Oh boy, that’s my girl! Battling gender biases in India

January 7, 2016
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Sarah drawing on a board.

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters)

Like most parents, our life revolves around our daughter. Sarah is almost 5 years old. She brings a lot of laughter into the house, and we marvel at her achievements (Wow, she’s humming to the tune of that song. She must be a genius). We also spend lots of money on her (have you seen private school fees lately?), stay up nights when she gets sick (even if we must get dressed for work at 6:30 the next morning), and worry a lot about her health, how she is coping at school, and her security.

When we decided to have another baby, I pushed past the big questions about whether we have the moral right to introduce another child into this often grim world and so on, and decided to wonder instead if this time we might have a boy since we already had a girl.

“Girl or boy, it’s all a blessing,” my parents said. I wish the rest of India felt the same way.

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Sarah with Aria

Around here, everybody wants you to have a boy. Girls? Not so much. Across much of India, many people see girls as a financial burden. Dowries cost money. Girls marry off into other families. They’re good only for making more babies. If they are caught acting out sexually or if they are the victim of assault, some people say they bring shame on a family.

Some people abort their foetuses if they find out they’re going to have female children, resulting in a skewed sex ratio. India has a law that bans doctors from disclosing the gender of unborn babies to prevent sex-selective abortions. According to government data, the sex ratio of registered births fell from 909 girls per 1,000 boys in 2011 to 908 the next year and 898 in 2013. (In the UK, by comparison, the figure is around 952).

I grew up in a small town in the northeast of India where no one really made a fuss over a baby girl, so I was unprepared for the reaction when we brought our first child to Delhi. Our landlord gave me a pat on the back and said, “Don’t worry, I’m sure it’ll be a boy next time.” Even our neighbourhood grocery store proprietor was dismayed. “What? First child is a girl?”

Then came Aria. She was premature, there were complications for mother and baby. In the hospital waiting room, I sat there, rattled. Next to me, a tall man bawled like a boy while an older woman comforted him. I was dozing in a chair when a nurse woke me up, showed me the baby she was carrying, and left for the nursery. Nothing wrong with her, the nurse said.

I was still grinning when an aunty (not my real aunt, just the term for any middle-aged Indian woman whose name you don’t know) started with the questions. “Boy or girl? Oh, OK. First child? Second? Oh.” She looked at me with sympathy and shook her head.

“Don’t worry, have one more. I assure you, it’ll be a boy. It’s always a boy if the first two are girls. You have to believe me.”

“I’m ok with a girl,” I said.

A few other women answered the same way when I told them Aria was a girl.

I wondered about these women. They were in the maternity ward because their daughters, daughters-in-law and other relatives were there to have babies. What if they had girls?

A few days later, I drove my wife and new baby home from the hospital. We met a neighbour when pulling into our apartment parking lot in New Delhi. “A girl? Again?” he asked.

“These things happen,” I thought I heard his wife say. They’re both friendly types, and we always chat when we pass each other.

The thing is, I’m sure that everyone whom my wife and I let down with our second child is a “nice” person. Whether they have it in them to be happy for us, or to at least mind their own business and keep their opinions to themselves, I can’t say. For all I know, this is the thought that will hang in the air when the four of us go anywhere in India. There goes Lalmalsawma and his family, just making it worse on himself with all those girls.

As for me, ever since Aria was born in October last year, I’ve been sleeping less. I’m cleaning up more than my share of baby poop. I’m guessing that parents of boys must know how that goes. When she gets older, I’m expecting to repeat some of the things I said to Sarah (“stop throwing your food!”) and that my wife and I have said to each other (“She emptied the body lotion container on the floor… again.). I plan to love her unconditionally too. I hope the country can see its way to doing the same thing.

(Editing by Robert MacMillan; Follow Robert on Twitter @bobbymacReports and David @davidlms25 | This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission)

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