Astrology and Sex Determination – Doomed before Birth


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India Today Group News –  Fri 5 Jun, 2015 12:36 AM IST

The lanes leading to Kalairani’s house in Kadayampatti, Salem, are intricate and confusing. Almost equally complicated is the 24-year-old’s life at present. Reluctantly letting her 18-month-old daughter stay with her neighbour, she begins talking, just as reluctantly, about her nightmare. It’s a tale eight months old now. Six months into her second pregnancy, Kalairani went to a private hospital in nearby Karuppur.

It had to be done surreptitiously, for she had gone there for a sex-determination test, banned under the Pre- Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PNDT) Act of 1994. It cost her Rs 6,000. “They told me it’s a girl. Again. I could not sleep that night. I went back to the hospital the following day and got it aborted. I had to pay Rs 25,000.” That second trimester abortion too was illegal.

For someone holding a nursing diploma, Kalairani knew it was dangerous. But she had “little choice”. All she knew was, there was no way she was going to raise a second daughter. Did she feel guilty? She parries. There’s a long pause before Kalairani replies: “They placed a tablet, almost like in the case of a delivery. It was almost a full foetus with tiny hands and tiny feet. It reminded me of my pappa (first child)-she was also the same at birth.”

Kalairani’s is a dilemma that has become a part of life for a large percentage of women in Salem, the second worst district in the highly educated state of Tamil Nadu in terms of skewed sex ratio-954 women per 1,000 men as per the 2011 Census. Driven by a cultural preference for the male child, and anxiety over dowry and inheritance of family property in the case of daughters, there is an irony in this unwanted equality: sex-selective abortion cuts across caste, communities (practised by both the poor and the dominant communities of Gounders and Vanniyars, among others, lest their riches go to another household), and the rural-urban divide.

ROLL OF DICE, FATE OF FOETUS
Although illegal diagnostic centres operate on the sly in state capital Chennai, or Dharmapuri-at 946 women per 1,000 men, the district with the worst sex ratio in Tamil Nadu- what makes Salem unique is the wide- spread use of astrology to identify sex.

And due to privation, superstition or simply tradition, it is a booming busi- ness. Based on this roll of dice, a large percentage of legal and illegal abor- tions are done. “Horoscope is the most famous method,” says Sheela Vincent of the People’s Development Initiatives (PDI), an organisation working against foeticide in Salem district. At a temple in Vattakaadu village, for instance, they practise something locally called Palli Vaakku-“They wait for the temple lizard to make sounds-sometimes for a day or two-to know the gender of an unborn child. A temple in Omalur uses a practice similar to Kerala’s prasannam for making such predictions,” Vincent says.

Accompanied by Sudha, four months pregnant and a resident of Salem, INDIA TODAY visited Amaravathi Amman temple near Omalur, one hot weekday afternoon in late-April to witness this ‘magic’. The priest there, we were told, employs kaluruti, a form of astrology using sacred stones, to make predictions. Clad in a red dhoti, the bare-chested priest sat us outside the temple and threw the stones in front of Sudha. He looked at her intent- ly before starting off on his “predictions”. As he paused and asked what she wanted, Sudha sought to know the gender of the child she was carrying. “My first one is a girl and there have been problems since she was born. I want a boy this time. My husband will throw me out if it’s a girl again,” she said.

The priest looked at the stones again and announced his ‘forecast’: “This child is going to bring ill-luck to your family. But your next born will be a boy.”

Distraught, Sudha asked him if she should abort the child.

First, passing the buck, and the guilt: “Who am I to say? That is up to you.” After a pause, a recourse: “If you spend Rs 1,500 on a puja, you can ward off the ill-luck.”

There are tens of astrologers like him in the villages of Salem district, making a killing by claiming to predict the gender of unborn babies. Padaiyatchi Ayya, another astrologer in Karipatti village of Salem, prided himself on being “accurate” in predicting the gender when this reporter met him recently. Megala, a mother of two girls from Kariapatti village, had undergone an abortion a few months ago after Padaiyatchi Ayya said she would bear a girl child. “For me, it was a matter of life or death. My husband’s brother has two sons and he will inherit all property if I do not bear a male child,” she says.

In Salem, these astrological ‘predictions’ lead to many first-trimester abortions. In 2012-13, the district had reported more than 3,000 medically terminated pregnancies within 12 weeks of pregnancy, and more than 300 between 12 and 20 weeks. These are completely above board. What’s not known is the number of illegal abortions that are done in the second trimester, or between the fourth and sixth month of pregnancy.

There has been no crackdown because astrology is extremely popular in the state, with many heavyweight politicians relying on it. It is also difficult to bring these ‘astrologers’ to book merely for making predictions.

GOOD AND BAD OF CLAMPDOWN
Shadowing the overall picture in the state, Salem has a markedly skewed child sex ratio of 917 girl children against every 1,000 boys in the 0-6 year age bracket compared to the overall sex ratio of 954, as per the 2011 Census-the respective figures for Tamil Nadu are 943 and 996. What this means is simple, and worrisome: the sex ratio will just get worse as these infants grow up. More so for Salem, Tamil Nadu’s fifth most populous and a fast developing district, where the figure of 954 is certain to dip by the time the 917 infant girls grow up.

There’s a bright tale even in this otherwise morose climate. According to Census figures, the child sex ratio in Salem is up from 851 in 2001. How did this come about? The answer is both simple and complicated. Until even a decade ago, Salem was notorious for infanticide. When an alarmed state government clamped down, people switched to foeticide, says V. Sumathi, who runs the NGO Green Foundation of India in Omalur, near Salem city.

So the clampdown addressed infanticide but energised foeticide. In 1992, J. Jayalalithaa, the then chief minister, announced the Cradle Baby Scheme. It was meant to tackle infanticide.

As part of the scheme, parents could drop unwanted babies-primarily girls-in cradles provided at government homes instead of killing them. Launched in Salem, the scheme was later extended to other districts. To a large extent, this initiative is believed to have helped the jump in child sex ratio in Salem in the decade to 2011.

A. Devaki, a child protection officer in Salem district, says more than 4,000 babies have been saved across the state under the Cradle Baby Scheme, nearly 3,600 of them girls. “Most of them are in school, many studying medicine and engineering,” she says. Not that the scheme does not have critics. “How can the government encourage an initiative that allows people to abandon girl children?” asks Chennai-based activist Sheelu Francis. But Devaki has a defence to that: “Imagine, more than 4,000 children could have been killed but for our cradles.”

As for the sex-determination tests done illegally, six centres found doing this were closed in Salem last year, say Health Department officials. “We strictly implement the PNDT Act, and give approval for (licence) renewal only when all conditions are met,” says Joint Director of Health Services, Salem, N. Vijayalakshmi. But more than a dozen such centres are estimated to be still operating.

TIED IN KNOTS

The sex ratio may be getting healthier, albeit too gradually to make much impact, but the effects of the female infanticide and foeticide practised for at least three decades are showing. As a result, even men from the close-knit Gounder community, with a deep-rooted caste pride, have begun looking for brides outside the community-something that would have been frowned upon till recently.

A one-hour drive from Salem leads to Thandampalayam village in Erode district, where Krishnamurthy, 40, a small-time businessman from the Gounder community, set a trend of sorts in 2011. He had employed a local agent to find a bride in Kerala. “These days, one has to remain unmarried if a man wants a bride within his community,” Krishnamurthy says, and blames “rampant foeticide in our community” for that. Devaraj, a local agent, adds, “There are at least 10 men in the age group of 35-40 in this village who are yet to be married due to lack of brides.” Agents like him charge Rs 20,000 to find a bride from Kerala-“Hindus certainly; how can we marry a Christian or a Muslim?” Krishnamurthy adds-for men in Erode and other Gounder-dominated districts.

To stem the rot, Kongunadu Makkal Desia Katchi (KMDK), a caste-based party in western Tamil Nadu, has begun an awareness campaign. But it will take another decade for the efforts to pay off, admits E.R. Eswaran, KMDK general secretary. Devaraj exudes hope that the next generation of Gounder men can get married within the community.

For that, a bigger movement is required to change social mores. To not only amend the way the men think but to make someone such as Kalairani, from Kadayampatti, wipe out the feeling that it is an insult to give birth to a girl child.

(Names of women have been changed on request to protect identity)

https://in.news.yahoo.com/doomed-birth-190603957.html

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