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Revisiting the baby killings of the 1990s

China relaxing its family planning rules is a reminder that India’s sex ratio is skewed too, needing changes in attitudes towards reproductive freedom

Female infanticide and foeticide are indicators of a society's devaluation of its women and their reproductive rights
Female infanticide and foeticide are indicators of a society's devaluation of its women and their reproductive rights (Photo by Amit Ranjan on Unsplash)

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China has relaxed its family planning rules again. Families are now allowed to have three children because the country urgently needs to check the alarming decline in its population. Throughout the 70s and 80s, girl children were killed as the draconian one-child policy was implemented, leading to an unsustainably skewed sex ratio. This is what happens when a patriarchal society treats women as disposable bodies and takes away their control over their wombs. It is also a stern reminder to us that our society too could be caught in the same vortex unless we change our attitudes towards women and reproductive rights.

I remember the first time I realized the effect devaluing women in such a manner has on society as a whole. It was the early 1990s, and I was in the middle of a village in Tamil Nadu when I understood, quite literally, how disposable women’s bodies are in our society. Nothing I had covered in my 20 years as a journalist till that point had prepared me for what I learnt in Usilampatti taluk in Madurai district.

I had gone to Usilampatti to investigate a case of female infanticide. A woman who had killed her female baby had just been arrested along with her husband. Surprisingly, the locals were protesting against the arrest. I had read reports about infanticide, but had never really believed a woman could kill her own newborn, after carrying it in her womb for nine months. And even if she did, I did not believe society would condone her act.

I could not have been more mistaken. The woman had given birth in the Usilampatti government hospital and had disappeared with the infant the next morning. This was apparently not unusual in the area where female infanticide was rampant. What was unusual was that the police had gone to her house, dug up the remains of the infant, who had been strangled to death and buried in the courtyard, and arrested the mother and the father.

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The community was seething with rage—not because a girl child had been killed and buried by her parents, but because the police had arrested them. What was shocking to me was the discovery that the entire community, including the police, considered female infanticide a necessary act to rid families of “unwanted” girl children. This arrest had taken place because a new district collector, “an outsider”, had ordered the police to act.

The community’s sympathy lay with the mother. She was only protecting her family, an elderly woman told me. She already had two daughters, how could she face her husband and in-laws after producing one more girl? And now that she was in prison who would look after the children?

“The problem is little girls grow up to become women who have to be married off,” a woman named Thayamma explained to me. “And so, the value of a woman goes down every time the value of gold goes up.” She was referring to the high dowries the poor villagers were forced to pay to get their daughters married.

As I talked to more women, I realized that the mothers themselves were disposable cogs and knew they had no option but to “send daughters to God” as soon as they were born. Either that or they would be killed or abandoned by their families. It got me thinking: Were these women the perpetrators of a crime or the victims of a patriarchal and socially unjust society that left them little choice but to comply?

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“We cannot afford to keep our daughters. It is best if we send them to God. Why should we let them live and suffer as we do?” woman after woman said. One woman told me, “Even after bearing ten children most of us feel we have no guarantee of a safe future.” For the men, it was all about money. Raising more than one girl was too expensive. “My sons will bring in money and my daughter will take it all away,” was how the men thought.

The village midwife whom I spoke to at length told me she had snuffed out the lives of more girl babies than she could count. It was her job, she said pragmatically. She was paid more to kill a girl child than to deliver her. Only if the girl was a first child would she be allowed to live. She described to me the gruesome ritual killing of infant girls by feeding them poison, suffocating them or squeezing their delicate necks. Many of the women spoke openly as to them, it was not a crime but an act of mercy.

And why did they do it? The women told me that if they didn’t agree to kill their second and all subsequent daughters, they would be killed by their in-laws. Or their husbands would abandon them and take new wives in the hope of begetting sons. I heard stories of stern mothers-in-law who would sedate the new mother and take away the baby. One woman showed me a grinding stone in a corner of her hut. “How many girls have died because of the paste ground on that stone,” she said, stony faced, and added in the same flat tone, “even one of my own babies…”

The late Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa had started a cradle baby scheme in 1992 to encourage families to leave unwanted girl children anonymously in cradles at certain locations. The children would be sent to government-run orphanages and adopted. But the women of Usilampatti were very skeptical about this: How could they be sure the children would be well cared for? What if the government changed and the girls were abandoned? What if they were sold into prostitution? Instead, they preferred “sending daughters to God”. At one of the centres I visited, there were just seven babies, which was completely disproportionate to the number of girls who had disappeared immediately after birth.

The Tamil Nadu government introduced a 'cradle baby scheme' in 1992 for families to anonymously put up girl children for adoption instead of killing them
The Tamil Nadu government introduced a 'cradle baby scheme' in 1992 for families to anonymously put up girl children for adoption instead of killing them (Gita Aravamudan)

Some of the younger women told me they were willing to get sterilized, but their families who wanted more boys would not allow it. “It is alright for you city women,” one of them told me. “I know there are machines that can tell the gender of the unborn child, then you can safely have an abortion if it’s a girl. But in what way is it different? You kill them before they are born, we do it after.” (The government passed a law banning pre-natal gender determination and sex selective abortion in 1994).

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Finally, just as I was leaving the villages, I came across a story that lightened my despair. I met 15-year-old Janaki and her mother Chinnathayee. When Janaki gave birth to twin girls in the Usilampatti General Hospital a few months earlier, she was rejected by her husband and in-laws. Since the babies were weak and underweight, many of her relatives and other patients in the ward advised her to do away with at least one of them. Chinnathayee was made of sterner stuff. With the help of social workers from the non-profit Indian Council of Child Welfare, she got her granddaughters treated in the Madurai government hospital. When I visited them, the twins were asleep in a hammock fashioned from a sari in their grandmother’s hut. “Even her husband and in-laws visit Janaki and the children now,” Chinnathayee said with a happy smile.

Janaki with her mother Chinnathayee and her newborn twin girls. Chinnathayee made the decision to raise the girls despite opposition from family.
Janaki with her mother Chinnathayee and her newborn twin girls. Chinnathayee made the decision to raise the girls despite opposition from family. (Gita Aravamudan)

Ten years later, I visited Usilampatti again, this time to do research for my book “Disappearing Daughters”. I was in for another surprise. Female infanticide no longer existed—not because girls were now welcome but because the “big city machine”, the ultrasound scanner, had arrived. Sex selective scanning was illegal and expensive, but it was also less risky as the police were much more vigilant about girl babies being killed after they were born rather than before. This continues to be a serious problem across the country despite the ban on pre-natal diagnostic testing.

There had been some change in society though. The government and non-profit organisations had started offering incentives to families to keep their second and subsequent daughters. It had given female babies a chance of survival, and girls were making it to adulthood. The brightest moment for me came when I asked about Janaki and her daughters. They were fine, I was told, the girls were doing well in school and Janaki was living now with her husband and family.

This story doesn’t end here—there are many more that I collected as I travelled across the country, but those are incidents for another column, another day. There are many facets to the problem of our falling gender ratio that is bound to have a disastrous impact on future generations.

Gita Aravamudan is a Bengaluru-based journalist and the author of Disappearing Daughters: The Tragedy of Female Foeticide, among other books

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