India’s Missing Women
In January 2012, a bruised and unconscious baby girl was admitted to the trauma unit at a public hospital in Delhi. She had bite marks scarring her cheeks and leg, and gashes covered her head. Baby Falak, as she came to be known over the next two months, had been left in the care of a 14-year-old girl. The identity of the infant’s parents and the cause of her injuries were unknown. Confronted with this mystery, the national media and the millions following her progress in the ICU guessed at an all-too-common scenario: perhaps her parents had tried to kill her because she wasn’t a boy.
The story, recounted in the e-book Crimes Against Women: Three Tragedies and the Call for Reform in India, broke on January 26, India’s Republic Day. According to the authors, all of them Wall Street Journal reporters, it was fitting that the country’s conscience would become riveted to “the plight of a battered, abandoned baby girl on a day that celebrates India’s achievements.” The unclaimed girl, not yet 2, became a symbol: “India’s Baby.” And if she belonged to the whole nation, then the nation as a whole was responsible for what had befallen her. The book, a compilation of articles that originally ran in the Journal, narrates two other heartbreaking stories, unfolding over the course of little more than a year: the gang rape of the physiotherapist in Delhi, and the ax murder of a Catholic nun who had intervened when police refused to register a rape complaint in a remote tribal area.
Baby Falak’s story was much more complicated than first imagined. It twisted and turned through a labyrinth of crimes against women: intimate partner violence, human trafficking, prostitution, the sale of brides, child marriage, rape, and abortion or infanticide based on a preference for boys. The various kinds of misogyny and chauvinism present in her tale form an interlinked network, each manifestation feeding the next, each contributing to an entire system of neglect and disempowerment that in 2012 earned India the ranking of the worst G-20 country for women. Some of these forms of violence are not as sensational or as viscerally harrowing as the Delhi gang rape (the victim was violated with an iron rod, her insides mutilated), but they are no less disturbing.
Baby Falak’s father had fled to the capital from rural Bihar, one of India’s most tradition-bound and impoverished states, after being accused of rape. The baby’s mother, Munni Khatoon, was a child bride and a domestic violence survivor. Munni was 13 when she married. Her husband had asked for a dowry of $180, but her father—who had arranged for her to marry someone else—refused. The lack of dowry may have explained the physical abuse against her. Weekly, her husband banged her head against a brick wall. Once, he attacked her with a knife. When her husband fled, Munni was left with three small children to support. A stranger she met at a train station promised to marry her and take her to Delhi, and she thought to herself: “My life is already a hell but at least by marrying this guy…I can give my children a good future in the city.”
She accepted the offer, leaving one daughter in Bihar and taking her 5-year-old son and Falak with her to Delhi. But it turned out to be a scam, and she ended up ensnared by a woman who ran a prostitution racket. Munni was able to refuse sex work, but there was a price: the madam arranged for her to wed a prosperous farmer, a conservative Hindu from the nearby state of Rajasthan. On the strength of a picture, and the assurance that Munni was a Hindu virgin named Anita, he paid about $5,000 to marry the Muslim mother of three.
Munni had become a pawn in another racket. The farmer had not been able to find a bride largely because Rajasthan has one of the most imbalanced sex ratios in India, the result of generations of parents preferring sons to daughters. Boys are seen as earners who will “inhabit and inherit the family home,” in the words of the Journal reporters, while girls are perceived as financial burdens who, when they marry, will leave with a dowry provided by parents and later care for elderly in-laws. In extreme cases, this favoritism leads to female infanticide, but more often it is the subtle neglect of girls that has led to their higher mortality rate relative to boys. In families with limited resources, boys might be fed first; they might get immunized and taken to the doctor, whereas girls might not. Technology that allows parents to learn the sex of a fetus exacerbated the problem, leading to a boom in the abortion of female fetuses in the 1980s. By 1994, India found it necessary to ban all forms of sex determination. Signs at public hospitals warn that it is illegal for doctors to reveal the sex of a fetus, but the ban is often subverted and sex-selective abortions continue. All told, there are approximately 37 million fewer women than men in India. The shortage varies from region to region, but it’s a problem for much of the nation.
Through a complex demographic chain involving unwanted girl children and a keen shortage of brides, “India’s Baby” ended up in the hands of a man who ferried prostitutes around Delhi in his taxi. One 14-year-old girl he transported, who was also the victim of abuse and neglect, beat Falak so severely that the baby ultimately died.
That India’s bachelor glut might partly explain the country’s rise in sexual violence is the argument made by journalist Sunny Hundal in India Dishonoured: Behind a Nation’s War on Women, a Kindle single published last year by The Guardian. Hundal points to research by sociologists indicating that unattached young men, whatever their nationality, tend to congregate in groups and engage in riskier behavior than they would alone. He also cites work by economists and political scientists linking a shortage of women in certain countries, including India, to higher rates of violent crime. According to this theory, unmarried men—the segment of a population most susceptible to alcohol and drug abuse—are the most dangerous in any society. And scarce women, instead of being highly prized and protected, become more endangered: they’re exposed to a greater range of harm, from being groped on the streets or trafficked as prostitutes to being sold as a bride to several brothers at once, a practice that Hundal documents in the northwestern state of Punjab. It has one of the most imbalanced gender ratios in India, and its rate of violent crime is much higher than that of Kerala, a southern state with a normal gender ratio. Within India, there are crucial regional differences in both gender ratios and reports of rape: Sen points out that the northwest—including Rajasthan, Punjab and Delhi—has the highest incidence of “missing women” in India. Separately, he also notes that Delhi, with a rape rate more than nine times worse than Kolkata’s, “has a very special problem that may not apply…to the other megacities in India.”
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