Saturday, July 23, 2011

Time to Act - Dr. Sharada's Address at the Creative Excellence Awards Event

As I am standing before you I am overcome by sadness and a sense of failure. I wish to share the same with you and with our health Minister Mr.Suresh Shetty who had agreed to join us today. The latest census data exposes the inadequacy of our efforts and our collective failure which let 7 million girls go missing from our population over the last 10 years. In spite of the activists and all those who are working for the cause shouting hoarse about the falling sex ratio there was hardly any urgency in the efforts of the government to curb the practice of illegal pre-birth sex determination.

Now we have a situation where pre-birth sex selection has ceased to be a phenomenon of a few states or districts. It has almost become a pan India phenomena. Except six states all the others have shown a decline in sex ratio.  Three of the six states Punjab (874), Haryana ( 830), Gujarat ( 886) had only minor improvements and are still far from the national average of 914 girls per 1000 boys.  While we were sure that sex ratio would further decline in Maharashtra, the figure 883 came as a shock to many of us.  Mumbai recording a fall of 48 points and reaching 874 girls per 1000 boys was a shocker. 

The media is covering the issue extensively and the government has launched a campaign to Save the Girl Child. Do we really need to be in such dire straits to wake up and put our act together? Do we need the foetuses to float in a nallah to push us into action.  I have a few questions to the Health Minister who is with us today on behalf of all of us. Why did the Maharashtra government take 3 years to constitute the State Supervisory Board? Why are the advisory boards not constituted or called for meetings as per the requirements under the law? Why does the government shy away from treating the issue as one of medical malpractice and illegal business by some doctors? How come whenever we speak of pre-birth sex selection the focus shifts to controlling abortions and monitoring and harassing of women?  Why don’t we try to understand what is it that has changed in our perennially son preferring society that makes the choice of eliminating girls and making a business out of it so easy. We did not have bad sex ratios even when we were a newly liberated country in 1960’s! What has changed now?

Our aspirations have changed thanks to liberalization and the visibility of prosperity all around us. Choices have become accessible and affordable thanks to aggressive marketing of technologies. But unfortunately, nothing much has changed with regard to the status of women. It is such a sad joke that whenever we say mind set change we only think of posters, banners and films. Do they really change our attitudes? Would I like to have a daughter just because I saw a poster, if I am not sure that she would get quality education in safe and sensitive schools which would help her become economically independent? Will I dream of sending her to work if I am not confident of her safety, security and equal opportunities at work place? Will I fight for my unborn daughter if I am not confident of the efficiency of the legal system, sincerity n honesty of the administrative system and support systems available for me – half way homes, child support, career n legal counseling, employment opportunities etc if I chose to leave the abusive family?

Mind sets change when we change the circumstances in which we live, communication helps but it is not adequate in itself. We have some of the most progressive laws but very little financial as well as human investments are made in implementing them effectively.

 The shortage of women will only make the atrocities on women increase making girls that much more vulnerable and unwanted, trapping us into a vicious circle. WE need the government to be proactive on many fronts and act with sincerity and accountability. It is heartening to that the Govt of Maharashtra has launched the  website for online registration of complaints and a help line as well to register complaints as well as to provide counselling services to women facing family pressure to go for sex determination. I request each one of you to be vigilant and complain online whenever you visit a clinic and find that it is not complying with the law or whenever you get to know that somebody had been informed about the sex of the foetus by a doctor. The things that you need to look into are:

·         A board at any ultrasound clinic saying sex selection is a punishable crime
·         2 copies of the PCPNDT Act should be available
·         Registration certificate of ultrasound machine
·         Registration certificate of doctor/radiologist
·         F and G forms to be filled up correctly
·         The sex of the foetus should not be revealed in any which way

We hope the government works on the complaints with alacrity. We have developed some real good communication material and hope the government uses it to promote the website.

We have launched the Million signatures campaign in 2009 and we have been collecting signatures to demand the government to initiate a few programmatic/policy interventions. Our demands include:
·         Reconstituting the advisory boards as per law
·         Conduct a social audit of reports submitted by the clinics
·         Make available online data of USG machines sold by companies
·         Institute a special fast track court
·         Appoint a special prosecutor at the state level
·         Initiate legal action against clinics for any violation of the Act

We have received 60,000 signatures so far. These signatures are received through SMSes, emails, and through signatures obtained at various events, colleges and organizations. I am sure many of you have signed the pledge card. Sir, we do not have much time, we need to act and act now. We have to keep our personal, professional and political agenda’s aside and fight for the rights of the girls. . Sir, we do not have much time, we need to act and act now. We have to keep our personal, professional and political agenda’s aside and fight for the rights of the girls. It is not just about her! It is about us as people, us as a society and us as a country.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

How many times do we repeat ourselves?

For the last few weeks, since the Census data was released, I have been reading and listening to reports and stories related to pre-birth sex selection. But what I heard and saw on TV yesterday left me very emotional and tired.
The news story was on six-month pregnant Surekha from Andhra Pradesh who was beaten to death by her husband after the ultrasound test revealed that she was carrying a daughter. Surekha got married to Prakash who works in a jewelry shop six years ago. When they had their first child – Kaavya a baby girl he was fine with it. When the second child, daughter Sweeti, was born he was disappointed and started harassing Surekha. He ensured that the next two pregnancies were aborted after sex-determination. This time she refused to undergo the test or opt for sex-selective abortion. She left him and gone to her parents house. She confided in her parents that if she had a daughter this time her husband would divorce her and asked them if they would take care of her children and her. Surekha’s parents counseled her to go back to her husband. And she did. The ultrasound was done the next day and she was beaten to death the same night by her husband. The story was heart wrenching and I could not control my tears.
The discussion that followed the story had me feeling tired. The same analysis, the same statements from activists and NGO representatives! The same guarded statements from government functionaries that they will look into the incident. How many times do we repeat ourselves? We have been saying the same things for the last 25 years but nothing seems to have changed.
The latest Census reports that 29 out of the 35 states and union territories recorded a fall in the sex ratios. A recent meeting of the Health Secretaries of 17 states with the officials of the Union Health Ministry had zeroed in on a few strategies to address the issue viz, monitoring sex ratio at birth, regulation of ultra-sound clinics, awareness generation programmes and research on values and attitudes that promote son-preference. However, State Governments seem to hesitate to play the role of regulators preferring to spend money and energies on the other strategies suggested. They see higher penalties as a better solution than legal action and suspension of license subsequently by Medical Council. Considering that pre-birth sex determination is a multi-million business, is penalty of a few thousand rupees really going to be a deterrent? How about launching a CBI enquiry into clinics which are repeat offenders? Would that expose the linkages between the doctors, appropriate authorities and the network of middlemen that supports the illegal practice?
And as regards the awareness campaigns, they are always limited to communication materials like posters, pamphlets and films often designed without keeping the target audience in mind and how we expect to engage them in the campaign. Awareness campaigns should focus on opening up of communication with the various stakeholder groups - the innumerable service providers under various government departments for social development, the senior policy makers, the corporate leaders, film producers and script writers, advertisers, youth, the judiciary, the health department officials in-charge of the implementation of the law, NGOs and civil society organization. The content, approach as well as the message varies for each group. For instance organization of Judicial colloquiums by UNFPA at district level in Maharashtra had led to four convictions in the last six months. But is the government willing to make such investments?
The practice of granting funds to NGOs for the awareness projects on a yearly basis and the alleged large scale corruption in the sanction and disbursement of funds keeps many earnest and honest NGOs out of government funding. It also keeps them out of the Advisory Committees and Supervisory Boards constituted under the law to monitor the implementation of the law.
Till we change the way we address the issue, there will be more Surekhas who will be tortured, tormented and killed for the supposed crime of bearing daughters when the real criminals go Scot free!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Mumbai Supports Laadli!

Q: ) What do you get when you have the country’s most gender-sensitive and conscious media, along with three incredible women achievers, an 8 yr old acting prodigy and a singing sensation like Usha Uthup?

Answer- A highly successful Awards function!

The National Laadli Media Awards for Gender Sensitivity 2010-11 not only saw its thousand-seater venue completely house-full with an enthusiastic audience, but the event was also graced by the presence of Honorable Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Shri Prithviraj Chavan and popular Bollywood Actress Rani Mukerji. UNFPA Representative a.i. India, Mark Derveeuw, was also present as a Special Guest at the award function. The audience applauded the media professionals and agencies who were being awarded for their gender-sensitivity in the news and advertisements they released in the year that went by.

The National and final leg of the Laadli Media Awards took place at Tata Theatre, NCPA on Friday, 8th April 2011 at 6:30 pm. The vivacious Pooja Bedi who was the MC for the evening, had the crowd in splits with the little anecdotes she sprinkled in between the compering throughout the function.

A group of girls from the D.M. Jariwala orphanage performed a mesmerizing inaugural dance for the function choreographed by the Terence Lewis Dance Academy. Thereafter, Afsana Sagiir Ahmed, an 8yr old girl performed a play titled Ek Laadli ki Kahani Uski Zubani and won the hearts of everyone present with her beautiful performance.

Pooja Bedi then called on Chief Guest Rani Mukerji to award veteran photographer Homai Vyarawalla, with The Laadli of the Century Award. Kathak Queen Sitatra Devi was awarded The Laadli Lifetime Achievment Award for the Performing Arts - Kathak by the Chief Minister. Mother of Orphans, Sindhutai Sapkal was awarded The Laadli Lifetime Achievement Award for Social Service and in her speech thereafter she gave beautiful renditions of a few Urdu, Hindi and Marathi couplets. The audience gave a standing ovation to these strong independent women who broke the glass ceilings to pursue their dreams at a time when women did not have a voice of their own.

Singer Usha Uthup gave a power-packed performance. She sang popular songs such as ‘I will Survive’ and ‘Words’ for the Girl Child and the audience cheered and sang along with her.

The entire event was absolutely spectacular and Population First received a phenomenal response from the audience toward the cause of the girl child and the Laadli Campaign. The audience pledged their support to the girl child by signing for the Million Signatures Campaign at the registration desk. We thank everyone who attended the event making it such a grand success. Little drops make an ocean, our little effort in the form of the Laadli Media Awards along with such tremendous support will ensure that one day our media is completely gender-just and responsible.

Here’s to Laadli!! 

Some audience responses-

Mr. Pranesh Mishra- “I greatly enjoyed the Award ceremony. It was really a touching event - extremely inspiring. I would be happy to help your organization in any way I can.”

Mr. Astad Parakh- “ The programme was really touching and I am sure it carried a strong message to all present, as is also witnessed by the news item on the very positive comments by the CM.”

Mr. Kishore Jagtiani- “What we are today is because of our Laadli, otherwise we would not exist. I would like to help the LAADLI program and be a small part of it.

If you would like contribute or help the cause in some way, you could support the Laadli campaign by writing a generous cheque, Volunteering your precious time, sponsoring our events and activities during Ganeshotsav and in colleges in the next academic session and finally organizing meetings, sensitization programmes in your neighbourhoods, communities, and offices.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Thank God She Is Not Alive!

Sex ratio – a term which most people would have now become familiar with considering that the newspapers have been full of the sex ratio figures as revealed by the census. The child sex ratio is falling – that is the number of girls per 1000 boys in the 0-6 age group is decreasing. Now what, may I ask, is surprising about that? We as a society do not value our women so they are always the last to get medical help. And women themselves have been told for centuries that they must put everyone else before themselves so they do not even demand services. They have no economic value assigned to their work so one less or thousands less makes no difference to the GDP. Education too – they are lucky if they get it – even if they do, many end up sacrificing their potential for family or at the feet of the husband’s ego….. the usual refrain!

And there begins the cycle where the woman who has not felt valued by society and learnt not to value herself becomes society’s accomplice in eliminating the girl child. And so begins the downward spiral of the child sex ratio. Technology has made it easy and guilt-free. All you need to do is to find an unscrupulous doctor, get an ultrasound done, understand the unsaid message and decide. You could go a step further – chose the male embryo from the petri-dish. No bloodshed, no guilt, no evidence.

So far so good – but what defies logic is why prosperity and education is not making an impact. My grandmother believed that education would empower her daughters and she braved all opposition to send her daughters to school and university in the 1940s. She was sure that by the time her granddaughter grew up there would be no difference between a son and a daughter. Thank God she is not alive to see this day – how would I have explained this trend to her.

Nivedita Sinha

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Hardly a surprise!

Census 2011 reports a steep fall in child sex ratio

For the last few days all those working on the issue of falling sex ratio have been waiting with bated breath for the release of the provisional census data. That the child sex ratio (CSR) i.e the number of girls per thousand boys in the 0-6 age group will register a fall was a foregone conclusion but the anxiety was by HOW MUCH? The data is out, the wait is over and we still cannot breathe easy.

The CSR is an important indicator not only because it reflects the pre-birth elimination of girls but also the discrimination against girls once they are born. It is true that more girls die during childhood than boys. Some under enumeration also has to be factored in as many families do not report the presence of girls in the family (Though,let me clarify that it is not a major contributor to the CSR)

At the national level CSR declined from 923 to 914 between the last two censuses. The decline of 13 points from 2001 to 2011 as compared to 18 points between 1991 (945) and 2001(927) may offer some consolation to all those working on the issue. But the fact remains that gender discrimination is continuing to be rampant.

The data shows that the overall percentage of children in the 0-6 age group has reduced by 2.8 %. They constituted 15.9% of the population in 2001 as compared to 13.1% in 2011. This indicates lowering fertility rates- a negative growth rate in this segment of the population. However, it is important to note that if we look at the growth rate among boys and girls which is -2.42 and -3.80, it is clear that girls are not really having a fair chance of survival due to discrimination at birth and during childhood. As we always said, a small family is desired but a son is a must.

What is worrying is that while there has been some improvement in the CSR of Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Chandigarh, Tamilnadu, Gujarat, Mizoram and Andaman and Nicobar Islands, in the remaining 27 states and UTs the sex ratios have recorded a decline. This shows that the phenomena of discrimination is no longer limited to a few pockets but is almost assuming epidemic proportions. The SRS data of 2007 on sex ratio at birth highlighted this phenomenon and now census has confirmed it.

This poses new set of challenges to the programme managers and civil society organizations. We cannot remain focused on a few districts or states alone any longer. While it is imperative that all that is possible is done to regulate the illegal practice of sex determination there, it is equally important that we regulate the sale and mushrooming of ultrasound clinics and machines elsewhere. The poor records of machines sold, poor compliance of the PCPNDT Act requirements by the clinics, and dismal performance of authorities in regulating these machines needs to be acknowledged and appropriate administrative mechanisms need to be put in place immediately all over the country. It is no longer a problem of “those” states. It is a problem of every district and state.

I am saddened to note that Maharashtra had a fall of 30 points from 913 to 883 between 2001 and 2011 in CSR. That the political will is lacking is evident from the fact that the State Supervisory Board was constituted recently after almost three years and has shown utter lack of understanding of the issue in its very first meeting. It is demotivating to see the people in power still thinking that Maharashtra is not as bad as others!

The alarm bells are ringing. It’s time for all of us to wake up from our stupor and fight for the girl child.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Barking at the wrong tree!

GOM proposes to regulate use of Abortion Pill to stop sex selective abortions

Twenty one lac illegal sex determination tests and seven lac girls being eliminated through illegal sex determination everyyear and the government feels that there is no need to regulate the clinics. The fact that in spite of our society being a son preferring society, that we did not eliminate girls on such a large scale before the pre-natal diagnostic techniques appeared in the market does not seem to register with them. Though it is apparent to all that there is a definite link between the availability and accessibility of sonography machines and the fall in the sex ratios, the concerned officials continue to deny it and blame it on mindsets and say it is a social problem.

The apathy of the Maharashtra Government to this issue is established by the fact that the State Supervisory Board was not constituted for two and a half years. And when it is formed last week under pressure from NGOs the very first meeting shows the lack of understanding and misdirected focus which deflects from the basic issue of misuse of technology.

As a monitoring and policy directing body it is expected to have members who have the technical knowledge, commitment to upholding the rights of the women and understand the nuances of abortion and sex selective abortions. If we are to go by the news reports it is obvious that the members have not been able to take an informed stand on the issue.
The focus of the recommendations of the State Supervisory Board is on controlling the sale and use of the abortion pill. This is a totally misdirected measure.

Abortion pills are not used by the women going for pre-birth sex selection. The pills are effective only up to 49 days of pregnancy. A woman cannot know the sex of the baby by then. The sex of the baby can be indicated from 12th week onwards and confirmed only after 18th week. So how does monitoring the sale of abortion pill help the cause?

This approach is dangerous as it compromises the right of a woman to safe abortion. Abortion in India is legal if it is in the interest of the well being of the mother and child, in case of rape and contraceptive failure. In a social context where women do not have control over their reproductive and sexual behaviour, abortion helps them get rid of unwanted pregnancies.

In India it is estimated that nearly 11 million abortions take place every year and around 6 million of them are unsafe abortions. Close to 20,000 women die every year due to abortion related complications. Awareness about abortions being legal is poor in India and measures like the proposed one would force many women to go for unsafe abortions by quacks endangering their lives. It would talibanise the society with the pharmacy workers, government officials and other lumpen elements targeting women buying abortion pills. It goes against the principle of confidentiality of MTP act.

Instead, the government should focus on cracking the business of illegal sex determination clinics and lodge legal cases against all clinics flouting the PCPNDT act. It is time that all those who value the rights of the women come forward and lodge their protest against this regressive, ill informed and misdirected move of Government of Maharashtra.