Abject penury, a weak social security system, and desire for a male child spurred by archaic traditions have rendered the girl child unrequited in society in Tamil Nadu, leading to increased instances of female infanticide and abandonment and sale of infants by parents.
In a recent incident, a 36-year-old woman from Chekkanoorani village in Madurai handed over her new-born daughter to the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) on June 17, expressing her inability to take care of the child.
“She already has two girls – one studying in Class 10 and another in Class 9. Her husband died due to illness a few months after she conceived the third child. She had expected a boy, but this time too, she gave birth to a girl. Having no wherewithal to feed another mouth, she handed over the child to the cradle baby scheme,” an official of the district CWC told The Federal.
Girls killed, boys sold
The official added that while many such parents hand over their female infants to the CWC due to poverty, there are others who abandon male children too.
“People abandon their babies, if it is born out of wedlock. In most cases, these new-borns are killed or found abandoned in dustbins,” he said.
But this is not a one-off incident. In March this year, a female infant was killed by its family in the same Chekkanoorani village near Usilampatti, infamous for its incidents of female infanticide. Again in May, a similar case was reported in Sholavandan, about the sale of a baby girl.
There have been numerous cases where children have been sold by parents too. In 2019, a slew of incidents where infants were sold were reported from Namakkal district. In February this year, the case of a boy child being sold for ₹2 lakh was reported from Trichy district. In the first week of June, a couple was reported to have sold off their baby boy to a childless couple. They already had a three-year-old girl and has sold the infant because of poverty.
Weak social security, a key reason
Activists ascribe the killing and abandoning of babies, especially the girl child not only to poverty, but also to the lack of strong social security schemes for widows, elderly and the disabled.
“The inability to access these schemes pushes these people to the edge. Their only solution is to sell their children,” said K Shanmughavelayutham, convenor, TN FORCES (Tamil Nadu Forum for Creches and Child Care Services).
Stressing that one cannot bring an end to these issues until gender discrimination ceases to exist, he points at gaps in implementing laws that call for equality, like property rights to women for instance.
Andal Damodaran, convenor, Indian Council for Child Welfare feels the government should take initiatives under Juvenile Justice Act, 2015, to allow poverty-ridden women to keep their girl children under its care at least for three to six months.
“Currently, under the Act, a child will be in government’s care for 60 days. Considering the COVID-19 pandemic, the duration of the care can be extended. This will help avoid killing of children by poverty-stricken parents. There are many schemes by the government supporting girl children. But those will help only after a certain age. Until then, what will the single mother do, who has already two or three girl children?” she asked.
“We must appreciate the mother who handed over her child to the government, instead of killing it,” she added.
Sociologist Chinnaraj Joseph says incidents of female infanticide are happening due to a new form of poverty born out of consumerism.
“The consumeristic culture has sparked different kinds of aspirations among people. So a relative deprivation persists. It’s not that these people don’t have anything to eat to survive. But they need some kind of savings to lead a comfortable life. And when they have a girl child, they consider it an additional burden and often sell it,” he said.
That apart, people in regions like Usilampatti, farmlands of which do not yield sufficient for a livelihood, hold on to their lands instead of looking for other avenues or jobs. “This creates more poverty,” Joseph added.
‘Caste pride’ has a role
Pandian, founder, Witness for Justice, an organisation working towards Dalit rights said, female infanticide can be attributed to some traditions followed in certain communities.
“In regions like Usilampatti, the Kallars are the dominant caste. They worship women of their community as goddesses and call girls as ‘nachiyar’ (queen). But they also kill women if they go astray or do things out of their culture. Same is the case with the Maravar caste. They expect the first child of a family to be a son. If a daughter is born instead, the father is considered not potent enough and the female child is killed,” he said.
Joseph says it is natural for the Kallars who were skilled fighters, to expect a male child to carry on their bloodline and profession. “This may be a reason why female infanticide is more common among them,” he added.
“Kallar reclamation schools to bring people from the community to the mainstream have been running for many years. Many from the community have found employment in government services. However, there is a residual population, which has been left out and which still spreads the tradition of female infanticide. The older generation like grandparents are the main perpetrators behind such acts,” Joseph said.