Indian Women Stand Up to Husbands Who Demand Sex-Selective Abortions

The country strongly prefers boys at every stage of life. Here's how some mothers are trying to change that.
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Selvi's baby girl, taken when she was only a couple of weeks old. The father of the child did not want to have her, as girls are sometimes not welcome in India's patriarchal society. (Carl Gierstorfer)

Selvi holds her tiny baby girl somewhat clumsily in her arms. She carefully strokes the thin legs of the helpless creature and pulls a soft white blanket over her body. There is a sense of disbelief in Selvi's face. If her husband had his way, the little girl would have never been born. He simply did not want a girl.

He and his mother tried to push Selvi into having an ultrasound scan to reveal the sex of the child. Even though sex-selective screening is against the law in India, every year thousands of fetuses are aborted for being female. Indian society wants sons, heirs to the family name and its fortunes, somebody to look after the parents when they are old. Girls are a financial burden, their future marriages clouded by dowry payments that ruin families for decades.

Having a girl, an Indian proverb says, is like watering your neighbor's garden.

But now, the first cracks are appearing in the sexist system. Selvi (who asked that her real name not be used) was born and raised in Dharavi, a sprawling slum in the heart of Mumbai. Dharavi is like a petri-dish culturing India's future from a disorientating variety of traditions and beliefs. What unites the one million people who live in Dharavi's impenetrable maze of dark alleys is the ambition for a better future. If not for them, then for their children.

Selvi deeply believes that this future is for boys and for girls. "I refused to have an ultrasound," she says. "Would they have found out I was carrying a girl, my husband and my mother in law would have forced me to have an abortion." But Selvi's strong will enraged her husband. He beat her, kicked her in the stomach, forced her to do hard labor. Anything that would make Selvi lose the unwanted baby girl.

She resisted and filed a police complaint against her husband. Then she moved back in with her parents and sought help from Nayreen Daruwallah, a doctor of social psychology who runs SNEHA, a nonprofit that fights violence against women and children.

SNEHA works out of Dharavi's local hospital; its offices betray a constant struggle for funding, which is offset by the dedication of its staff. Selvi is just one of dozens of cases that arrive at SNEHA for help, some of them are no less savage than the Delhi rape case, that has woken up the whole nation.

"Nothing extraordinary about this Delhi case," says Daruwallah. "Nothing at all."

Here, just a couple of months ago a woman was raped by twelve men. They threw the 18-year-old into the gutter, where she was left to die. The parents refrained from filing a case against the men who killed their child. "They were too scared", says Daruwallah. "They said that this wouldn't bring back her daughter."

What was the sense of pursuing justice, when this would taint the honor of their surviving children?

"When you commit a crime you have all the possibility of not paying for the crime," Daruwallah explains. Even though Indian law in theory punishes assault, rape and female feticide, it is rarely enforced. Women who have been raped are often told by police that they must have provoked the man to end up in such a situation. "This regularly happens when a women has been filing a complaint against rape or sexual assault," says Daruwallah.

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Carl Gierstorfer is a documentary filmmaker based in Berlin.

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