Sunday, May 15, 2011

How many times do we repeat ourselves?

For the last few weeks, since the Census data was released, I have been reading and listening to reports and stories related to pre-birth sex selection. But what I heard and saw on TV yesterday left me very emotional and tired.
The news story was on six-month pregnant Surekha from Andhra Pradesh who was beaten to death by her husband after the ultrasound test revealed that she was carrying a daughter. Surekha got married to Prakash who works in a jewelry shop six years ago. When they had their first child – Kaavya a baby girl he was fine with it. When the second child, daughter Sweeti, was born he was disappointed and started harassing Surekha. He ensured that the next two pregnancies were aborted after sex-determination. This time she refused to undergo the test or opt for sex-selective abortion. She left him and gone to her parents house. She confided in her parents that if she had a daughter this time her husband would divorce her and asked them if they would take care of her children and her. Surekha’s parents counseled her to go back to her husband. And she did. The ultrasound was done the next day and she was beaten to death the same night by her husband. The story was heart wrenching and I could not control my tears.
The discussion that followed the story had me feeling tired. The same analysis, the same statements from activists and NGO representatives! The same guarded statements from government functionaries that they will look into the incident. How many times do we repeat ourselves? We have been saying the same things for the last 25 years but nothing seems to have changed.
The latest Census reports that 29 out of the 35 states and union territories recorded a fall in the sex ratios. A recent meeting of the Health Secretaries of 17 states with the officials of the Union Health Ministry had zeroed in on a few strategies to address the issue viz, monitoring sex ratio at birth, regulation of ultra-sound clinics, awareness generation programmes and research on values and attitudes that promote son-preference. However, State Governments seem to hesitate to play the role of regulators preferring to spend money and energies on the other strategies suggested. They see higher penalties as a better solution than legal action and suspension of license subsequently by Medical Council. Considering that pre-birth sex determination is a multi-million business, is penalty of a few thousand rupees really going to be a deterrent? How about launching a CBI enquiry into clinics which are repeat offenders? Would that expose the linkages between the doctors, appropriate authorities and the network of middlemen that supports the illegal practice?
And as regards the awareness campaigns, they are always limited to communication materials like posters, pamphlets and films often designed without keeping the target audience in mind and how we expect to engage them in the campaign. Awareness campaigns should focus on opening up of communication with the various stakeholder groups - the innumerable service providers under various government departments for social development, the senior policy makers, the corporate leaders, film producers and script writers, advertisers, youth, the judiciary, the health department officials in-charge of the implementation of the law, NGOs and civil society organization. The content, approach as well as the message varies for each group. For instance organization of Judicial colloquiums by UNFPA at district level in Maharashtra had led to four convictions in the last six months. But is the government willing to make such investments?
The practice of granting funds to NGOs for the awareness projects on a yearly basis and the alleged large scale corruption in the sanction and disbursement of funds keeps many earnest and honest NGOs out of government funding. It also keeps them out of the Advisory Committees and Supervisory Boards constituted under the law to monitor the implementation of the law.
Till we change the way we address the issue, there will be more Surekhas who will be tortured, tormented and killed for the supposed crime of bearing daughters when the real criminals go Scot free!