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MEDIA MATTERS

Grim realities

SEVANTI NINAN

While the channels and newspapers make ritual gestures on Women’s Day, the realities on the ground continue to be dictated by social trends.

International Women’s Day is now a media staple, with a ritual bow being made to it every year on March 8. This year on that day one found oneself in Jhunjhunu , Rajasthan, part of the Shekhawati region, famous for its frescoed ha velis, and infamous for the continuing prevalence of female foeticide. It is a district with its fair share of media, so the usual features were published pegged to the occasion.

But underneath the flurry of observances, Jhunjhunu presents a disturbing reality. Its paradoxes have triumphed over an activist media. TV channels and newspapers campaign against continuing foeticide, do the occasional sting operation exposing the practice, and pitch the plight of unborn girls through human interest features. But a literate population persists with aborting female foetuses, the administration manages to let the guilty off, and political pressure on this issue is totally missing, though the Rajasthan Assembly’s woman Speaker, Sumitra Singh, hails from here. In 2005-2006 Sahara News did elaborate sting operations across several districts of Rajasthan including Jhunjhunu. The doctor who was caught in the act from here was the daughter-in-law of a local politician. She continues to practise medicine to this day, though the offence is a cognisable and non-bailable one.

Revealing statistics

Jhunjhunu has a female literacy rate of over 60 per cent. It has a child sex ratio (as ascertained by a sample survey done by an NGO in this district two years ago) of 825:1000. Pilani, the town which is home to the Birla Institute of Technology, is also in this district and in the 2001 census was found to have a literacy rate of 97 per cent and a child sex ratio (in the 0-6 age group) of 327:1000! That speaks volumes for the assertion that the more educated and well off you are in these parts, the more you are likely to subscribe to foeticide. Says the local bureau chief of Dainik Bhaskar, Mangu Singh Shekhawat, “You can wake up those who are sleeping. What can you do to those who are already awake?”

His colleague at the Rajasthan Patrika in the same town, Mahinder Singh Shekhawat, says the unpleasant truth is that the child sex ratio is better in districts with lower literacy. Dungarpur, for instance. He too adds that writing about the issue does not create pressure on a society which has made up its mind. Some time ago an abandoned, prematurely born baby was found in Dholpur, and he says on that occasion he wrote a four part series in his paper, beginning with a letter from an abandoned girl child to her parents.

Rajan Choudhary, who heads an NGO here called Shikshit Rojgar Kendra Parbandhak Samiti, began working intensively on this issue a few years ago, in collaboration with the Delhi-based Centre for Advocacy and Research. Workshops have been held with doctors from sonography centres. According to Choudhary, these numbered more than 70 a few years ago, for one district alone! Now the figures have come done to 28, about half of whom are suspected to persist with sex determination, made illegal by the Pre-conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act of 1994.

The wound-up centres have given way to a new innovation, mobile sonography units from Haryana that move around undetected in villages in this region, supplying what is still a felt need: sex determination, and the subsequent termination of pregnancy.

No official response

Choudhary uses decoys every month on clinics still suspected of breaking the law. He then reports the findings to the district medical officer. But he says the district collector who came to this district some months ago is not exactly seized of the issue, he has not yet got around to even convening the advisory committee which exists to tackle the scourge. Chaudhary is also the local correspondent for the Jaipur-based Rashtradoot, which he says had got tired of carrying his despatches on the subject.

What logic drives this strange situation? Pragya Sharma, a sociology lecturer at the J.B. Shah Girls PG College in Jhunjhunu, says the problem has exacerbated in the last 10 years. She has taken part in the community mobilisation on this issue and reports that families in villages cite both increasing dowry demands and the rising graph of crimes against women, as driving their resort to foeticide. It is the fear of a second girl child in an area where the two child norm is being enforced, which drives the rush for sex determination. Sharma says rape is increasing as a crime, and adds to the fear of giving birth to one more girl. She does however credit the media with doing what it can, including ETV Rajasthan.

Meanwhile, the sort of consequences Haryana has seen of a declining female population, are now beginning to be felt here. In Jhunjhunu girls are not to be easily found as brides, and buying brides from neighbouring Maharashtra is a practice that is gaining hold. The grim reality is, social trends chart their course, undeterred by media activism.

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