INDIA: "Silent Observer" Fails to Silence India's Activists on Girl Abortions

Wednesday, December 28, 2011
Trust Law
Southern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Human Rights
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

A new device called a "Silent Observer" -- hailed as a solution to curbing the practice of aborting female babies in India -- has drawn criticism from activists who say the technology is more a government eyewash than an answer.

Despite laws banning expectant parents from doing pre-natal tests to determine the gender of their unborn child, the practice of female foeticide remains common in parts of India, where a preference for sons runs deep.

The "Silent Observer" -- also known as an "active tracker" -- is a large electronic device which can be fitted into sonography machines to allow authorities to monitor and record the pre-natal ultrasound scans taken by doctors.

The device, currently part of a pilot program in western India, sends scans to police who will monitor and crackdown on doctors believed to be conducting these gender tests, which result in abortions of thousands of female fetuses annually.

"The 2011 census is staring us in the face. We have lost many girls due to female foeticide in all parts of the country," said Akhila Sivadas, director of the Centre for Advocacy and Research, a Delhi-based gender rights think-tank.

"Now everyone is looking for a quick-fix solution. The tracker appears to be this ... almost like a quick pill to fix the gender crisis we are facing in the country," she said in a press conference earlier this month.

India's 2011 national census has revealed that while the overall female-to-male ratio has marginally improved since the last census in 2001, fewer girls were born than boys and the number of girls under 6-years-old plummeted for the fifth decade running.

“Silent Observer” Pilot Program Cannot Determine Doctors' Intent

A May study in the British medical journal Lancet found that up to 12 million Indian girls were aborted over the last three decades -- resulting in a skewed child sex ratio of 914 girls to every 1,000 boys in 2011 compared with 962 in 1981.

Sons, in traditionally male-dominated regions, are viewed as assets -- breadwinners who will take care of the family, continue the family name, and perform the last rites of the parents, an important ritual in many faiths.

Daughters are seen as a liability, as families have to pay substantial wedding dowries. Protecting their chastity is a major concern as pre-marital sex is seen to bring shame and dishonor on families.

The "Silent Observer" currently is being tested in western India's Maharashtra state. The device has been installed in hundreds of ultrasound machines in clinics and hospitals of Kolhapur district, which has a child sex ratio of 845 girls to 1,000 boys.

No cases involving the tracker have been registered against doctors so far, said activists, who believe the application and implementation of the device is unlikely to act as a deterrent to female foeticide.

"We need a technical person to read the images and moreover what images emerge only reveal that the doctor is viewing the genitalia (of the baby), which he or she is expected to do to detect congenital deformity," said Tajinder Pal Singh, a radiologist and anti-foeticide campaigner.
"This device cannot identify or pinpoint the real intent of the doctor to prove that he or she is contemplating sex determination and sex selection."

Device useless in smaller and increasingly common portable ultrasound devices

The trackers are large rectangle instruments which can only be attached to large trolley-type sonography machines, said Singh, adding that many illegal abortions were being carried out based on information provided by smaller unregistered laptop and palmtop ultrasound machines.

Activists are concerned the tracker will be adopted by other states such as Punjab, Goa and Haryana, which also have highly skewed sex ratios, as a "band aid" or excuse not to tackle the underlying problem of lack of enforcement of the law.

"There is no intention by the government to control female foeticide through the strong implementation of the laws," said Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, a think-tank working on women's rights.

"There have been 486 cases registered against doctors conducting gender tests and this has resulted in around only 7 convictions. While the tracker may help in providing evidence, the figures say it all ... enforcement is needed."