Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

New Technologies – A Boon and a Curse for India

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India’s technological advances are being exploited for unhealthy social practices

Has technology led to sex selective abortion becoming more rampant in India? The past 20 years have seen a significant rise in economic development in India and the country is now among the top ten performers in terms of gross economic growth. India relentlessly pursued development through science and technology during this period. Technologies such as ultrasound, amniocentesis and chorionic villi sampling have enabled examinations of pregnancy at early stages. With ultrasound becoming one of the most popular and least expensive methods to determine the sex of the foetus in India, sex-selective abortion of girls has become widespread especially when the first child is a girl. The 2011 census very clearly revealed that there were 7.1 million fewer girls recorded than boys in the 0-6 year age group – a substantial increase over the 6 million fewer girls in the 2001 census and  the 4.1 million fewer girls  in the 1991 census.

In Asian culture there is a tendency to prefer males which is especially marked in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, Korea, China and Taiwan. In India culture plays a larger and more influential role than economic factors in terms of gender preference and sex selective abortion. Although the the 1961 Dowry Prohibition Act makes the giving of dowries illegal, the country still follows the dowry system. India  has a very strong patriarchal tradition which strongly favours boys. Traditionally daughters are considered a burden because of the dowry that needs to be given at the time of marriage. Even though this is changing slightly with the spreading of education and awareness, there has really been no significant overall change in this pattern.

In Hinduism marriage is viewed as sacred and parents are morally bound to get their children married. Parents who are not so economically well-off tend to sell their property, take loans and spend their pensions to get their daughters a dowry while the marriage of sons, on the other hand, usually brings one in. The assumption that sex selective abortions are more widespread among the economically backward and less educated classes in India is wrong. In fact the higher economic classes, the urban population and the educated have much higher recourse to sex determination and consequently abortions since they have access to ultrasound and other available technologies and can easily afford them. As prosperity and the literacy rate rises amongst Indians so do sex selective abortions.

There is tremendous pressure even on women who are educated, urban and economically well-off to produce a son for their in-laws and husband. Even with the economic independence and education of women, decision-making most of the time does not lie in their hands. In most cases, they need to consult their husband and in-laws and are put under pressure. Furthermore, the mindset of some women makes them prefer sons in the light of the cultural and religious biases slanted in favour of males. Women are also socially conditioned to think in this manner.

What is the government doing about this?

The Indian government has made prenatal screening for sex identification illegal under the 1994 Preconception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (PC & PNDT) Act. Under this Act every radiologist has to fill in a form which gives details like the reason for the screening, and details of the patient and the doctor before they can conduct ultrasounds on pregnant women. Violation of any provisions in this act results in imprisonment and fines. However, in many instances research shows that even 10% of these forms are not completed. The practice is done illegally throughout India. In fact medical practitioners play a pivotal role in female sex selective abortions as they continue to offer access to the technology and perform them.

Although this form of technology can be a boon in terms of detecting anatomical deformities and birth defects in the foetus, its accessibility and affordability can lead to misuse. Economic prosperity and progress in terms of science and technology do not alone imply the progress of a whole nation. Putting strict and reliable systems in place for monitoring and reporting on ultrasound centres and clinics for the Indian Government to keep tabs on the abortions being performed can be a first step in this direction. But eventually, unless there is social awareness among the people and a change in their mindsets – be it in the outlook of the medical practitioners or the people who are having it done (including their family members) – it will be a formidable task and the number of prenatal sex screenings for female sex selective abortions will continue to rise.

Can new technologies be used for spreading awareness and increasing access to education on sex selective abortion in India?

True to the remark by C. P. Snow, “Technology brings great gifts with one hand, and it stabs you in the back with the other”, new technologies like cell phones and the mobile web can be a boon and yet still have the opposite effect.

India has a huge potential for the mobile web and cell phones. The country is the world’s second largest cell phone market after China. Smart phones and tablet computers which are very popular in India are helping expose people to new and innovative ways of thinking, thereby opening up possibilities for learning, networking, campaigning and personal development. Web-based platforms, both independent ones and social networking sites, consolidate information for easy access and promote information sharing and are very popular here. They are great platforms and can be used for mass education and spreading awareness among people about sex selective abortions. Since technology can have empowering effects on women and men, it can help disseminate information on equal  treatment for a girl and boy child and thus help achieve gender equality. Therefore it is worthwhile to explore the viability of using such cell phone technology for educational and developmental purposes.

In India, where most medical practitioners would like to be based in the metropolitan cities, the mobile web can be a very effective means of educating the rural masses about such matters as it it is also used as an important means of doing business. Although at present the sheer cost of the infrastructure might be a deterrent, in another 2-3 years there will be  great potential for the mobile web and some companies have already started mobile healthcare services. For instance, the Apollo Group of Hospitals has started tele centres in cities like Chennai and Kolkata where medical services are available at a call from a mobile phone. An innovative pilot project is also being tried out by the same group to handle emergency pregnancies through video streaming.

An Indian mobile company Spice has announced a mobile health service this year called Jeeyo Healthy or Stay Healthy which offers health-related information and advice via their hand sets. Similarly, education through the mobile web and cell phones should focus on spreading awareness about sex selective abortions among the general public, specially through SMSs and audio visuals. And this could be enabled through the cooperation and contributions of various stakeholders like government, healthcare organizations, medical practitioners, mobile companies and civil society organizations.

This social impact of globalization of which technology is a significant part is taking its toll largely on the female population of the Asian subcontinent with India as a major culprit. Already India’s sex ratio (number of females per 1000 males) is 914.We would like to see a responsible and progressive India helping the Asian subcontinent in stopping sex selective abortions,  not a nation failing in terms of overall ‘humane’ development. The engagement of new technologies like the mobile web and cell phones for spreading awareness and educating the masses to change their way of thinking  is crucial.

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Anuja Upadhyay Twitter: anujaupadhyay

Anuja is a social scientist and writer with development experience in organizations like UN Women, Manushi for Sustainable Development and International Union for Conservation of Nature(IUCN) across India and Nepal. Her main areas of work are on gender equity, violence against women and children, anti-human trafficking of women, girls (including children), sustainable development, health and other critical global issues like governance, migration and economic globalization. She has special interest and expertise in writing about diverse issues as a blogger for Future Challenges.