Doctor fights female feticide by delivering girls for free
"It's a girl."
The three words struck terror in Jaya Sable's heart when she gave birth 10 years ago. That's because her husband and his family badly wanted a boy. They didn't even visit her in hospital. Instead, Jaya was punished when she came home for not bearing a son. Her husband and in-laws beat and harassed her for months. Finally, they attacked Jaya with acid, partially disfiguring her face. They even managed to have Jaya legally declared dead by procuring a fake death certificate.
Sometimes I wish I had given birth to a boy. My life would have been different. I would certainly have been spared this torture," the 27-year-old says as she lies in a hospital in Pune, recovering from a second reconstructive surgery, her right arm bandaged, her chest, neck and jaw crisscrossed with deep scars.
Jaya's case is extreme but it's a stark reminder of the widespread preference for boys over girls in India. It's an attitude that's led to rampant female feticide, infanticide, neglect of girls and in Jaya's case, attempted murder.
Campaigners say millions of female fetuses have been aborted in recent years despite legislation outlawing antenatal sex screening and government campaigns urging people not to kill their daughters. Earlier this month, police in the Sangli district of Maharashtra, about 230 kilometers (142 miles) south of Pune, discovered 19 aborted female fetuses near a hospital in what they say was a thriving illegal abortion racket.
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The anti-girl bias has also had a corrosive impact on India's sex ratio. According to the 2011 census, for every 1,000 boys born in India, only 927 girls were born. The latest figures, released at the beginning of 2016, showed that figure had fallen further, to 918.
Sweets for boys; tears for girls
The statistics made Dr Ganesh Rakh realize just how dire the situation was. The doctor, who's treating Jaya in a burns ward in his hospital, said he routinely noticed that whenever a pregnant woman came for her delivery, all her relatives would be full of hope that the baby would be a boy.
"They would celebrate and distribute sweets if a male child was born. But if a girl was born, the relatives would disappear, the mother would cry, the families would ask for a discount. They would be crushed," the 41-year-old says.
That prompted Rakh to launch "Mulgi Vachva Abhiyan," which translates from Marathi as "Campaign to save the girl child," at his own hospital in January 2012. The idea is simple - Rakh waives all fees if a girl is born. And, the hospital staff celebrates the arrival of a baby girl with a cake and candles.
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We want to send out a message that a girl's birth is worth celebrating," Rakh says. More than 500 girls have been born in his hospital since the launch of the campaign. None of the parents have been charged any fees.
'It's going to be a girl'
But, Rakh is well aware that a campaign alone won't solve the problem. A large part of his work consists of providing counseling to pregnant women and their relatives.
Since many families are hellbent on having a boy, putting enormous pressure on the prospective mother, Rakh says he counters it by repeating the mantra "You're going to have a girl" right from day one to mentally prepare the family - even though he doesn't know the gender of the baby and isn't legally allowed to tell the family.
"Sometimes our first impression is that the patient and her family react quite negatively when I say it's going to be a girl. Then I know we need to pay more attention to the case and monitor it closely," Rakh says. "Our aim is to ensure that the fetus remains healthy and grows well and that the family doesn't carry out an illegal sex determination test or female feticide in those nine months."
The doctor and his staff spend a lot of time understanding the family's concerns and easing their fears about having a daughter. Rakh also organizes marches through Pune's streets to convince people that a daughter is as precious as a son. He's contacted doctors around the country to join him in his campaign - and he says many have pledged support.
Fear and blind faith
His experience on the ground has given Rakh a deep insight into the mentalities and beliefs behind the traditional preference for boys over girls.
"The thinking here is that the family isn't complete without a boy. The boy is the one who carries on the family's lineage," Rakh says. "Girls on the other hand are seen as a burden, who will leave the parents for their matrimonial homes. Marriage customs dictate that the girl's family has to pay a large dowry to get her married. And they also have to bear all the marriage expenses. No wonder people are scared of having a daughter."
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People like Chandabai Budhwant. The 55-year-old laborer is from a village outside Pune. She's come to the hospital to meet her three-day-old granddaughter. Chandabai herself had six daughters and then a son.
"After I had a son, I felt like I had finally become successful. People stopped taunting me and saying unkind things because I only had daughters," she says. "I didn't want my own daughters to go through the same thing. That's why I had hoped they would only bear sons. I feared for them."
It's a fear that prompted Chandabai to visit "holy men" and get "medicine" from them and pray in different temples to ensure her daughters gave birth to a male child.
Change is possible
But Chandabai insists she and her relatives have changed their minds since coming to Dr Rakh. She's now happy that her daughter Ashwini has given birth to a baby girl - who the hospital staff has named "Angel." Chandabai says the family plans to educate her and not simply spend huge sums of money on her marriage when she grows up.
Nurses and doctors from the hospital crowd around the infant, pressing flowers into the beaming mother's hands, cutting a cake in the baby girl's honor and singing "Happy birthday Angel."
Rakh says getting one family to change their mind about having a girl can go a long way.
"They talk about it with other people who also rethink their own ideas. So, it has a domino effect. I think it can bring real change," Rakh says. "The day people start celebrating a daughter's birth is when I'll start charging my fees again," he says.