Piplantri, Budania, Luhavad villages, Rajasthan - A gender revolution is silently under way in India's northwestern state of Rajasthan as expectant parents reject the long-standing practice of aborting female foetuses.
Faced with an alarmingly skewed ratio of boys to girls, villagers in the dusty and arid region surrounding Jaipur, the state’s capital, are turning their backs on female foeticide rooted in cultural tradition.
|Piplantri village girls paying respects to the trees planted for them by tying knots and with rituals
[Shahnawaz Akhtar/Al Jazeera]
Led by visionary village heads, they are now celebrating the birth of girls by planting trees - linking environmentalism and gender activism in what experts are calling "eco-feminism".
"We celebrate the birth of a baby girl just like they welcome a male child in Rajasthan villages - by beating utensils, worshipping and whitewashing houses," said Rafique Pathan, a sarpanch or village head in the vanguard of this initiative.
"The expense of bringing in bandwallahs [musicians] to planting a fruit tree to taking care of other minute details of the celebration is borne by the panchayat [town council]."
In the world’s largest democracy, it remains common in some regions for expectant parents to undertake a test to determine the gender of a foetus, and then to abort the girls, whose eventual dowries will be costly for poor families.
Boys are also often favoured because a girl’s sexual integrity is culturally associated with a family’s honour. Any risk to that integrity must be avoided.
In Rajasthan, this phenomenon has bequeathed a highly skewed sex ratio: according to the 2011 census for every 1,000 men there were 928 women in the state against a national average of 940. For children aged six and under, the ratio is even more distorted, with 888 girls per 1,000 boys.
The villages of Piplantri, Budania and Luhavad are in the forefront of an initiative led by visionary sarpanches to address the gender imbalance and also bring greenery to a desert region.
In Luhavad, villagers have been pledging since last June to save infant girls as part of a programme led by Pathan, a former photojournalist, whose approach is to pull out all the stops to celebrate a girl’s birth.
Pathan has taken a proactive stance towards midwifery in the village as soon as it becomes clear that a would-be mother may be expecting a girl.
“In villages, people are more connected with nature and hence the experienced ladies do not even need a sonography [ultrasound] machine to detect whether the foetus is a male or female. Based on the cravings and hours of sleep of a pregnant woman, they are able to predict the sex of the foetus,” he explained.
“So as soon as we get any information related to a woman’s pregnancy, we start sending anganwadi [public health] workers to her home on the pretext of giving iron or vitamin supplements to the pregnant woman in a bid to keep an eye on the family’s moves.”
The sarpanch has gone even further, ensuring a girl born to a poor family can be adopted by a wealthier family that can take care of her needs and fund her education.
The policy has had a concrete impact: on January 26, India’s Republic Day, there were celebrations in the town for about 50 couples to whom a girl had been born.
If one tree is planted in Luhavad to celebrate the birth of a girl, 100 trees are planted in Budania village near Jhunjhunu where authorities have adopted a tough stance towards foeticide.
"We take harsh action against families found guilty of conducting a sex-determination test," said Randheer Singh, the sarpanch of Budania, the first village where a case has been lodged against a couple accused of female foeticide.
Villagers planting a tree after the birth of a baby girl [Shahnawaz Akhtar/Al Jazeera]
India’s 1994 Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, aimed at halting female foeticide and addressing the declining sex ratio, bans the determination of the sex of a foetus through pre-natal diagnostic techniques such as ultrasound.
The village of Piplantri has been turned lush green thanks to the initiative, and now boasts 270,000 trees - a rare sight in the desert state - largely due to the efforts of former sarpanch, Shyam Sundar Paliwal.
Paliwal launched the initiative to associate tree planting with the birth of girls back in 2007 after his own daughter died from illness.
"We had been planting trees in the village since 2005, but it was not yielding much of a result," he explained.
"Two years later, when my 18-year-old daughter Kiran died, I made saving the girl child an emotional cause and connected it with tree planting... When a girl is born in a poor family, we collect money in the village and deposit between 21,000 and 31,000 rupees ($350-$520) in her name. So far we have made such deposits for 60 girls in Piplantri village. And every year, 62 baby girls are being born in our village."
Piplantri is also the only village in India with its own website and Facebook page, has been awarded India’s Nirmal Gram Award and visited by Rajasthan’s chief minister Vasundhara Raje.
Experts, including Rajasthan’s renowned environmentalist Harsh Vardhan, have described this movement combining environmentalism and feminism as "eco-feminism".
Activist Rajan Choudhary has helped the Rajasthan state administration to curb female foeticide through “decoy operations” whereby actors posing as couples visit ultrasound clinics to unearth the illegal practice of sex-determination tests. In some cases, doctors have agreed to disclose the gender of a foetus for money.
"Besides stopping sex-determination tests and creating awareness about the girls, tree planting to save the girl child is reaping excellent results in Rajasthan," Choudhary said.
He has independently conducted a survey which he says demonstrates that efforts to improve the sex ratio in Rajasthan resulted in a marked improvement from 2012-13.
"I have found that, since the last census, the live birth ratio has improved to 920 in 2013 from 895 in 2011 and all the factors - including controlling female foeticide, creating awareness and tree planting - have greatly helped the cause in Rajasthan."
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