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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."
"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.
"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?"
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