Female Foeticide in Punjab, India

Dr Jagbir Jhutti-Johal

From the fifteenth century onwards the Gurus had tried to eradicate the problem of female mortality. Sikh religious teaching condemns abortion because it is the destruction of a living soul. For Sikhs there is no justification for aborting a foetus, irrespective of gender unless there was an issue that the mother’s life was in danger.  However, from Census data in India it is clear that Sikh teachings have not succeeded in curbing female foeticide among the Sikh community in Punjab and even the diaspora. 

A study published in the British medical journal Lancet (Pabha at Jha et. al. 2006, p. 211–8, 367) found the boy-girl ratio changed markedly after the introduction of ultrasound technology that was intended to diagnose foetal abnormalities and illnesses. Technological advancement that was supposed to improve the mortality rate and health of children was being used to identify the sex of a child before it was born and was leading to the gradual decline in the number of female births. 

The most dramatic decline of female births came between 1991 and 2001, from 945 girls for every 1,000 boys to 927. This is despite the introduction of a ban in India in 1994 on sex-selective abortions. According to India’s 2001 census Haryana had 819 girls (per 1,000 boys); Delhi 868, Gujarat 883 and the worst example was the northern state of Punjab with one of the worst gender ratios at 798 girls to 1,000 boys (www.censusindia.net). 

According to the 2011 Census of India the gap between the numbers of girls per 1,000 boys up to the age of six has widened to 914, a decrease from 927 a decade ago, at the 2001 census.

As a result of these figures the Akal Takht, the highest seat of polit­ical and spiritual power of Sikhs, used the Rehat Maryada of 1950, which recommends the total ostracization from society of a person and family complicit in the act of female foeticide:

(l) A Sikh should not kill his daughter; nor should he maintain any relationship with a killer of a daughter. (SGPC, 1950)

It issued a Hukumnama (edict) on 18 April 2001, which stated that any Sikh indulging in female foeticide would be excommunicated as the practice was forbidden under Rehat Maryada:

The Jathedar of Sri Akal Takht Sahib, Giani Joginder Singh to raise the status of women in the religious community said: ‘To put an end to this inhuman, immoral and irreligious practice, in the light of Gurmat thought and philosophy, the Five Singh Sahibans from the portals of Akal Takht Sahib order all Guru Nanak Naam Levas that no Gurmukh man or woman, on detection of a female child in the womb, should resort to the Manmukhi act of female foeticide. Any person doing so is a Tankhaiya. We also appeal to humankind that we should respect the individuality of every person rising above gender considerations.’

Despite the Hukumnama in 2001 the practice still continues in ­Punjab as evidenced in the 2011 Census figures but also various conference that are held on the topic –  23 April 2006, the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandak Com­mittee (SGPC) in collaboration with UNESCO held a conference in Amritsar­ on Basic Human Dignity: Foeticide and Violence Against Women.

Thus, the child sex ratio in the state of Punjab highlights clearly the status of all women in India, but also within the Sikh Community. 

Dr Jagbir Jhutti-Johal is a lecturer in Sikh studies at the University of Birmingham.

Bibliography

  • Census of India (2001), ‘Provisional Population Totals: India.’ http://www.censusindia.net/results/prov_pop_main.html (accessed  28th February 2014).
  • Jha, P., R. Kumar, P. Vasa, N. Dhingra, D. Thiruchelvam, and R. Moineddin (2006), ‘Low male-to female sex ratio of children born in India: national survey of 1.1 million households’. The Lancet, 367 (9506), 211–18.
  • Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (1950), The Rehat ­Maryada. Amritsar, Punjab: India.

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