“You’re expecting a girl” is a phrase only whispered behind closed doors in India. The government made the gender testing of foetuses illegal in 1994 in an attempt to curb the endemic aborting of baby girls, which is responsible for the skewed gender ratio across India today.
Nationally, there are 914 females to every 1,000 men, and the gap gets much wider in specific areas. Last year the United Nations noted that the dwindling number of Indian girls has reached “emergency proportions” and was contributing to crimes against women. But the law of 1994 hasn’t seemed to have much effect, thanks to its sloppy implementation coupled with an entrenched cultural preference for boys. The trend for desiring male offspring, who are expected to bring in money and continue the family name, is visible across all social classes and means that an estimated half a million girls continue to be aborted each year.
Dr Mitu Khurana, a paediatrician based in Delhi, is the first woman in India ever to prosecute her husband and in-laws for breaking the law against pre-natal testing. She believes that they colluded with hospital staff to carry out an illegal gender test. “When I was in the hospital I thought I was having a kidney examination,” she tells me. “But the doctor did a full foetal scan without my knowledge – I was sedated at the time.”
On discovering that she was carrying two girls, Khurana says her husband, Dr Kamal Khurana, began a cruel campaign to make her abort, which involved pushing her down two flights of stairs, verbally abusing her and denying her food. He denies all claims.
Khurana’s twin girls were born in 2005, and she subsequently left her husband and brought a case against him. This landmark lawsuit looked like it had come to a final conclusion last month when the court declared that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Kamal, his mother, and the hospital staff who were there at the time. But Khurana, determined not to give up the fight, took the case to the High Court last week, where the judge issued notice for the accused to appear before him on 19 November.
Khurana believes that if she stops fighting it will send a negative message to other women who want to stand up against men in her society. “Things are changing. Women are coming forward and speaking out against abuse but a lot needs to be done. The system is still patriarchal and wants to suppress women’s voices,” she says.
The male to female ratio for young children has consistently worsened over the last 60 years, which is likely due to advances in technology that make sex determination easier and more accessible than ever – despite the fact that it’s illegal. According to the last census in 2011, India had 37.25m fewer women than men; in the same year it was reported that half a million girls a year were being aborted in India, equal to the total number of girls born in the UK.
Sunny Hundal, author of the book India Dishonoured: Behind a Nation’s War of Women has said that the phenomenon of this gross demographic imbalance “cannot be called anything less than genocide”. India’s gender disparity is thought to feed into the female trafficking trade and is partly blamed by some for the rising number of rape incidents.
Khurana believes that for India to see any real change, women must be the ones to fight against female foeticide. “It is up to us women,” she says. “[A] people of one sex cannot survive. Being female is not a congenital anomaly for which the child must be aborted.”