It is estimated by historians that about 72 million people were killed during the second World War. Of this number 25 million died in combat, as much as 11 million were killed in the Nazi Holocaust and another 20 million perished in war induced famine. But this is not the single event with the largest killing of human beings in history.
Demographers and economists estimate that today over a 100 million women have been killed globally by societies which prefer sons over daughters. While guns, bombs and Zyklon B (the gas agent in the Nazi gas chambers) were used to kill during World War II, the present genocide against women is carried out by abortions, drowning, strangulation and nutritional and medical neglect. Unlike during a war where the combatants are known and kill only the enemy, in this genocide of women, it is the girl child’s most trusted and loved ones who kill her. It is important to understand that these 100 million women should have been alive and living today if not for the fact that they were killed, often directly in the form of abortion, killing after birth and death due to medical negligence and discrimination over food. It is important to understand that unlike in war where State institutions and politics is responsible for the deaths, here parents and close relatives of the unborn girl and the girl child are responsible for the deaths.
The blood of these 100 million dead women and girls is on all our hands as our hallowed families, which are meant to nurture and protect, have turned into killers of their own girls. Unfortunately, this problem seems to be concentrated in the countries of South Asia, East Asia and China.
The economist Amartya Sen gave the term “missing women” to this phenomenon of fewer women in populations than there should be and estimated that there are at present 44 million women missing in China and 39 million in India. Others have estimated that there are close to 6 million missing women in Pakistan, 3 million in Bangladesh and one million in Afghanistan. This implies that there are actually more women who are killed and missing in South Asia than anywhere else in the world. In India and China there are 107 men to 100 women, in Pakistan there are 108 men to 100 women. Truly a dubious distinction for a region which prides itself on its culture, history and civilisation!
To say that South Asian cultures are biased against women would be an understatement. Historically, some of the most devious, cruel and humiliating forms of female oppression have emerged in South Asia, China and the Arab world. From discriminating the girl child with food, medicine and education, from forcing subservience to male commands, from burning widows and enforcing purdah, from honour killings to female feticide, Asia and the Arab world have led the world in sexual apartheid.
Therefore it is not surprising that an overwhelming number of women reported missing – killed in action on the frontlines of patriarchy’s war on women – are from South Asia, China and its neighbouring countries. What is interesting to note that differences of religion, culture, climate, ideology, social system or economic growth have no influence on this killing of women. Hindu or Muslim or Buddhist, Democracy or dictatorship, feudal, capitalist or socialist, poor or rich, cold or tropical, all over the swathe of Asia, millions of parents are wilfully killing their children who are girls.
While it is important to recognise its wide-spread prevalence, it is also important to identify the causes for its existence, the variations of its practice and the implications of its prevalence if we are to try and end this unprecedented genocide.
Historically, girl children were often killed at birth by the mid-wife by feeding her poison, drowning her, strangulating her with her own umbilical cord or stuffing her mouth with salt. All these practices are reported from different parts of the British Indian Empire by the Firangi civil servants. Even those girls who escaped this death at birth, faced a childhood of neglect in the family with regard to food, medical care and education. Women were married off very early in life, often before they even attained puberty and became mothers in early teenage. Millions more were martyred on the altar of motherhood as the demands of repeated childbirth led to high mortality too. Many were killed when their husbands died, either by the religious practice of Sati or by the more prevalent custom of branding widows as “witches” and “dayens” and then lynching them.
Today, some of these more explicitly cruel forms of killing women may have become rare (though not entirely ended) but these have been replaced by the cold medical technology of the ultra-sound scan of the mother’s womb and the abortion of the female foetus. This brings us to the first of the main variations in the spread of missing women. It is the urban, educated, high income groups which display the maximum number of missing women! This means that the more educated, well-off and urban based a family, the more the chances of girl children being killed.
Men carry the family line and name, property is in the name of men who also wield political and military power (often the same thing), while it is men who are able to attain social status. Therefore if families have had to protect their property, pass it on to their progeny and acquire power in society, they have had to have sons. This feature has been called “son-preference” and is seen as the main cause for the killing of women But this is a necessity common to all forms of patriarchy, and as any Marxist would tell you, the history of all societies is the history of class struggle and the history of all class divided societies is also the history of patriarchy. So the importance of men to own private property, carry on the family line, hold power and control in society has been universal to all human history. But the killing of women, and that too on a scale where a 100 million of them are missing today, is a specific feature of Asian societies (and some North African ones which are influenced by Arab culture).
Some women activists and experts identify a social-psychological pathology which they term “son preference” which fuels this murderous desire for sons at the cost of killing their daughters. They argue that the existence of daughters implies a major loss of property and wealth in the form of dowry which has to be given at her marriage and also entails investments in her education and upbringing which develops her “human capital” which is “lost” to the family which invests but is a net gain for the family which “gains” her in marriage. This has been identified as the main cause of continuation of female foeticide and infanticide, specially in South Asia. Daughters are also a drag on the family’s ability to project themselves socially as economic and human resources have to be invested in protecting their honour and bodies.
While these are surely important causes for the continuation and increase in the killing of women, these do not fully explain this genocide. Next week, this column will explore some other possible reasons as well as look at the consequences of this genocide.
(to be continued)
This article was published in Aniket's weekly column in The Post on Wednesday, 23 April, 2008.