Bibipur, India – The jubilant young man’s arrival brought an abrupt halt to the card game contested by the turbaned group sitting under the tree.
He thought he had good news for them: “I’ve been blessed with a baby girl!” he announced proudly.
The response was not what he expected – the group’s shock quickly turned to ridicule.
“Why didn’t you get her killed in the womb?” came the collective cry. “Did you not get a gender determination test done on the foetus?”
Such a test is illegal in India, but this reaction – discovered during an undercover investigation by Al Jazeera in the village of Bibipur – is a reflection of prevailing male-chauvinistic attitudes in the country.
Cycle of imbalance
The deep-seated cultural preference for sons has skewed India’s 1.2 billion population’s gender demographic, particularly in the western states of Haryana, Rajasthan, and Punjab.
|Witness – Mitu’s Story|
In Haryana’s Jind district, where Bibipur is located, the sex ratio is 871 females per 1,000 males, compared with the national average of 940, according to the 2011 census.
It has prompted men from these areas to hunt for brides in impoverished regions such as West Bengal and Bihar, and even as far away as Kerala in the south.
But it hasn’t changed their attitudes: Even the brides brought in are forced to abort their baby girls, thus perpetuating the cycle of imbalance – as in Bibipur.
One of the cardplayers – whose own conservative family had broken strict social norms and bought him a teenage bride from West Bengal due to the scarcity of girls in Haryana – was quick to boast about his experience with female foeticide.
“My wife was already three months pregnant when we got to know about it,” said the 40-year-old, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.
“We immediately got an ultrasonography test done on her. Reports suggested that it was a baby girl, but the doctor refused to abort the baby, saying that it could endanger the life of both the mother and the baby,” the cardplayer said.
Undeterred, the man’s family and friends gave him “a list of doctors and clinics in Haryana and Rajasthan where hassle-free abortions are done”.
The next stage involved fooling the 19-year-old wife into thinking she was going to a distant relative’s wedding in Jaipur.
People start planning their family in a rather regressive way - instead of counting their numbers, they start counting the children's sex.
“We took her to a predesignated clinic in the city,” explained the husband.
“Since it was not possible to abort the baby, the doctors put a pill in her genitals. In the morning, the game was over as my visibly shaken wife confirmed the news that the ‘bits of the baby’s body parts came out while passing urine’,” the man said.
‘Wives are like slaves’
In a 2011 study, British medical journal Lancet found that up to 12 million Indian female foetuses had been aborted in the previous three decades.
Last year, the United Nations said the dwindling number of Indian girls had reached “emergency proportions” and was contributing to crimes against women.
The imported brides, known as “paros”, are treated like domestic slaves who have little or no inheritance rights on the family property, according to Smita Khanijow of anti-poverty agency ActionAid India.
“Women are not a commodity which can be traded as ‘brides’ on demand of the market,” she told Al Jazeera.
“We need to treat women as equal human beings to men, and give them dignity and rights.”
But in many parts of India, the list of unmarried males older than 40 is growing longer – and more desperate for a wife.
During last year’s general elections, Bibipur – which means “Village of Brides” – hit the headlines when a local organisation called Kunwara Union – or “Bachelors’ Union” – told candidates: “Give us brides and win our votes!”
India’s Minister of Women and Child Welfare Maneka Gandhi says sex-selective abortion is a “problem of affluence”.
“Every day around 2,000 girls are killed in the womb or immediately after birth in India,” she told Al Jazeera – though a UN report says the daily number is around 7,000.
“People start planning their family in a rather regressive way – instead of counting their numbers, they start counting the children’s sex. What they want, they want. Anything else becomes collateral damage.”
‘Shame the families’
It is not just poor women who are forced to fight to save their baby girls. Doctor Mitu Khurana, a Delhi-based paediatrician, is hoping to set a legal precedent after taking her husband and in-laws to court for “conspiring to kill her twin daughters in the womb”.
Khurana said her in-laws sedated her and illegally procured a gender test during her pregnancy, and then pressured her to abort the babies.
She defied them, and returned to her family’s home to give birth in 2005.
“When I returned at my in-laws’ house with the babies, my mother-in-law pushed one of the infants down the stairs. Fortunately, I arrived in time and rescued my baby,” Khurana told Al Jazeera.
As well as being an issue of cultural preference, female foeticide is also an economic issue for families.
Although the long-standing tradition of dowry – a payment to the groom’s family – has been illegal since 1961, it is still practised in many communities.
“We are poor people, somehow making ends meet,” said a three-wheel rickshaw driver in Jaipur, Rajasthan – another state where the sex ratio is under the national average, according to the 2011 census.
“I got my second daughter aborted for fear of paying dowry for her marriage when she grows up,” the 30-year-old told Al Jazeera, under the condition of anonymity. “As it is, I am finding it difficult to save enough money for the dowry of my first daughter.”
Khurana said India needs to change its attitude towards dowry in order to save the lives of female children.
“Dowry is already illegal, but it has to be made shameful,” she said. “You have to shame the families giving and taking dowry.”
Gandhi said the government is making progress, through Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Beti Bacho, Beti Padho – the “Save daughters, educate daughters” programme.
It has targeted 100 gender-critical districts, where those who give and accept dowries have been publicly shamed, and informants have been rewarded.
The programme also focuses on influencing the mother-in-law of a family, who usually decides whether the baby lives or not.
“Women in the house will have to be trained as much as the men,” said Gandhi.
Government reports show that in these 100 districts the number of female children in Palnas, state-run orphanages – has gone up by hundreds.
“In Amritsar alone, there were 89 girls given to Palnas in a month. Then we found the same thing in Mohali and Tamil Nadu,” said Gandhi.
“These are the girls who would otherwise be killed in the womb or immediately after birth,” Gandhi said.
There is evidence of change even in Biwipur, where this month the village held a “selfie with your daughter” photo contest in order to raise awareness of the issue. The winner, out of 800 submissions, received a prize of 2,100 rupees ($316).
But the bigger battle is yet to be won, said Khurana, who has filed a suit against her inlaws and the clinic involved for carrying out a gender-selective test, which is a crime, on her foetus without her consent. Khurana claims the presiding judge, a woman, called her “a prostitute in the open court” for standing up against her husband.
Her case, which was filed in 2008, is still ongoing. If found guilty all the accused parties will face jail time and a significant monetary fine.
“Forget about the common people – when the judges try to convince us that there is nothing wrong in seeking a male child and eliminating a female one, only God can help us! We are sitting on a ticking bomb!”
Follow Sanjay Pandey on Twitter: @sanjraj