Changing the honor and risk discourse

---By Nayana Chowdhury:-2015-03-23

While working on the issue of gender biased sex selection, I traveled village after village in North and North-West India only to meet communities in denial. They would either greet you with complete silence on the issue or they would try hard to convince that the phenomenon of sex selection does not take place in their village. Period! It just does not. If you push, show data of their block, ask them to ponder if they have heard about it, after a long pause it might be a tentative, "May be...some women in some other villages are doing it" and then quickly turning to, "It is in the nearby urban areas. Not our women". It was tiring to talk to these walls of silence! And when they finally spoke women were clearly implicated.

I met them in different social groups. They were PRI members (Local Self Government members) or groups of health workers like, Auxiliary Nursing Matrons (ANMs) and Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA), Health, Nutrition and Sanitation Committee (HNSC) members and local doctors and villagers. "Although you say nothing is wrong, the data says otherwise" chipped in a NGO worker. "May be that's what God is doing. He is sending less girls to the world" responded an ASHA worker. Well! That solves it all. Doesn't that?

In a village in Jalore district of Rajasthan, we sat for a village meeting near the primary health center and the doctor came out to join us. He was a young chap in his 20s. He said, emphatically, "Of course there is sex selective elimination. It is rampant in my social class. I can tell you about at least 4 cases of termination of pregnancy when the couple got to know that the fetus was female among my peers. These villagers are still better!" he pointed his hands towards those present at the meeting. "How much do they spend in each case?", asked one of us. "At least 20 thousand for sex selction. It includes travelling to Palanpur or Ahmedabad in Gujarat for illegal detection of sex". We were surrounded by villagers in pretty plain clothes, if not tattered. Looking around, I could see very basic houses mostly without a cemented roof.  I therefore said, "You are probably right. It is not these villagers. That’s what I heard in other villages too. Where will the people of this village get money to get a sex selection done?" This kind of stir the gathering.  I just passed a negative statement about the economic health of their village! They did not quite like it. The young Head of the Panchayat quipped, "You are mistaken. In this district people don't spend on houses and clothes but, they do spend money to get a female fetus eliminated. That is important to them. They think it’s an investment into the future. You spend Rs 20 thousand today, you save Rs 2 lakhs in future and your honor being saved is an added benefit!" So there you go! The economics combined with societal norms sure work in favor for sex selection.

In South Rajasthan, I attended a ceremony in a village, where the local ANM organized a function to celebrate birth of girl children in the village and to felicitate girls who have done well in their studies. The District Education Officer was present in the meeting. He was quite unabashed about challenging the village crowd in the local language, Marwari. He said, "Being a local, I happen to meet men known to me at the district hospital lobby from time to time. They seem so distraught I wonder if anyone has died in the family! If you ask them you get to know their wives or wives of their sons have just given birth to baby-girls. Why, this terrible dishonor to the Creator, my friend? After all it’s the Creator who decides who would come to your house. What makes you so worried? What do you fear? Why do you call her a risk to your honor? Is a girl really a risk to your honor? Who are the bandits landed in Jalore jail? Are they girls? Who are the thugs? Who are the thieves? Who drink and beat up their parents? Are they girls? Have you ever thought who is a greater risk to your honor?"  

I revisited what these experiences in my mind soon after the death of 23 year old woman in Delhi that caused mass protest. And I felt compelled to add the following from the Zero Tolerance Campaign's site, dedicated to Keenan and Ruben, the two ordinary boys with extraordinary courage from Mumbai, my heroes! I had to copy it because I could not have said it better. I quote, "There is a phrase called "इज्ज़त लुटना" which means losing honor (through rape) in English. This has been planted in our minds through cheap literature and of course through the popular Bollywood flicks. I find it hugely disgusting and extremely male-centric. When a man stoops low and has forced sexual intercourse with a woman, how does a females lose her izzat (honor), it’s the man who has lost his izzat and his right to live? It’s a forced sexual intercourse and the girl (at times, even the man or child) has done nothing to lose her honor. A rape victim is as pure and honorable as any of us. It is the demonstration of ages long male chauvinism that has been taught to us because historically we (males) have been the law makers, imparts and judges." Therefore, whose honor are we talking about here? And at the cost of whose life?

This discourse of “honor” must change if we want to address the issue of sex selection. Because protecting the “honor” as the society perceives it is impossible unless we are willing to sacrifice more girls in this high platform of honor. Girls coming back home after the sun has set is a question of honor, girls talking to boys is a question of honor, girls marrying outside their own caste is a matter of honor – in short everything related to women’s choice, mobility and sexuality is a matter of honor. It is so fragile that girls would always be seen as a matter of honor. It only plays to the gallery when some popular leader from some popular political party calls girls “bombs ticking in your homes”. Strengthening implementation of the law (PCPNDT) and changing the discourse should go hand in hand.  Because, the call for saving girl child does not work if one would anyway eliminate these girls as they try to exercise their rights as human beings. Till they tick in our collective minds as bombs waiting to explode, it would always be a half-hearted effort on our part to eliminate gender biased sex selection. Till they tick in our collective minds as bombs waiting to explode, it would always be a half-hearted effort on our part to eliminate gender biased sex selection. If we are serious about it, let’s change the discourse! 

Coalition Partners