Unwanted Girls

Give a girl an education and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well, without further expense to anybody. ”  (Jane Austen)

The title of this post is neither surprising nor new. It is a repetitive old story, only, that in modern time, it has assumed an uglier face. I recently attended an Economics seminar titled “Bare Branches and Drifting Kites: Tackling Infanticide and Feticide in India”  by  Arjun Bedi – Professor of Development Economics at the Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague, The Netherlands. As the title suggests, the paper explored the various ways in which female infanticide is being tackled in India. I have written some posts along the same lines previously. But today, the post attempts to explore the issue in-depth in order to understand the mechanics behind this ugly phenomenon. The rationale of exploration is simple: To an educated individual (a girl!) like myself, the paper presented shocking and horrific facts.

Female infanticide is not new. Its’ existence dates back to ancient times and the practice continues to this day.The issue continues to plague the developing countries. The phenomenon is highly controversial from the ethics, human rights and moral grounds. But what has further complicated the scenario is the modern technology. The cheap and easy access to ultrasounds that identify the sex of the fetus had led to sex-selective abortion resulting in the “missing girls”.   If you ever thought being a woman or a girl in this world is difficult, you will thank the stars that today you are alive, for a million girls were killed in the wombs even before they were born.

Being a woman in today’s world means fulfilling various roles and responsibilities. From nurturing to raising and contributing positively to the nation as a whole , a woman assumes multiple roles to accomplish various objectives and norms imposed on her either by the society, or, culture, or, simply by the virtue of being the opposite sex. Failure to do so results in criticisms and taunts, with the final game ending with a common mantra  ‘its’ women’s fault”  I have observed such statements various time back home, in my family gatherings and community, where woman is blamed for every single evil in the world.

The perception is further strengthened by the strong culture preference for boys than girls . In developing countries, men are not only seen as the breadwinners of the family, but also, the bearers of the bloodline, the only ones who carry the family name forward. Thus, a family’s lineage survival highly depends on boys. A girl is viewed as a burden for one has to pay dowry for marriage and since she goes to someone else’s house, hence the connection to the family name is broken. In the quest of having a son, The Economist in 2010 reported that in India, 100 million girls or more have disappeared and the number is continuing to rise. The article claimed that gendercide will affect India’s economic growth in the future.

However, India is not the only country where female infanticide and feticide is common. The trend is observable in countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, Nepal, Vietnam and has recently spread to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In China, the one-child policy has strictly gone against the girls. Combining with the culture preference, in China alone, it is the estimated that the imbalances are reaching a critical point where most Chinese men would be unable to find wives and could turn violent. Violence, frustration could lead to social chaos, ultimately, threatening the economic growth China has witnessed over the years. In one paper, ‘Hudson and Den Beor (2004) predict that by the year 2020, 12-15 percent of the young adult male population in China and India will not find brides leading to higher crime rates, diminishing prospects of democracy, stability and peace’.  Higher crime rates with women victims are on the increase in the developing world. ‘In Haryana, India, shortage of women has led to marriage migration, abduction, polyandry (one woman married to several men) and kidnapping of girls’ (Bedi 2009).

A horrifying fact is that in India, it is the wealthier parts of the nation where female infanticide is common. Worse, ‘as a mother’s education level increases, the sex ratio worsens until graduate level” (Bedi 2009). Thus, privilege and wealth are the main cause of sex selective abortions and female infanticide. One report of New York Times quotes an author that  “a male offspring brings a higher social status”. This reasoning makes one ask: has education taught these women nothing at all?!  How could an educated woman agree to abort a female fetus? How could an educated woman agree to kill a life in her own womb?! Is it that despite education, such women lack authority and the decision-making power to take such decisions? Is the pressure from the family or the society to such an extent that an educated woman is forced to bow down to the norms? What are the underlying mechanisms that the educated women take such steps?!! In India, it is claimed that ‘sex selection began in the urban, well-educated stratum of the society, before spreading down the income ladder’ (NY Times 2011). So really before blaming the poor for neglecting their daughters and not fulfilling their responsibilities, one has to first point the finger at the so-called well off, well-educated members of the society who openly discriminate against the baby girls. Instead, it is the low status families who opt for more girls than boys.

One of the  arguments in favour of female infanticide is that  low supply of girls will lead to a lower demand of dowry. Hence, shortage of women works in their own favor. However, that is not the case. It seems that the market for dowry is sticky (is rigid and doesn’t move much) and hence lower number of women has had no impact on lowering dowry at all.

However, all is not doom. Tamil Nadu – one of the states in India implemented programs and policies to combat female infanticide. The government of Tamil Nadu along with NGOs implemented schemes like Cradle Baby schemes in order to save the baby girls and to correct the imbalance created by the feticide. A Girl’s Child Protection Scheme is that as girls are viewed as an economic burden, to enhance their economic values the government provides financial support to families to raise girls. This was particularly targeted on families below the poverty line. The scheme has effectively worked in increasing the sex ratio at birth.

Daughter deficit – the gap between the number of expected daughters and the number of daughters born or alive in a certain age group – declined in the heavily treated districts (whereby the policies were implemented strictly like ‘on the face’ approach). The approach indicated the importance of large-scale interventions motivated by political and administrative zeal can reverse the impact of female infanticide. Thus, the results clearly show that if political will exists, the issue is amenable by public policies.

The issue of sex selective abortion and daughter deficit from the economic point of view is critical. Human capital is one of the critical requirements for economic growth. The term ‘human capital’ is not confined to males alone. It encompasses human which means both men and women. In today’s globalized world, where women’s contribution through work is critical, having less women means having less labor supply in the future, which could effectively derail an economy from its growth and development path. Without women, economic development is hard to obtain since a woman’s main contribution comes in the form of mother who raises a generation from the beginning and nurtures it so that there is positive contribution to the society. Without a woman, a society will simply shatter for the values, ethics and morals are all aspects that a woman passes on to her children.

The research in turn lead to  a number of questions requiring attention such as:

Boys marrying girls from other regions or backgrounds, what is their preference in terms children? Do they have a strong preference for  girls or boys?

What are the prospects of match making under such a scenario? Do educated women get well-educated husbands? Is there more choice for women than men?

While I attended this seminar, I am currently reading the book “The Secret Daughter” by Shilpi Somaya Gowda whose story is along the same lines of the paper. The story looks from the eyes of three characters whose lives are interconnected in different ways. The story line will be discussed in the Women’s Book Club in which I will be participating for the first time. It would be interesting to hear the views and thoughts of women and girls from different backgrounds on the topic that is a harsh reality for many.

While the questions are thought, and debated, while the story is read and shared, it cannot be denied that a girl is also a human being, who when grows up becomes a part of community, society and nation and contributes to the economy in a million ways. The real question that stands in front of us is:

Will the era of unwanted girls ever end?


“What would men be without women? Scarce, sir…mighty scarce.” (Mark Twain )


Bedi, Arjun and Srinivasan , Sharda (2009) “Bare Branches and Drifiting Kites: Tackling Female Infanticide and Feticide in India”

The Economist (March 2010) ” The war on baby girls: Genedercide”

The Economist (May 2011) “One dishonorable step backwards”

The New York Times (June 2011) ” 160 Million and Counting”

Pakistan – A Fractured State?

‘ It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness…’

A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens

The description fits Pakistan perfectly.

The catastrophic floods have left 15 million people displaced and have claimed 1,600 lives. The devastation is of epic proportions for agricultural lands have been wiped out, livestocks lost, infrastructure swept away and diseases ready to hit a vulnerable population.

The future is at stake.

The flood has not only swept away livelihoods of people, but also, has exposed the faults in political, developmental, environmental and institutional structure that would turn the course of the nation.

The current crisis makes one wonder if Pakistan is nothing but a dearth of tragedies. It is imperative to understand because in its existence of 63 years, the country’s politics, economic development and institutions are all in a dire state. If anything, Pakistan has become a state with no direction – or rather is seen as a ‘fractured state’ –  simply because various factors continue to dominate, becoming  a major impediment in the way of progress.

Today, the fate of the country and its people is hanging by a thread. If the thread breaks, the consequences are unimaginable.

The Political Mess

Pakistan political history is littered with military dictatorships and failed civilian governments. In its entirety, the country has never witnessed a stable, progressive democracy. For one reason or another, the civilian governments were either dismissed or thrown out due to incapacity of governing a nation.

The country has had no leadership that would direct its people towards a progressive future. Hostile relations with neighbouring country India and an unstable Afghanistan, Pakistan lies in a critically sensitive geographical area where political stability is pivotal for regional stability. But with an unstable democracy come the corrupt politicians worsening the scenario in total sphere. For it’s all about political dynasties such as Bhuttos and Sharifs with one dynasty taking over another in turn in Pakistan.

Much was written in the international and domestic media about President Zardari’s European tour. ‘The image of the President’s helicopter leaving the elegantly manicured lawns of his French villa (Chateau)’ at a time when the people were suffering immensely is one example of what the politicians actually think about the state and its people.  The state is nothing, but,  a ‘money-making machine’ with access to all the aid received from the developed world, a chance to fill their coffers. Despite heavy pour of criticisms, the President continued the tour in the wake of a humanitarian crisis in home.

Disgusting as it may-be, yet, the main purpose of the President was to launch the career of his son, Bilawal Bhutto, the heir to the throne of Bhutto legacy. Bilawal a graduate of Oxford University with a degree in history, his own history of colorful stints in the university would shock the nation. Moreover Bilawal’s knowledge with regards to Pakistan’s history on political, economical fronts and its problems is highly questionable.

However, the President is not alone in carrying out such events for Pakistan’s politicians are known to make merry of every hostile situation.

Nawaz Sharif and President Zardari – Newzblaze

The state of corruption has not stunned the people at all for the President alone is not a culprit of ‘ accumulating assets of as much as 1 billion pounds around the world’. Former Prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s government was also corrupt. In one of his tenure, the scheme of Karz Utaro, Mulk Sunwaro (Repay the debt, Save the Country) has never been investigated on embezzlement charges nor corruption.  Mr Sartaj Aziz – Finance Minister at the time – stated that the fund was direct under the control of Mr Sharif.

And like the President, in such catastrophic times, Mr Sharif is seizing the opportunity by  portraying himself as the leader who knows his priorities. If one gives the benefit of doubt, then it is critical to ask; why hasn’t Mr Sharif brought his millions back to Pakistan to aid the people? Why rely on foreign aid when the politicians’ are super-rich?

On the other hand, military is another matter altogether. Dubbed as ‘ a state within a state’, the  reputation of Pakistan’s military deteriorated with the antics of former General and President Pervaiz Musharaf. No one has forgotten the Lal Masjid incident and the scars remain deep.  Currently, General Kiyani is basking in the glow of public for coming to the aid of people while the  President was enjoying his expensive trip.

The flood has created an immense political vacuum.  The government through its inefficiency and incapacity of handling the relief work as well as having no creditability, has handed ‘the golden platter’ to the military and to religious groups with regards to political future. The religious groups are helping out people and providing relief where the governments have failed. In part, the reason ‘that fundamentalism exists is because the religious societies provide security and assistance which the state has failed in providing’. The country again is standing at a sensitive political stage where military is being highly favored compare to a democratic setup.

A Soldier Evacuating People - Khalid Tanveer A P Photos
A Soldier Evacuating People – Khalid Tanveer A P Photos

Economy at Standstill

Pakistan’s economy has always remained on the back burner.  The hostile relations with neighboring countries led the diversion of the funds to bureaucracy and military development. Feudalism continues to be a major part of the society, especially in the agriculture sector. In the past, land reforms failed to provide equitable land distribution in farmers. Health and education have never received much attention from the governments. The result is major part of the population, residing in rural areas, have no access to proper health care and educational facilities. The development focus remains on urban areas which has aggravated the rural-urban migration pattern.

Further, the ‘twin-deficit’ crisis of the 1990s put a dent on the growth as it implemented IMF’s Structural Adjustment Package. The current government has also negotiated an IMF bailout package for the economy and is on the table again in the wake of the disaster. The government has added to the debt woes further by taking a loan of  USD 900 million from the World Bank.

The electricity shortages have aggravated the weak economic scenario for it is fueling the shut-down of businesses throughout the country. The terrorist attacks and violence in the commercial hub Karachi is leading to a loss of millions everyday. The current catastrophe has driven the prices of food across the country. It is believed that the inflation will reach 12% in the next six months. Further, with millions of cotton and wheat destroyed, exports are hit and there is a threat of food shortage that could engulf the whole nation.

Agricultural Lands Flooded – MSNBC

In simple terms, the economy is battered and at the brink of a collapse.

Is there No Hope?

Indeed, these are dark times. No light is seen beyond the dark tunnel.

But as Dickens said, these dark times might turn out to be the best times, for amidst them is hope.

Hope is re-kindled by the young generation of Pakistan as they are defying all odds to reach out to people in such dark times. With them lies the future of the country.

All one needs is opportunity. And when it appears and unleashes the young, the politicians will not be spared. The wave will sweep away the elements that have made Pakistan a fractured state, only, to re-build it for prosperity.

‘Missing Girls’ – The Ancient Murder

‘…that the more you gave yourself the less of you was left. There were always people to snatch at yo, and it would never occur to them that they were eating you up. They did that without tasting.’  (‘The Wings of the Dove’ – Henry James)

The above sentences by Henry James strike a chord with me for various reasons.  In many ways, it depicts my feelings on various spheres of life.  For me,  it describes, in modern-day times, humans as ‘dementors’ ( character in Harry Potter books). We are, I feel, in one way or another are dementors if we think about it for a minute. In our daily lives, we intentionally or unintentionally do eat each other up for a multitude of reasons.  The ironic thing is as a woman, we are consumed on a daily 24/7 basis in various forms such as prostitution, sexual harassment, abuse, psychological torture and we never feel it. Now, the very existence of women is in question as she has a new enemy: technology.

 In ancient times, baby girls were buried alive simply because they were girls and not boys. The tradition continues to this day in many Asian societies as the ancient thinking survives. The ‘girl’ is considered as a burden on the family because of the heavy amount of dowries that have to be paid to in-laws. A ‘man’ is the breadwinner and most importantly, is the insurance in old age for parents. This traditional thinking continues despite stories of son killing his parents for property or in some heated argument. Even in 21st century, a woman’s role is nothing more than a domestic servant. There a million stories of how women are capable of earning, how they can fight their way out of poverty and become earners and supporters of their families. But all examples are worth for nothing.

Today,  technology has joined hands with the traditional customs and  has become the latest in line to consume women. If the fetus is determined to be female, she is discarded (or to be polite aborted) and if it is a male – well there are a million reasons to celebrate (even if in future that male child is the reason for parents’ death). No matter how much the world organizations such as United Nations warn of disasters due to gender imbalance, the harsh reality is that  ‘female infanticide’ is happening at a faster rate. Vietnam, India and China are on the top list.  Various laws have been implemented, yet, the mass murder continues. All because ancient traditions refuse to die, refuse to accept a woman’s capability of earning,  and continue to place her in the lowest  denominator.

Woman is believed to be the root of all the ill-causes. Many ways have been sought to punish women; customs, traditions, sex trafficking, child labour and sexual violence.  No matter how hard women fight, a woman is neither valued as an individual nor as a human being. The crude reality is that in Asian societies there is a new war for women; they have to fight for their right to exist, their right to live and to survive.

The question that should be asked is: will the ancient customs of devaluing women win or will the women win their right to live? So far, the ball is in the court of  the ancient customs.