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Friday, November 21, 2008

Genocide of Women in India: An Interview With Rita Banerji of the 50 Million Missing Campaign

Rita Banerji is a native of Calcutta (Kolkata), India. She earned her degrees from Mount Holyoke College and George Washington University and lived in the US for eleven years. She originally trained as an ecologist and conservation biologist. Under the auspices of the globally renowned ecofeminist Vandana Shiva, she worked with the Chipko movement, a mass, nonviolent mobilization against deforestation on the part of rural village women from the Himalayan foothills of Northern India.

Penguin Books India just published Rita's book
Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies. Since 2006, she has been focusing her gifts as a freelance photographer and writer on her work as founder and director of the 50 Million Missing Campaign.

This is a global, online effort to challenge the widescale genocide of girls and women in India. The genocide encompasses the entire life cycle: female feticide and infanticide, daughter starvation, dowry murders, high maternal mortality rates, and maltreatment of widows. One very moving feature of the Campaign is its large photo gallery suggesting the beauty and worth of all the lives taken and injured by the genocide.

Rita stresses that the campaign’s position on abortion is for it “to remain legal in India and… it should remain an individual woman's choice independent of family and societal pressures.” However, there is tremendous common ground here, on an inescapable set of issues, for prochoicers and for those prolifers whose definition of “life” does embrace women. In fact, Nonviolent Choice recently added the
50 Million Missing Campaign’s petition to its list of action alerts. We appreciate her willingness to dialogue.


MARYSIA: I realize this probably varies by region, language, religion, cultural group, social status, and so forth in such a large country...but where, if anywhere, can Indian women who are pregnant with girls and harassed to abort them turn for short-term and/or long-term help in resisting and getting beyond the pressure? Who, if anyone, stands at the ready to help these mothers and their girl children--especially considering that so often the pressure comes from family members? What resources exist today?

RITA: There are some very sound laws in India that protect women who are being compelled to abort their female fetuses. The PC & PNDT (Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostics Test) Act which came into effect in 1996 requires for all clinics and hospitals in India to maintain records of all prenatal tests conducted on women (form F), details of the medical counseling offered to each woman (form D), as well as a form G where the woman has to give her consent and attest that she’s undergoing the test of her own will. More over, the law strictly stipulates that NO prediagnostic technique may be used to determine the sex of the fetus and nor should the gender be communicated to the parents verbally or otherwise.

Besides there are strong criminal laws for the protection of women. For all the following situations the penalty is 10 years imprisonment and a fine: if a woman is forced to undergo an abortion (section 313), if a woman dies when she’s forced to undergo abortion (section 314), or if a woman is subject to torture such that her unborn child dies (section 316) in which case it is treated as “culpable homicide.” Moreover, all these crimes are cognizable, i.e., the police can arrest without a warrant and [these crimes] are non-bailable.

There are bodies like the National Commission for Women in India’s capital, Delhi, as well as state level Commission for Women offices that have a system of filing complaints by women not just in the case of forced abortions but domestic violence or dowry related abuse. They are supposed to investigate the cases filed with them.

For the PC&PNDT enforcement there is District Appropriate Authority set up in each state that sweeping powers to investigate any individual, doctor, clinic or hospital involved in a possible violation of the law. They have the power to initiate an inquiry without a warrant, confiscate equipment and seal a clinic or hospital if they find evidence of violations.

However, having a law is one thing and but their implementation is another issue. The biggest problem, I think, is there is no political, administrative, or social will for the enforcement of these laws. There are many reasons for this.

1) Government offices in India generally tend to be bureaucratic and corrupt. Doctors and clinics can always “buy” their way out of trouble and get the cases against them dismissed.

2) There is also tremendous social apathy to these issues and there is no public demand for change. Indeed, if close to a million female fetuses are being aborted each year and about 25,000 young married women are murdered for dowry and thousands others are left maimed after vicious attacks on their lives, there is extensive social complicity in these crimes.

3) Women themselves are very hesitant to file complaints against their husbands and in-laws because of deep rooted cultural notions of family "honor." First of all, there is not much public sympathy for these women. But oddly enough, even when women are provided with extensive support and a chance to start a new life – they opt to return to their husbands and withdraw their case because to many marriage is the ultimate worth of their lives. And they can be married to only one man in their lifetime – that is what culture dictates. It is a mindset that women cannot be talked out of – because it is so pervasive, and so old in its existence in India's social milieu. But what it will take is a revolution of customs and traditions through a systemic form of education – and that in itself is a challenge because there is nothing India adheres to more ferociously (at the cost of bloodshed) than tradition!

MARYSIA: In addition to your campaign, what other kinds of resources exist for eradicating the problem of sex selection, for example, education campaigns on gender equality, or alternatives to the dowry system?

RITA: A lot of the effort is grassroots and local. And then every NGO has its own reading of the issues and how the issues should be dealt with.

At the national level there is only one project that comes to my mind and that one sponsored by UNFPA jointly with a Bombay based NGO (Population First) – called the Laadli Campaign. “Laadli” is a term of endearment for a girl child, and the campaign focuses on the falling gender ratio in India. They have a Laadli media award for each region every year for coverage given to concerned issues.

Though I think also because of the disparity in how this so called “gender ratio” problem is viewed and dealt with, it is difficult to try to form a consensus on solutions and hence as of now we don’t have a coordinated nationwide effort to deal with this issue.


MARYSIA: What resources still need to be created, whether they are about immediate service to beleagured pregnant women, or about another approach?

RITA: What we really need is shelters for women who have the courage to walk out of violent and unsafe domestic situations and need a temporary place to stay. Given the lack of resources, these women will have to be accessed legal aid, counseling, and help with finding a job and setting up a new life (which otherwise too is very difficult for a single woman in a male dominated society like India’s).

MARYSIA: There is such a great unmet need for these services. However, they do exist now in many countries and in many tongues where they did not before. They are growing. I can remember a time in the United States when no one knew what a domestic violence shelter was, because there wasn't yet such a place.

The Nonviolent Choice Directory lists many potentially helpful resources for women around the world, including women within India and in the worldwide diaspora, who need help resisting and escaping pressures to abort a girl child, or any other form of domestic violence. Please especially try here and (for women seeking alternatives to abortion) here.

I would especially recommend one of our listings, an international directory of domestic violence resources. It is organized by country, including India and the diaspora countries, as well as by language, including the widely spoken South Asian languages.

RITA: Women also have to be educated about the laws that entitle them to protection and we need a complete re-education on people’s social priorities. For centuries society in India has dictated to women that the ideal woman always protects the family’s honor even at a cost to herself. So many women put family loyalty over their own safety. Indeed, unlike the west where the courage of women to walk out of violent homes and marriages is lauded, in India there is tremendous social stigma across all classes of society. This is something that won’t change through conventional education, but only through social intercourse, by challenging old customs, and encouraging change. However, it will be a very long and difficult task – given how defensive Indian society is about traditions and old ways.

MARYSIA: In researching feminist work like yours against sex selection in India, I have found a deep suspicion of people who oppose abortion per se and profess concern about the problem. On the one hand, I can understand this. There are antiabortionists who are downright hostile to women's equality, then suddenly profess support for it when the issue becomes sex selective abortion, all the while dismissing the problems faced by pregnant women with girl fetuses as "trivial." Not very convincing!

On the other hand, this suspicion is frustrating for people whose opposition to abortion stems from respect for both female and fetal lives (we do exist!), and who therefore want to ally with activists like you and efforts like the 50 Million Missing Campaign. Not out of a cynical expediency, but a genuine concern for women's and children's rights that applies across a wide range of injustices. From your vantage point, how can people like us best try to form alliances, even as we disagree on abortion rights in general? What do we need to understand about advocates like you?

RITA: Perhaps your question more directly put is how can I fight for the life of women and girls and not for that of unborn fetuses?

MARYSIA: That’s part of it.

RITA: I am a biologist by training, and my perception of the world is in terms of the living. When my students studied sexual reproduction in plants, and dissected apples and tomatoes, what I always told them was that every fruit or vegetable they ate was life. That we consumed not just the embryos (the seeds) but also, what for plants would be the “wombs.” You might have heard of the Jain sect of religion in India. Their monks keep a cloth over the lower half of the face, because they believe that every time we breath in we kill countless micro-organisms in the air.

Our bodies house lots of living organisms. We take antibiotics on a regular basis. Bio [means] life. Antibiotics not only kill the harmful but the beneficial organisms living in our body too. Essentially, what I am saying is that we all end up killing life at some level whether we want to or not.

The pro-choice issue however does not advocate the killing of fetuses through abortion. Its primary concern is with giving the woman the right over her own body. The fetus is life, but it is incapable of independent existence. Till then it is a parasite in her body – like any other parasite that may be living in her body, and feeding off her body. Whether or not she will allow it to live there is her choice. So the choice view is that you can’t force her to abort, just as you can’t force her not to abort. However, from the point (usually the end of the 2nd trimester) where the fetus is capable of independent existence, I don’t think abortion is legal in any country.

MARYSIA: At the very least it is in the US, and China. Indeed in Chinese-occupied lands post viability abortions have been forced on women, especially Tibetans and Uyghurs, as part of the coercive one child policy. Other than that, I am not sure.

RITA: Our standpoint in the 50 Million Missing campaign is that most women in India are a form of reproductive machinery for the patriarchy. They are made to go through repeated pregnancies and abortions in the patriarchy’s hankering for sons! This is not only anti-choice. But according to the 1948 UN convention on genocide – the prevention of birth and continuity of a group is genocide.

That definition cannot apply to the question of abortion in general – because with the population explosion of the human race, nobody is attempting to stem the birth of humans in general. However, that definition does apply to women in India. What’s happening in India is a collusion between a corrupt leg[al system], the medical establishment and the social patriarchy at large to prevent the birth and continuity of girls in India.


MARYSIA: Yes, it is true that no human can survive without taking at the very least the lives of plants, some microbes and insects, too. Being a longtime vegetarian, and someone who is very careful about preventing the need for resort to antibiotics use, and about household and garden pest management, I am well aware of that!

But the question needs to be asked with every possible form of lifetaking humans engage in: Is this really necessary? Justifiable? Is this something that falls under the rubric of individual choice or jurisdiction? Is it something there is a collective responsibility to oppose and uproot?

When it comes to abortion, you and I obviously draw the parameters on this particular matter of lifetaking somewhat differently--even though I too have been educated as a biologist.

I do not see the fetus as a parasite; pregnancy is rather the most basic biological and social interconnection human beings have, and it is between two equally valuable lives and bodies.

Although I do get your point that you are not pro abortion per se but pro treating the decision as the pregnant woman's...Dependency is a dangerous criterion for deciding who lives and who dies (or at least whose life and death can be decided as a matter of someone else's personal choice).

After all, from an ecological perspective, all humans are dependent to some degree. And historically dependency has been socially constructed in various ways as a hallmark of being "less than" and a possibly dangerous, unjustifiable consumer of resources and therefore potentially disposable. Consider, for example, the notion of the wife as dependent/parasitic upon the husband, disabled persons are dependent/parasitic on the ablebodied, the colonized as dependent/parasitic on the colonizer...

From this vantage point, it is clear how very much discrimination against female fetuses is bound up with discrimination against already-born girls and women, and vice versa. Although unborn and already-born are so often pitted against each other in the abortion debate, an injury to one is an injury to both.

Do you think there is room for people with this sort of prolife perspective on abortion in the movement against sex selection, dowry murders, and other forms of violence against women?

RITA: A group of fetal cells growing inside a woman's body -- feeding off her body is essentially the same as a any other group of cells in her body.

Which is why we try not to argue it from the point of a woman's right to not choose to have a girl. We argue of it as a collective social attempt to prevent the birth of girls -- which is already defined as genocide -- an international crime.

MARYSIA: Approaching sex selection as part of a whole pattern of female genocide is something prolifers as well as prochoicers can do. Once again I urge our readers, whatever your views on abortion itself, to sign the 50 Million Missing Campaign’s petition. Thank you for this conversation, Rita.

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