The dark tales of India’s missing girls
“At 6:30 am, we were woken up by our mother’s cries. We looked through the window of our room. Our father had a kerosene can in his hands, and our grandmother was carrying matchsticks. Our uncles and aunts were there, standing on guard and not letting anyone in or out. Two of them grabbed my mother, poured kerosene on her, and my grandmother threw the lit matchstick on my mother. Our mother kept wailing as she burnt. We couldn’t help her because we were locked. We watched her burn,” says Latika, now 21, recalling the brutal murder of her mother, Anu Bansal.
Six years ago, on June 14, 2016, Latika and Tanya witnessed the horrifying murder of their mother, who was burnt alive by their father, Manoj, for not giving birth to a son. The two minor daughters have since fought the battle in court for justice for their mother. Recently, the court of Additional District and Sessions Judge in Bulandshahr District in Uttar Pradesh finally sentenced Manoj to life imprisonment along with a fine of Rs 20,000 for killing his wife. Anu received 80 per cent burns and was admitted to New Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital, where she succumbed to her injuries four days later.
Latika, the elder daughter who has been fighting this battle for the past six years with her younger sister Tanya, maternal uncle, and grandmother, encountered several difficulties. The worst was the indifference of the police. “The police were hostile and indifferent,” she admits. Tanya asserts that she and her sister had decided not to give up until they brought the perpetrators to justice.
Even though the initial FIR was filed under Section 302 (murder) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), the police later changed it to 306 (abetment to suicide). “We called the local police and ambulance services but they ignored us. Later our maternal grandmother and uncle responded to the call and arrived at the spot,” Latika recalls. The battle was not an easy one. At the time, Anu’s family faced threats; shockingly, even an FIR was registered against them. Although still grieving and traumatised, Latika, Tanya and their maternal grandmother Omwati Devi decided to crusade for justice for Anu Bansal.
Anu’s mother, Omwati Devi, a resident of Bulandshahr, filed a complaint with the police after her daughter’s death, accusing Manoj and seven others of his family – Snehalata, Rajesh, Abha, Poonam, Kumud, Sanjay Mittal, and Akash – for the crime. But police removed 7 out of 8 family members’ names from the FIR.
Omwati Devi, 60, told The Probe, “He (Manoj) used to beat her after getting drunk. She was a very simple and straightforward girl. She didn’t inform me about her trauma thinking I would be upset or concerned for her. He wanted to get married again because she could not bear a son, but my daughter resented this. Her mother-in-law also tortured her, saying that the family legacy and bloodline could be carried forward only by a male child. They burnt her to death for this.”
English translation of the letter written in Hindi by the girls
We are the two daughters because of whom our family members burnt our mother alive in front of us on 14/06/2016. The police did not give us justice even though an FIR was registered in the case. You raise the slogan ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’. However, today in your region, a girl was burnt alive only because she gave birth to two daughters instead of a son. Now, we are also receiving death threats. The police are standing with the culprits and are not listening to our pleas. We two sisters are staying with our grandmother and uncle. My grandmother has been suffering from a life-threatening disease – cancer – since 2008. My maternal uncle was employed but lost his job because he struggled to give us justice. His financial condition is such that he cannot afford our education and other needs. We will be very grateful if we receive some financial assistance from you and if the culprits are arrested and given strict punishment.
Advocate Sanjay Sharma who fought this case pro-bono says, “I took this case as a personal matter. Those girls are like my daughters; I don’t deal with them as clients but as family. Even the opposition lawyer asked me, why am I taking this case too seriously? To get justice, it took us six years, one month, and ten days”.
“The judge convicted the father (Manoj) and sentenced him to life imprisonment, which means he will be behind bars for the rest of his life. If they appeal ahead, we will take the necessary legal recourse. The rest of the seven members accused in the matter have their pleas pending with the Allahabad High Court,” he adds.
Female foeticide, or the practice of killing a girl child before her birth, is a major social evil and a bitter reality in India. sex determination of a child before birth is deemed an illegal act and draws punishment. However, illegal sex determination rackets have been thriving for years in India.
A study by ‘Pew Research Center’, a US-based think tank, revealed that there were at least 9 million female foeticides in India between 2000-2019. The number of girls born fell from about 480,000 in 2010 to 410,000 in 2019. According to the center’s analysis, among Indians overall, sex selection during pregnancy is the result of a cultural preference for sons over daughters, which may be thought of as “son preference”, “daughter aversion”, or both.
According to the Gender Inequality Index-2022, released in July, India is placed at 135 out of 146 countries, while India’s neighbouring nations Bangladesh and Nepal rank 71 and 96, respectively. India’s low ranking is calculated from its skewed sex ratio, with only 914 females for every 1,000 males. The Covid-19 pandemic has had a lasting impact on gender equality, and has stalled development worldwide and exposed gender-based violence.
By the late-1980s and the early-1990s, ultrasound techniques gained popularity throughout India and the practice of female foeticide soon spread to hospitals all across. To tackle sex determination and female foeticide, the Indian government passed the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act (PCPNDT) in 1994 to ban and punish prenatal sex screening and female foeticide. It is currently illegal in India to determine or disclose the sex of the foetus to anyone. However, there are concerns that authorities have poorly enforced the PCPNDT Act.
“I think, to stop this illegal practice, it is necessary to have a robust system that could work seriously on the issue. At present, raids on ultrasound centres are random, but that’s not how it should be. This issue must be dealt with all its seriousness and utmost concern. The second issue is the ethical aspect regarding the doctors. The doctors always know the sex of the child, but how often do they not disclose it to the couple?” he asks.
The Indian census data indicates that the sex ratio is poor when women have one or two children but gets better as they have more children, resulting from sex-selective “stopping practices.” Data also suggests a positive correlation between an abnormal sex ratio and better socio-economic status and literacy.
Rubina Patel, President of a Nagpur (Maharashtra) based NGO says, “I think the main reason for this illegal practice is that our society has a patriarchal mindset, where people think that boys will progress our breeds. This mindset should be changed. It is always not the husband, but in many cases, the mother-in-law forces her daughter-in-law to abort a child when it is known that the baby is not a boy. Much groundwork needs to be done to inculcate gender sensitivity in people.”
Dr Sadaf Nasir, an Assistant Professor with the Aligarh Muslim University’s Sociology department, says the case is no different in India’s “so-called” literate states. “Female foeticide still exists on a large scale even in developed and literate states like Tamil Nadu and Delhi. There was a time when people would be happy and celebrate the birth of a girl child in states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu. But now, if you check the data, female foeticide is still one of the major issues faced by our country. We need radical reforms.”
Last year, the London-based medical journal, The Lancet published an article on India’s female foeticide issue. The report indicates that half of the world’s missing female births occur in India due to sex-selective abortion.
The 2019-21 National Family Health Survey (NFHS) shows that 15% of Indian women between the ages 15 to 49 reported wanting to have more sons than daughters, while just 3% said they wanted more daughters than sons. The Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (BBBP) scheme was launched in 2015 and mainly targeted 405 districts in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Bihar, and Delhi. However, shockingly, nearly 80 per cent of the funds for the BBBP scheme were spent on media advocacy, found a report tabled by the Parliamentary Committee on Empowerment of Women in Lok Sabha in December 2021.
In June this year, in Karnataka’s Belagavi district, seven aborted embryos were found inside five canisters floating in a drain near a bus stop in Mudalgi. The state health and family welfare department and the police launched a probe. A maternity clinic was sealed after its staff admitted to having played a role in the illegal abortions.
Rubina Patel’s NGO, Rubi Social Welfare Society, has been working for women’s safety, awareness, and other issues since 2005 in Nagpur. “In 2014-15, we started a big campaign against female foeticide with the collaboration of the state government’s women and child development department and other organisations. During this campaign, we held programs and rallies to raise awareness on the issue. Our work is at the block level. We collaborated with the program’s panchayat samitis, Anganwadi workers, and girls. During the last five years in Maharashtra alone, more than five lakhs cases of female foeticide were reported. This is just the recorded data, and the unrecorded data is expected to be several times more. That is why these awareness campaigns are important.”
The State of World Population 2020 report released by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has revealed that India is one of two countries in the world that accounts for the majority of the world’s missing females. The data suggests that India alone had a share of 45.8 million of the world’s 142.6 million missing females. According to the report, missing females are defined as those numbers that are reflected in sex ratio imbalances at birth as a result of gender–biased (prenatal) sex selection, combined with excess female mortality stemming from postnatal sex selection.
The Tale Of Two Sisters
Haryana is one of India’s most infamous states for female foeticides. Here, two sisters, Sanjoli Banerjee and Ananya Banerjee, from Karnal district, began engaging in activism to fight female foeticide from a very tender age. When Sanjoli, 23, was just five-years-old, she witnessed her pregnant mother being pressured by relatives to get an abortion when the sex determination results indicated another baby girl (Ananya) was on the way.
“One of the first events that my father conducted for the cause of raising awareness about ‘female foeticide’ was in 2004 at Yamuna Nagar on the occasion of Lohri. Through the event, Beti Ke Naam, they honoured parents of baby girls with cash prizes,” stated Sanjoli.
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