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INDIA-FETICIDE Aug-7-2012 (840 words) xxxi
Church steps in to challenge Indian acceptance of female feticide
By Anto Akkara
Catholic News Service
NEW DELHI (CNS) -- An official in the Indian Catholic Church has endorsed the idea that participants in sex-selective abortions should be charged with murder.
The backing by Holy Spirit Missionary Sister Helen Saldanha, secretary of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India Office for Women, comes as momentum builds to end female feticide, a practice that finds families terminating a pregnancy because the child they are expecting is a girl.
Filing criminal charges for killing a child in the womb because of its sex would "change the killer attitude" toward girls in Indian society, Sister Helen told Catholic News Service.
Although the practice of sex-selective abortions is illegal under Indian law, there is no provision for criminal prosecution. Recent census statistics indicate that the practice appears to be widespread.
The census data show that the national ratio of girls to boys younger than 6 years old has dropped from 927 for every 1,000 boys in 2001 to 914 for every 1,000 boys in 2011. In some states, the ratio dropped to 800 girls for every 1,000 boys, according to the census.
"Son preference is a major syndrome that is leading to a decline in the ratio of girl children. Sadly, the advances in medical technology are being used to prevent the birth of millions of unwanted girl children," Sister Helen said.
Dr. Ruchika Dewan Singh, manager for strategic planning of the Catholic Health Association of India, acknowledged that sex selection is accepted across Indian society even though laws make it illegal.
The call for mandatory murder charges for female feticide has gained momentum in recent weeks. The plan was endorsed in July at a convention of more than 300 leaders from village councils in northern Indian states where there are now about 800 girls for every 1,000 boys.
A similar call came a week later from officials in Maharashtra state when they urged the national government to amend the Indian Penal Code to require the filing of murder charges against parents as well as physicians involved in female feticide.
The preference for boys is rooted in Hindu culture and the achievement of "moksha," liberation, only when an individual has a son to perform last rites as mandated by Hindu scripture.
The practice is said to have led to the dowry system that has led to the consideration that female children are a financial liability for a family. The failure to meet dowry demands results in the deaths of thousands of young women annually.
The National Crime Records Bureau recorded 8,391 dowry deaths -- women killed because of the failure to meet dowry demands -- in 2010. The bureau also recorded more than 94,000 suicides among young women because of dowry harassment by their husband or in-laws in 2010, up from 28,579 in 1995.
Singh of the Catholic Health Association of India said technology has led to the rise in sex-selective abortion as well as pre-conception sex selection.
"With the advent of modern technological procedures like amniocentesis and ultrasound, the sex of the fetus can be easily identified within the first few months of pregnancy and this is done with the intention of abortion if the fetus turns out to be female," she said.
Though sex-determination tests have been banned since 1994 under the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, Singh acknowledged that such tests are widely carried out in India by unscrupulous medical practitioners.
Apart from that, Singh noted that costly techniques involving the selection of the sex of a child before conception are used by affluent families.
"Sometimes the (non-Christian) consultant doctors embarrass us (Catholic health care workers), suggesting that our hospitals too should carry out female feticide as the demand for it is very high," said Indian Missionary Father Tomi Thomas, CHAI director general.
"We are facing the challenge of educating even some of the medical community to shed the social prejudice against the girl child," Father Thomas said.
CHAI is conducting regular training programs for health workers, including village-level nursing assistants, to change the bias against girls and to counsel couples not to indulge in female feticide.
Sister Cletus Daisy, a member of the Society of Jesus Mary Joseph and a physician in Orissa state, said that "sometimes even educated couples approach us with the demand to abort the female fetus."
"But we counsel them and tell them, 'Don't abort. We will adopt the baby,'" she said.
Even as gender prejudice against girls is much lower in the Christian community, the Catholic Church in India has observed Sept. 8, the birthday of Mary, as a day to celebrate girls since 1997 "to change the killer attitude against girl children," Sister Helen said.
The church, she said, introduced a "gender policy" that highlighted the plight of girls in Indian society in 2009. Local dioceses also run programs that actively campaign against sex-selective abortions, she said.
"We have to do much more and make use of our vast network of educational institutions to spread the message of the dignity and equality of the girl child to non-Christian parents," Sister Helen said.
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