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Bundle of Joy... if it's a Boy
May 20, 2000

Riding a train, I watched an Indian family coddle and kiss the newest addition to their family. The father swelled with pride as he gently bounced the tiny son on his knee. The baby's mother, sitting close by, smiled to herself, knowing she had done well. The grandmother busied herself by wiping her grandson's face and adjusting his little pants. All over the world, the birth of a baby can bring great joy to any family. In some countries, great joy comes only with the birth of a male baby. In India, society places a stigma on women who bear only female children. Families want boys. Boys can bring a family wealth by growing into eligible young men who will, hopefully, demand a sizeable dowry from the bride they marry. As a result, women feel great pressure to give birth to at least one boy. There is an old Sanskrit saying that goes, "May You Be Mother of a Hundred Sons."

While male and female babies are equally loved in India, females often are considered a wasted investment. Unlike boys, girls do not bring a family wealth. (This is a great concern for poor families especially.) When a girl marries, her own family must pay a dowry to her husband's family. Not only does this marriage cost her family a great deal, a married daughter can no longer contribute to the work load in her own home. At the time of her marriage, a girl leaves the family to go and live with her husband's family. (Although men in India would disagree, women in India carry a demanding work load within the villages.)

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Happy about having had a healthy baby boy, Kazabani is now officially a woman
I met Kazabani in Hampi, Karnataka. When I arrived at her home, this young mother stood on the porch of a small thatched-roof hut, baking chipaties for lunch. Immediately, I noticed the beautiful, baby boy crawling around in the new world of his front yard. I was drawn to his innocence and I tried to imagine the beautiful way he viewed all the sights about him. As I approached the porch, Kazabani welcomed me and then hastily warmed a kettle of water for making tea.

"The baby's name is Maula Houssein," Kazbani said proudly. Maula was nine months old and his mother was twenty-two. Kazbani had a two-year-old daughter as well. Roopa, her daughter, was out playing in the river nearby. We continued to chat over tea and I learned that Kazbani had lived in the same village her entire life. Like all of the women I had spoken to thus far, Kazbani had never been to school. If given the opportunity, however, Kazbani said that she would like to learn how to read. "Do you want your daughter Roopa to go to school?" I asked. "Yes, but we don't have much money. When Roopa is old enough, she will have to help me with the work around the house and in the fields." "And your son Maula," I asked, "Will he go to school?" "Yes, of course," Kazbani replied.

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Kazabani's husband in the hut that houses their family business with yet another thirst-quenched customer
Kazbani's family made their income from her husband's small soda-water machine. With this machine, her husband pressurized water into small green glass bottles, placed the bottles in barrels of ice and then sold the icy beverages to working farmers. Because their son was a good investment, Kazabani and her husband saved a little money each month to put toward Maula's education. If Maula became an educated young man, he also would become more desirable as a groom and could demand a large dowry when he marries. Again, their son was a positive investment. "What if Maula had been a girl, would you have kept her?" I asked. I wondered if this was too blunt a question, but Kazbani did not hesitate with her answer.

"No, I would not have kept her," Kazbani said. Kazbani's family had just enough money to take care of themselves. Every member of the family was clothed and fed. With the help of family and friends, they had begun to scrape together enough money to start a savings account for their daughter's dowry. The total amount of this dowry was equal to an entire year's salary, and even this was not enough. By the time Roopa is old enough to marry, however, the savings account will have grown into a respectable sum.

At the time of Roopa's future marriage, her brother Maula also would be of marrying age. As a son, Maura will, hopefully, collect a handsome dowry from his bride's family. For Kazbani's family, the high cost of paying their daughter's dowry would be balanced by the receipt of their daughter-in-law's dowry. Kazbani explained that if Maula had been born a girl, they could not have afforded the cost of paying two dowries by marrying off two daughters. (In addition to the pressure for women to bear sons, there is great societal pressure to marry. A woman that does not marry is a disgrace to her family.)

So how do women solve this problem? What do women do when they give birth to unwanted girls? The common practice among women of poor villages is to have their daughter put to sleep the day after she is born. The dai, or midwife, would feed the infant daughter a poisonous liquid drawn from lethal oleander berries that grow in the village fields. Most people consider this practice more gracious then the alternative of raising a daughter to live in a bitter and impoverished existence. Upper-class women, those living in Bombay for example, often choose to perform a sex-test as soon as they discover they are pregnant. This test enables women to learn the sex of their unborn child as early as one week into their pregnancy. The results of these tests give women the option to choose whether or not to abort their fetus. I read an article about an upper-class woman who said that if she discovered that her third child was going to be a girl, she would want an abortion for the following reason: "When I am at a party and people ask me how many children I have, and I respond by saying, 'Two girls,' the reaction is always a negative one. People say, 'Oh too bad, no boys.' This makes me feel terrible so, even if I can afford to have another girl, why shouldn't I have what I want?"

Your Turn!!!

Can you imagine living in a society that chooses boys over girls? Where it is acceptable to put a girl baby to sleep?

Share your thoughts
and see what others wrote!

The high price of dowries, societal pressures, greed, desire for higher social standing and the belief that a boy is worth more, all these things perpetuate the low social status of women in India. To make matters worse, a lack of education forces women to be completely dependant on their husbands.

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Unfortunately, girls are a rare breed in India
Abortion was illegal in India until 1971. Over time, however, the law was weakened by various exception clauses that made it easier for women to get an abortion. For example, if a woman states that her method of birth control did not work, her request for an abortion is approved. In the meantime, the ratio of women to men in India continues to drop. In a newspaper cover story published in 1986 by India Today and titled "Born To Die," it was estimated that 6,000 female babies were poisoned to death in the Madurai district of Tamil Nadu. Two years later, the same paper reported that nearly 150 daughters were put to sleep each year.


dowry - the estate that a bride brings to her husband
Sanskrit - the ancient literary language of India
impoverished - poor
fetus - unborn developing offspring
abortion - removal of a fetus from the womb
matrilineal - inheriting or determining descent through the female line

So what is being done to protect India's women? This issue of women's rights is one that must be attacked from the inside. Women of all classes in India will have to begin to stand up against social pressures and cultural beliefs. This may sound like a lofty goal but there are neighboring countries for India to look to for example. In Meghalaya, an eastern state bordering Bangladesh, for example, there is a society whose beliefs about women contradict those in India. Women are in charge! Not only are Meghalaya's women the heads of their households, they own property and they have high literacy rates. So we're on our way to Meghalaya! We'll visit these phenomenal women and their matrilineal society and we will see what they can share with us and with the rest of India! Until then, we still have the glorious shore temples in Mahaballipuram and the busy and beautiful Madras to visit. Hang on and I'll see you there!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Abeja - Tell Me that You Love Me!
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Andrew - Tibetan Odyssey Part II: There's No Place Like Home - But Tibetan Exiles Make Do in Dharamsala
Jasmine - Mother, Sister... India
Kavitha - Good For What Ails You Team - Making a Difference: Beavers Build Them, So Why Shouldn't We?

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