is not unlike birth gender ratios in the other areas of the world where sons are preferred. In some areas of India there are very few women and girls left.
Police crackdown on the infanticides is almost nonexistent, as they are easily bribed to look the other way, or the infant deaths are just reported as stillborns or illness. And The 'Cradle Baby Scheme' has not been very successful. However, state-run adoption centers are having an impact on reducing the female infanticides. Instead of killing the children families can now drop the female infants off at the centers, no questions asked. In the Salem district, another method of curbing the infanticides is a mandatory program for all pregnant women to register at the local hospital. There they are taught gender equity and are counseled not to kill the infant girls, if that is what they will indeed have. This has spurred the formation of a group called the "motorcycle messiahs" where women travel around on motorcycles spreading the word of gender equity and adoption rather than the killing of the female infants. The impact of these two institutions has not only offered and encouraged alternatives to killing the infants, it has actually inspired families to keep the female infants and not to kill them or give them up.
But what about actual numbers? Exact data on how many female infants are saved have been difficult to procure. A standard definition of 'saved' baby girls is needed. The first child is seldom, if ever, a victim of infanticide, even if it is a female. One organization cleverly gathers data on how many surviving female infants have younger sisters, which would be more appropriate since it is rare for more than one girl to be kept. Another conundrum is that many infant girls that are "saved" actually are doomed to neglect and deprivation which results in stunted growth and malnourishment. As a result, a good lot of them die anyway. Clearly, it is not counted as infanticide if the girls die at older ages. This is similar to the conditions girls live in at orphanages in China where such places have earned the nickname the "dying rooms" because they spend most of their lives chained to their bed and being fed meager amounts of food.
Even with the above-mentioned programs, female infanticide continues in India. Some still consider it a viable Hindu ritual and cultural mainstay. The dowry system still exists and thrives. Nationally, in India, the 2001 census showed 927 girls for every 1000 boys, which is down from 945 in 1991 - which seems to suggest the problem may have actually gotten worse. That can be attributed to certain areas of India having more infanticides. Affluent states have less occurrences, whereas poor areas like Punjab had just 793 girls for every 1000 boys. This breeds more violence against surviving women, such as rape, because it has been increasingly difficult for men to find mates and brides. With infanticides and gender selective abortion in India, and elsewhere, that a new term has sprung up to describe the global dilemma: gender holocaust.
UPDATE June, 2011: As an alternative to killing the baby girls born, now in India some are turning to nonconsensual gender rassignment surgeries - turning their girls into boys at an early age. Here's the disturbing link.