x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Genocide is only the start of this war against women

The rise of India's commercial and political power must not be allowed to mask the fact that actually, for a large proportion of women in India, things stink.

Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

The killing of baby girls is rife. India is missing seven million girls under the age of six. This loss has happened in the last decade alone. Seven million is the size of a small country like Jordan. Over the last century, the loss is estimated at a gut-wrenching 50 million: a little under the population of the entire GCC. India is not alone. South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, China, former communist countries in the Caucasus, the western Balkans and even pockets - though not all - of America's population exhibit similar patterns.

The cause of this situation is twofold: female infanticide and female foeticide. The former is the act of killing an actual live girl-baby after she has been born. The latter is the act of aborting a female foetus in-utero, simply because she is female. The attitude that lies beneath these horrific acts is just one: male offspring are preferred, and female offspring are considered a financial burden, and thus dispensable, even subhuman.

Last week, a report from Thomson Reuters indicated that India is the fourth most dangerous country in the world for women, primarily due to these high rates of female infanticide and female foeticide. The report also highlighted India as the most dangerous country for women when it comes to human trafficking - which covers domestic servitude, forced labour, forced marriage and sexual slavery.

The Thomson Reuters report polled 213 experts in the field of gender issues from across five continents with a number of questions to help establish "the most dangerous countries for women." The top five were Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, India and Somalia.

"Whataboutery" often follows such studies with comments such as: "What about Country X? It is much worse. Why isn't that mentioned?" Of course, all countries where abuses occur must be highlighted and tackled, but at least this report is a start.

Since the results are based entirely on perception, the cynic in me wonders - is there an aid agenda behind this? Is there political motivation and benefit in highlighting particular countries over others? The report takes pains to highlight that the results are based on the opinions of experts. But who are these experts? Where are they from? What are their biases?

One of the factors the experts evaluated was "cultural and religious factors". Reading through the list of items identified in this category, I don't believe anyone would rightfully accept them as being religiously mandated - although those trying to perpetuate them might try to dress them up in this way when in fact they are a product of tradition and culture.

These questions about the report are paradoxically both important and irrelevant at the same time. For a study to have rigour and to be accepted by those it addresses, it must avoid being based on perception, put to rest any questions of bias, or having the whiff of politics about it. Otherwise it risks alienating those who need to heed its message the most.

But the report is important because we know instinctively that whether these countries are on any kind of "top 5" danger list or not is beside the point. Being a woman in these nations is a hazardous - nay, life-threatening - occupation.

In particular, the presence of India on this list challenges "fast-developing" and "the face of modernity" type commentary which can hide terrible offences against women. The rise of India's commercial and political power must not be allowed to mask the fact that actually, for a large proportion of women in India, things stink.

For starters, girl-babies are simply got rid of because families want boys. This was the conclusion of data published last month by The Lancet, a leading medical journal based in the UK, on male-female ratios in India during the period 1990 - 2005. There were two striking conclusions.

The preference to eliminate a female foetus was noticeably elevated if the first child at home was a girl. If the first two children were a girl, then the number of terminations was even greater.

The second finding was that this drop in sex ratio was greater in mothers with 10 or more years of education than in mothers with no education, and was also greater in wealthier households compared with poorer ones. The sex ratio fell especially sharply in the richest 20 per cent of households.

China shows a similar pattern. According to The Economist, the higher a province's literacy rate, the more skewed its sex ratio. The ratio also rises with income per head.

It comes as a huge shock that those with greater resources and greater education should be the ones at the forefront of the death of female foetuses.

Contrary to expectations, modernisation, education and wealth do not correct such "backward" thinking. Instead, they appear to exacerbate it.

In the long term, this stores up serious social problems such as the lack of opportunity for millions of men to marry. It is already causing the problem of women being kidnapped in order to be taken as wives.

It could be argued that the law of supply and demand will correct this imbalance by making women a more valuable commodity. But therein lies the essence of the problem - that women are being seen only as a commodity rather than being preserved for their inherent value as human beings.

The dangers to women are irrespective of the culture or religion of their countries. The Democratic Republic of Congo is over 80% Christian. India is 80% Hindu, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia are over 90% Muslim. If we look also at China, we see a nation that is overwhelmingly Buddhist.

There are no smug generalisations to be made about which cultures and religions are most dangerous or oppressive to women. All cultures have problems. All cultures must be vigilant.

From female infanticide, to female genital mutilation, through to honour killings, sexual assault, domestic violence, forced prostitution, sex trafficking, female slave trading and rape as a weapon of war, the violence against and murder of women is a global scourge. These issues are a matter of life and death.

Women also suffer other kinds of abuse too which can be hugely devastating: poorer health care but with greater medical need due to pregnancy and childcare, unequal pay, child marriages, the highest rates of illiteracy, the greatest victims of poverty.

As the Thomson Reuters report explains, "women face dangers far beyond - and far more subtle than - suicide bombers in a marketplace or systematic rape in a conflict zone".

Headline-grabbing reports on the horrific dangers facing women are important - but they must be used to frame rather than overshadow the challenges facing half the world's population.

When we think of them, the visions of girl-babies being buried or drowned at birth should crawl beneath our eyelids. The use of rape against women which treats them as property in tribal disputes should haunt our nightmares. The screams of mothers dying in labour without even the most basic of health care should ring in our ears. These are the visions and sounds of women suffering around the world. We must put a stop to it.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and writes a blog at www.spirit21.co.uk