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Female Imperilment in the Third Millennium
by Lynette J. Dumble

In May 2001, author Salman Rushdie sent a message to the world via the New York Times, the Sydney Morning Herald, and the London Guardian that women in India were on their way to becoming an endangered species. Contemplating a future where India's males might ask, "Where are my sisters?", Rushdie warned "beware of women," who, as he sees it, are their own worst enemy. "What should be done when a woman uses her power over her own body to discriminate against female foetuses?" he asks.

While Rushdie's fears for future generations may well be unexaggerated, his emphasis on women's "collaboration" distracts from the social realities that shape women's lives, conditions which often leave them powerless to determine the fate of their own bodies, and neglects the patriarchal roots of female imperilment which extend far beyond the borders of India.

By contrast, and a decade earlier, Nobel economics laureate Amartya Sen addressed the cultural and social discrimination against women that had led to the "loss" of 22.1 million females from India. At that time, another 30 million females had "disappeared" from the Peoples Republic of China, as had a further seven million from Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, West Asia and Egypt. In all, with blame placed largely on female foeticide and infanticide, the world at that time had "lost" an estimated 100 million women. Today, the number possibly exceeds 200 million, but additionally, the world's third largest illegal economy, the trafficking of females of all ages -- infants, children, teenagers and adults -- and their body parts, imperils both girls and women, inside and far beyond Asian borders.

In 1901, India's female to male ratio was 972:1000, considerably lower than the ratio around the world where, for the past century, the overall female to male ratio has remained steady at 103 females to 100 males. By 1991, India's sex ratio had fallen to 927:1000. A decade later, largely due to increased life expectancy and fewer deaths at childbirth, India's Census 2001 boasted of the modestly increased female to male ratio of 933:1000. But it also warned that the national female to male ratio in children aged 0 to 6 years had plummeted from 945:1000 in 1991 to 927:1000. Masked by the national ratio, far grimmer ratios prevail in select parts of India; in Uttar Pradesh, the number of females per 1000 males is 822; in Punjab 750; and in rural Haryana, the figure has fallen below 700.

Three million out of the 12 million female infants born in India each year are dead before their 15th birthday; and amongst the three million children who die before their fifth birthday, girl deaths account for a staggering 75 percent of the total. But the dangers for India's females neither begin at birth, nor end with puberty. Like the majority of their sisters amongst the world's 1.5 billion poorest women, their perils are ever present from womb to tomb; 150,000 Indian women die annually from pregnancy-related causes. Underneath that 30 percent of the world's total maternal deaths lies a circle of brutal discrimination: girls who are not given the same nutrition as their brothers; girls who are less likely than their brothers to become literate, and if they do, may find themselves pulled out of school to become child brides; teenage girls weakened by pregnancies; and ultimately malnourished adolescent and adult females who become malnourished mothers, themselves at increased risk of death in labour, their infants at risk of low birth weight, and their girl babies, if they get to be born, and then get to live, destined to carry the burden forward into the next generation. Within that vicious circle, the mindset of girls and women is shaped by cultural and institutional notions of themselves as inferior citizens, and the girl child as a second class commodity. On that background, women themselves decide against bringing girls into the world to endure the cruel existence imposed by a strongly patrilinear society.

In India and China, female infanticide is both socially sanctioned and undeserving of mourning. In China, the draconian one child policy implemented in 1979 shrank the already scarce space available for the girl child, and the existing skewed female to male ratio fell from 941:1000 in 1981 to 938:1000 by 1990. India's proposed two-child policy, albeit less stringent, is also set to reduce the room available for girl infants. Few of India's states show the political will to enforce the century old law prohibiting female infanticide. A ritual which originated amongst certain of Rajasthan's tribal communities, the murder of the girl infant is morally cleansed by a reasoning that killing takes place before the ritual bath, seven to ten days after birth, which grants an infant "human status"; and is upheld by superstitions maintaining that the act enhances the chance of the next born being the preferred son. In terms of cold cash, the murder of the girl child is justified as a means of avoiding the extravagant overheads of a daughter's wedding and dowry.

As the nation's declining numbers of girls has become a matter of national importance, the threat of criminal prosecution has already driven female infanticide underground. Like their innocent victims, the telltale weapons of the past have been put to rest. Less revealing, but more painful and less swift, techniques of infant asphyxiation have taken their place, and include over-feeding before being tightly wrapped in a wet cloth, and exsanguination after the umbilical cord is deliberately untied. Last year, almost two thousand baby girls died in Salem district, now the infamous heartland of female infanticide in the State of Tamil Nadu, but while at least 500 infants were suspected murdered by their parents within a day of birth, only five cases of female infanticide were registered.

Coming on top of more than a century of female infanticide in regions where sons are preferred, medical technologies of amniocentesis, ultrasound, and chorionic biopsy, have compounded the problem of "missing females" over the past two decades. Designed to detect genetic abnormalities in the unborn, these technologies have turned into femicidal weapons, with clinics mushrooming throughout India and China. Despite the 1994 Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act in India, and China's Human Reproductive Technology Ordinance of 2000, sex determination for purposes of aborting female foetuses is presently a highly profitable medical industry.

In China, the ordinance was enacted a year ago, but legislation will not take place until drafting is completed over the next 18 months. In India, the act is an "on-paper- only" law which has proven to be a toothless tiger in the face of blatant abuse by elements of the medical fraternity. Some go so far as to suggest that they are helping curb the population explosion. Others defend their lucrative business saying it offers women a less barbaric means than female infanticide of doing away with their daughters. In China, it's an "in your face" hatred of females. One in vitro fertilization clinic in Hong Kong, presently housed in the same premises as the now-defunct Gender Choice Centre, and recently accused of exploiting loopholes in the Ordinance, calls itself VICTORY! Needless to say, not a single case has been registered in India or China against those peddling their technological misogyny.

In parallel with the world's illicit trade in military weapons and drugs of addiction, the global trafficking of women, children, infants and human body parts, is increasingly linked to organized crime. While not yet in the same monetary league as the underground trade in military arms and narcotics, human trafficking is nonetheless a lucrative economy which according to the United Nations Human Rights Commission places an estimated $US17 billion dollars annually into criminal hands. In expanding their markets, human body traffickers have capitalized on the anti-women downsides of globalization which manifest as feminized poverty and feminized migration. As a result, the heaviest flow of body trafficking stems from regions of conflict and underdevelopment; notably from South Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East which are home to as many as 16 million women and child refugees, and to a significant proportion of the world's most underprivileged tribal communities.

Flesh trafficking is now so endemic that even United Nations peacekeeping forces have been implicated in regions like Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Kosovo. Defying all moral codes, and every line and verse of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, human traffickers have exploited the bodies of an estimated 30 million women and children in the past decade. According to statistics from the International Labour Organisation, the sex industry accounts for between 2 to 14 percent of the Gross Domestic Product in a number of South Asian countries; and in the second half of the twentieth century, the growth and income of the sex sector surpassed that of any single multinational company. But while human trafficking has roots in poverty, it is driven by wealth and political apathy. In Australia, as in Europe and North America, there are numerous regulations which make sexual slavery a criminal offense. In July 2001, the Bush II administration berated 23 countries, including allies Israel, Greece and Saudi Arabia, for failing to tackle the slavery of the Third Millennium, but of the estimated 700,000 women and children trafficked annually, between 40 and 50 thousand end up in the United States.

Overall, poor girls and women are trafficked worldwide into brothels to work as prostitutes. But in Australia, as in Britain and the United States, a federal government preoccupied with closing the doors to refugees has failed to make sex trafficking a priority with immigration authorities. In the U.S., the Trafficking Victims Protection Act 2000 is a bill viewed by many Asian analysts as anti-migrant (directed at curtailing the crossing of borders), and racist (directed at developing countries with moralistic and punitive provisions). Countries deemed by the U.S. to be violating the act may be subjected to sanctions and/or denied aid, but the President has the right to rule an exemption if the measure is seen as counterproductive to fighting trafficking, or is in conflict with the national interests of the U.S.

Therein lies the rub which already sees the act faced with its first acid test. It's an open secret that Israel is a popular destination for women trafficked from ex-Soviet states, Brazil, Turkey, South Africa and Asia. Greece, though yet to publicly acknowledge the problem, is both a transit and destination point for girls and women trafficked from Eastern Europe and South Asia. Saudi Arabia turns a blind eye to expatriate workers forced into domestic servitude and sexual exploitation. Another U.S. ally, South Korea, is a major source of girls and women trafficked into sex industries, primarily in the United States and Japan. It doesn't take an Einstein to accurately predict that punitive measures against Israel, Greece, Saudi Arabia and South Korea will be vetoed by Bush Jr. because of the potential negative impact on the U.S. economy!

Traditionally, human trafficking has involved the exploitation of girls and women within sex, domestic, and labour markets, but has recently expanded to provide kidneys, corneas, skin, bone marrow, and livers for unscrupulous medical transplant programs, and female babies for international adoption rackets. Within the new twist, girls born to poor families, particularly those of indigenous and religious minorities, are at high risk: newborn girls are first bought for a handful of rupees, usually amounting to between 30 and 50 U.S. dollars, chiefly from their tribal mothers in Andhra Pradesh, India, and may be robbed of their sight or other vital body fluids and organs while in the care of orphan traders. Should they survive those ordeals, these female infants are sold like animals to the highest bidder.

In April, 2001, for the second time in three years, orphanages in Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh, were found to be both buying infants, invariably girls, and accepting kidnapped children. The infants and children were passed on to the Indian Council of Social Welfare, a lawful adoption agency, for local and intercountry placement. Turning out to be graveyards for already malnourished infants, the orphan trafficking adoption agencies bear perfectly respectable names, for example the once- humble Kokila Home rechristened the John Abraham Bethany Memorial Home, and others operating under the ever so sensitive banners of "Precious Moments" and "Tender Loving Care."

CARA, India's Central Adoption Resource Agency, has since suspended the license of the John Abraham Bethany Memorial, but as pointed out by the GRAMYA Resource Centre for Women, the NGO largely responsible for exposing the human rights violations of Andhra Pradesh's adoption scam, CARA has no teeth. Time and again, adoption traffickers have been found guilty of suppressing reports of a child's death, and then fabricating records to replace the dead infant with another. In May 2001, CARA also revoked the licenses of the Voluntary Adoptions Coordinating Agency (VACA) and the Indian Council of Social Welfare, and issued notices to Tender Loving Care, an agency attached to St. Teresa Hospital in Hyderabad, for resorting to unlawful practices in child adoptions. But, like VACA, CARA has been unable to prevent adoption traffickers from either directly entertaining representatives of foreign adoption agencies, or from routing children through a CARA licensed placement agency. Either way, the adoption traffickers cash in on the generosity of overseas adoptive parents.

Andhra Pradesh's orphan traffickers, frequently themselves women, are well- connected: Savitramma, and her associate Savithri, from the Bethany Memorial employs agents and midwives to scour the tandas in Mahbubnagar, Ranga Reddy, Medak and Nalgonda districts in Andhra Pradesh looking for pregnant Lambada tribals. Both maintain a close alliance with local politicians, with Savithri even holding a US green card. Another, Anita Sen from Precious Moments, is the wife of a top level police officer, and even as she awaits prosecution, she has several U.S. senators defending her honour with the Government of Andhra Pradesh. And the Christian missionaries, also women, at Tender Loving Care have maintained an antiquated morality to escape prosecution, justifying their cash payments to tribal mothers as a humane alternative to female infanticide!

Body traffickers also prey on poor Muslim girls in India, notably in the old city of Hyderabad, and in Kozhikode, Kerala, India's solitary state with a female to male ratio in keeping with world figures. In both cities, the ploy is to perform fake marriage ceremonies to legitimize the trafficking of adolescent girls into sex slavery in both India and the Middle East. Driven by poverty and community backlash, these Muslim girls, some trafficked more than 100 times before they reach the age of 18, also sell their infants for peanuts to human traffickers.

Adding salt to the wounds, the scarcity of women in countries like India and China has not made women more precious. To the contrary, the solution is the further exploitation of the thinning ranks. As an example, more than 10,000 Vietnamese women have been trafficked across into China, destined via marriage and/or prostitution to satisfy the needs of China's state-created lonely men. One in five has escaped back to Vietnam, taking with them 200 children fathered in their episodes, but in recent years Vietnamese police have been unable to bust more than a few of the numerous women- trafficking rings based in Ho Chi Minh City.

While Salman Rushdie and Amartya Sen bemoan the mass disappearance of Indian females, some argue that the nation's "unwanted girls' are better off never to be born, or are fortunate to end up with intercountry adoptive parents or to find sex, industrial or domestic employment, no matter how abusive, in some distant land. On a background of state apathy, India's priests of patriarchy, the nation's Supreme Court, religious leaders, and the Indian Medical Association, are presently addressing the problem of the country's declining female ratio. Almost predictably, their solutions amount to punishing women for their roles in female foeticide and infanticide, a move which in addition to making women the double victims of a patrilinear society, is set to preserve the status quo.

In contrast, at the recent National Consultative Meeting on "Female Infanticide and Sale of Girl Babies in the Guise of Adoption" in Hyderabad, 57 nongovernmental organizations sanctioned a totally different paradigm -- one which promotes female self- esteem, literacy, health and economic independence. Moreover, the NGO Coalition plans to actively resist female foeticide, infanticide and trafficking at two levels: first, by increasing women's leadership roles within the wider community, and second, by sensitizing men to their own poverty and patriarchy-related oppression. Their ultimate aim, a quantum leap ahead of the counterproductive remedies offered by the establishment's patriarchs, is to create a people's movement demanding a secure future for the girl child, her mother and her grandmother. It's a mammoth task, but the strength and imagination of the Indian women's movement and NGO network may well be the recipe which the home government and their counterparts abroad have long been lacking.

Dr. Lynette J. Dumble is a medical and environmental scientist and the international co-ordinator of the Global Sisterhood Network. She is a former professor of surgery at the University of Texas in Houston, and senior research fellow in history and philosophy of science at the University of Melbourne, and can be contacted by email at

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