Earlier this month in southern India, a two-day-old baby girl was discovered alive in a grave. Turns out, her grandfather had buried her to avoid paying to raise an unwanted female child. And while prenatal sex determination tests are illegal in India, some studies estimate that around 10 million girls have been eliminated, either through abortion or infanticide, over the past 20 years. In a hopeful step, India announced today that it plans to create a registry of all pregnancies to try and stem the widespread practice of voiding female fetuses and newborns. That'll be some registry, since, at last count, the Indian population was around 1.12 billion. So, figuring that slightly less than half of those heads belong to women (an optimistic estimate considering the bias against and elimination of girls), that's some ambitiously honking registry.
In any case, government officials think that they can save thousands of unborn and newborn girls by recording numbers of their pregnant mothers. They also hope that the registry will provide the names of women in need of prenatal care and safe deliveries at hospitals and health centers to thousands of state-funded health centers in rural areas. As it stands, more than half of Indian women deliver at home, a potentially high-risk situation in any case, but a particularly perilous one without trained attendants, sterilization or parents who value girls.
Despite it being against the law, reports say that doctors frequently flaunt the gender test and abortion laws for money. There are also stories of new parents snapping the necks of infant daughters or stuffing hay down their throats. Renuka Chowdhury, Minister of Women and Child Development, sees the registry as a step away from "mysterious abortions" and toward only those that are done for an "acceptable and valid reason." And the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) welcomes the plan, provided the government creates more facilities, particularly rural ones, for institutional deliveries and stiffer penalties for doctors who abort female fetuses.
But it seems to me that administering the registry in such a populous place will be a nearly impossible and certainly overwhelming task. It also seems that a society with such a long history of devaluing future women must also necessarily devalue its current ones and I can't help but worry about the sort of treatment pregnant women might end up receiving at the hands of the registrars. Girl-baby-hating ways are hard to do away with, particularly among impoverished populations desperate for ways to ease their financial burdens. Indeed, I worry about India establishing the sorts of family planning clinics common in rural China, the ones notorious for forcing sterilizations and abortions, even if these initial intentions are completely benign. Perhaps if India first figures out how to provide basic health services to its population, it'll have some field notes for running this new, potentially productive, plan. And then, once these 1.12 billion people have health care, the pressures might ease a little and families might figure out a way to care for the members they end up with.