Credit: Swapna Majumdar
NEW DELHI, India (WOMENSENEWS)--In the state of Rajasthan, pregnant women have begun helping the state government conduct surprise inspections of health diagnostic centers to prevent and discourage sex-selective abortions.
The volunteers undergo a sonogram and pretend to want an abortion if the ultrasound indicates a female fetus. After a clinician agrees, they serve as witnesses against the practitioner in court hearings.
Before 2010, 54 cases had been filed under the sex-selection law for the entire state. By July, that number had reached 562. The Rajasthan Medical Council has suspended 23 doctors' licenses and brought charges against 153 medical practitioners, the highest of any state in the country.
The time between the inspection and the court date can be hazardous. That's when many influential offenders of the federal law against sex-selective abortions are free on bail and often prevail on witnesses with bribes and physical threats to retract their statement.
One volunteer--Rani Singh, who works in the state Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in Jaipur, the capital city of Rajasthan--knew the risks she faced.
So did her family, who did not want Singh, pregnant with her first child, to join the inspections.
But when Singh found that a well-known health facility in Jaipur was involved in fetal tests tied to sex-selective abortions, she felt she had to help.
"Time being of essence, I volunteered," said Singh in an interview with Women's eNews in Jaipur. "There was some opposition from my family because such operations have a high element of risk. After I explained how this would impact positively on the lives of unborn girls, they supported me."
A Close Call
Singh's courage almost failed her when she found herself inside the clinic last year waiting for her inspection team to arrive.
"The team usually follows discreetly behind and waits outside the center," she recalled. "They were to come in after I informed them on the conclusion of the sex determination test. But when I telephoned them at the end of the test, I was told they were caught in a traffic jam. For a moment, even I panicked because if they didn't come in time to arrest the medical worker, I would have had to actualize my pretense of wanting a sex selective abortion."
Quick thinking saved Singh from being wheeled in for an abortion. She locked herself in the bathroom until the team arrived.
Singh's act of bravery helped close the facility. "I am really happy that I was able to help close the center," she said.
Thanks to women such as Singh, the government has run 20 surprise inspections; seven in the last six months in the state capital, Jaipur.
"We would not have been able to carry out these operations without the help of such women," said Kishanaram Easharwal, who heads the state unit charged with enforcing the Pre-Conception Pre- Natal Diagnostic Technique Act, the 1994 federal law banning sex-selective abortions. "They play a pivotal role and are our strength. So we do not reveal the identity of the pregnant woman who helps us although we release the news of the inspection and the names of those apprehended by our team," he told Women's eNews in an interview in Jaipur.
Rewards Being Mulled
The state ministry is considering financial rewards for the women who help the inspection operations, Easharwal said. Currently, informants who identify a medical practitioner or sonogram center that is found guilty of carrying out sex determination tests or sex- selective abortions can earn a $1550 reward.
"It is their courage that helped our team to apprehend medical practitioners," said Easharwal.
The state has also designated one police station in the state to pursue cases filed under the law against sex selection. "Having a police station just for violations under the act makes it easier to file a case against the persons found guilty during inspection operations," said Easharwal. "In most cases, we are able to secure a five-day remand to judicial custody. This motivates the women who participate in the inspection operation and also sends a strong message that the guilty will be punished."
In Rajasthan, the strong preference for sons has helped to shift the child sex ratio to 888 girls for every 1000 boys in 2011 from a figure of 946 girls in 2001, according to the latest census.
In the past, lack of evidence or hostile witnesses spared guilty practitioners from punishment.
Often the biggest obstacle to prosecution was finding pregnant women willing to be a part of inspection operations.
The inspection operations spearheaded by the state unit have become an important part of the strategy to stop sex-selective elimination of girls under Plan India's Let Girls Be Born project in Jaipur implemented by the Shikshit Rozgar Kendra Prabandhak Samiti, a Rajasthan-based nongovernmental organization.
As partners of Plan India, the group in January promoted the importance of girls and their right to survive through a week-long series of plays, rallies and community meetings that reached more than 25, 000 people in the project's target villages in Jaipur district.
"Since the child sex ratio has also declined in the rural areas, we are trying to encourage ordinary people to become involved in the campaign to give girls their right to be born," said Rajan Choudhury, head of Shikshit Rozgar Kendra Prabandhak Samiti, the organization that has collaborated with the state unit to conduct 15 state inspections. "When such operations are carried out in Jaipur district, it stings the medical fraternity and acts as a deterrent to the misuse of technology for sex determination for at least one month."
Added Choudhury: "More the people involved, greater is the ownership of a campaign like this. Only then, can our fight to change mindsets be effective."
Amid this vigorous activism, Jaipur district is fast emerging as a model for enforcing the federal law against sex-selective abortion.
By filing a complaint in the court of Jaipur's chief judicial magistrate, it has not only become the first state government to take action against companies selling ultrasound machines but has made risks taken by pregnant women volunteers to prevent the misuse of technology to eliminate girls worthwhile.
Swapna Majumdar is a journalist based in New Delhi and writes on development, gender and politics.
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