The Lost Girls

The Lost Girls

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Thirty-two year old Sanjana Khurana lives in an upmarket New Delhi neighbourhood known for its leafy lanes, quiet parks and swanky homes. At first glance, her life seems perfect–parties at swish restaurants, a large social circle, frequent holidays abroad, and a husband whose textiles business is flourishing.

But she says despite all this there’s still something missing, and right now it’s all she can think about–she desperately wants a son.

Sanjana, in the third trimester of her second pregnancy, already has a five-year-old daughter, Anya. But she says that as adorable as her daughter is, she still can’t escape the enormous social pressure she feels under to have a son this time around.

‘I can’t sleep at night because I keep battling the fear that I’ll have another girl,’ she says. ‘I dread going to family events because this is all my relatives can talk about. They tell me to be prepared in case we’re not blessed with a boy. My in-laws love my daughter but not in the way they love their other grandson. They tell me I don’t know what having a son means because I don’t have one.What if I never do?”

Sanjana, who holds a master’s in fine arts from a prestigious Indian university, is leaving as little to chance as possible this time, and has commissioned a priest to perform elaborate rituals to appease the gods in the hopes that they will bless her with a son.

But such divine blessings, reflected in the popular Sanskrit invocation ‘Sau Putra Vati Bhava’ (May you be the mother of a hundred sons) that is showered liberally on new brides and expectant mothers, is proving to be a double-edged sword for India.

Globally, a typical sex ratio at birth (SRB) would be expected to be about 105 male babies per 100 female babies. India, which measures the SRB in reverse, should therefore have about 950 female births per 1,000 male births.

But a census taken in 2001 underscored the consequences of the pressure felt by mothers such as Sanjana–a dramatic distortion of the ratio, with only 927 girls being counted for every 1000 boys aged between 0 and 6. The figure is down from 945 in 1991 and 962 in 1981.

In the north western states of Delhi, Haryana and Punjab, some of India’s most prosperous, the statistics are even more alarming–the 2001 census showed Punjab had only 798 girls per 1000 boys, while Haryana and Delhi had 819 and 868, respectively.

The reason is that in India, sons are viewed as bankable assets, while girls are more often associated with anxiety, expense and subjugation. Having a daughter get married is hugely costly for parents, and there is little these women can do in return. Boys are also seen as a better investment as they don’t need crippling dowries. And in Hinduism, only a male heir can light the parent’s funeral pyre.

These attitudes are not confined to a specific social class, although there is evidence to suggest that more literate, higher socio-economic groups in India are actually more likely to see an abnormal sex ratio. Indeed, other things being equal, female literacy and other positive economic indicators tend to increase the sex ratio gap.

Forty-two-year old Akhila Singh is a good case in point. A lecturer in political science at a government-run university in Lucknow, in the north of the country, Akhila has two daughters, aged 12 and 10. But she says she frequently argues with her husband, who has pushed for them to try for a third child in the hopes they will have a son. She says her husband doesn’t have any brothers and his widowed mother lives with his family. Akhila says he constantly worries about who they will live with in old age.

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