Several years ago I sat in a Bangalore fertility clinic. On the wall above me hung a sign, “This clinic does not conduct sex determination tests. Selective foeticide is illegal.” It was a haunting reminder that India’s preference for sons results in terminations of millions of female foetuses, an estimated average of one girl aborted every minute in India. Having undergone two rounds of fertility treatment with my husband while living in India, I would have given anything for a child. Boy or girl, I had no preference. But why should I? I didn’t grow up in a culture that devalues females such as India, that rates a low 101/136 on the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Global Gender Gap Report. I grew up in Australia, ranked 24 on the Report, where parents discover the gender of their unborn baby for carefree purposes, like choosing which colour to paint the nursery, or selecting a name for their child.
October 11th is International Day of the Girl Child, a day to raise awareness about female inequality around the world. During the eight years I lived in India I witnessed gender prejudice repeatedly. My next door neighbours dressed their toddler son in frilly girls’ dresses and adorned him with jewellery, not because they wanted a girl, rather to disguise him as one in order to ward off the evil eye from their cherished son.
A stranger in the market confirmed this widespread adoration for sons when she cupped my face in her hands and words gushed from her mouth.
My Indian friend translated for me. “She wants to know if you have children.”
I smiled at the woman and shook my head. She rushed to a nearby stall and returned with vermillion on her fingertip, gently touching it to my forehead to create a vertical red line as a blessing.
“She hopes you will have many sons,” my friend said.
“Not daughters?” I smirked.
“She would consider that a curse. My mother is so desperate for me to fall pregnant she said ‘even a girl will do’.”
For many Indians, a girl will not do, hence the practice of female foeticide. I have read news reports of trucks equipped with ultrasound machines driving through villages with advertising slogans such as ‘Spend Five Hundred Rupees [less than $10] Now, Save Five Lakhs [around $10,000] Later’, the saving being the cost of a future dowry. I have fumed over articles about infanticide: parents kill their unwanted female babies by poisoning, burying them alive, drowning them in buckets of water, and feeding them dry, unhulled rice to puncture their windpipes.
While people murdered their children, I subjected myself to dingy clinics and painful fertility procedures to create a child. I contained my anger about those parents, reminding myself that I am not Indian, and therefore not influenced by traditional Indian beliefs. It is custom for the male progeny of a Hindu family to perform the cremation rites, and it is the son who inherits the family wealth. But did that mean I should tolerate it? I told myself that I do not suffer a life of poverty in a country where the male child is responsible for financially supporting his family and the female child is born with the financial burden of a dowry on her head. But that doesn’t make it acceptable. It prompted me to admit some truths about my own country. Although abortions in Australian are not sex selective, we have our own gender issues to fix. But I wasn’t living in Australia at the time. I could only try to make a small change in my adopted country.
When I learned that Indian orphanages house a disproportionate number of female children, abandoned by their parents at birth upon the ‘disappointing’ discovery of their sex, I knew I could help close the gender imbalance in my own small way. People were giving up their children and I wanted a child. It didn’t take long to convince my husband that we should jump off the emotional roller coaster of infertility treatment to adopt an Indian child, a girl child. We wanted to give a girl our love and stability but also an equal chance in life.
As it turned out, we weren’t able to adopt from India because of Australian bureaucratic red tape, but that’s a different story altogether. We still wanted to help a girl, so we chose to adopt from another country with its own gender discrimination issues: Cambodia. As is the case in India, Cambodia’s females face a higher risk than males of trafficking, exploitation, and being denied an education, ranking 104/ 136 on the 2013 Global Gender Gap Report. We wanted to give one Cambodian girl a better future.
One girl turned into two over the course of a year and I am now the mother of two capable, inspiring girls who have the chance to stamp their mark on this world, to use their education as a platform to help break the cycle of gender inequality, to use my love and support as fuel to shine. For my family, every day is International Day of the Girl Child.