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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 1, December 27, 2014 - Annual Number

Sex Selective Abortion: A Syncretic Feminist Approach

Saturday 27 December 2014


by Bijayalaxmi Nanda


The 2011 Census has revealed an adverse child sex ratio (0-6 age-group). At 919 it is the lowest since 1961. It is a decline of eight points since 2001. Other trends which are disturbing include the fact that this decline has spread from the urban, prosperous, northern States to the rural, backward, eastern and southern belts. The decline is marked by this pervasive spread thereby indicating a rise in sex selective abortions aided by reproductive technologies for sex determination. The decline in the sex ratio in the age-group 0-6 years is an extremely distressing trend. The writing was clearly on the wall during the 1991 and 2001 Censuses. The last decade has seen slight improvements in Haryana, Punjab, Chandigarh, Tamil Nadu, Himachal, Gujarat, Mizoram and Andaman and Nicobar Islands where there has been an increase in the sex ratio of the 0-6 year population. In all the remaining 27 States/ UTs, the ratio has declined. The decline ranges from nominal to alarming levels.

The rapid decline in some States like Jammu and Kashmir from 941 to 859, Uttar Pradesh from 916 to 899, Odisha from 953 to 934, Manipur from 957 to 934, Maharashtra from 913 to 883 and in Rajasthan from 909 to 883 is testimony to the fact that the decline is no longer confined to the urban prosperous northern States. The discrimination in families in India against daughters starts early—even before they are born, manifesting itself in this decline. This decline in the child sex ratio has been primarily attributed to sex determination followed by sex selective abortion.

The State in India and Policy Responses

The state in India follows two distinct appro-aches in terms of policy-response to the issue. The first addresses the demand for sex-selective abortion from families which is in the form of providing financial incentives to enhance the worth of girls. The other is to address the supply of new reproductive technologies for sex determination by legislation, that is, the PCPNDT Act. These two approaches are common to most policy-responses regarding gender justice. In discussing discourses of the state in Britain regarding gender equality, Kantola mentions the crime discourse which associates the state with providing law and order and the equal opportunities discourse where the state had a role in providing women and men with the same chances.1 So in this vein of the crime discourse and the equal opportunities discourse the state in India has unfurled a comprehensive national legislation, that is, the PCPNDT Act and a conditional cash transfer (CCT) strategy in many States in order to counter sex-selective abortion and provide for gender justice.

The PCPNDT Act (Pre-Conception and Pre- Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act), 1994 (as amended in 2003)-is a comprehensive piece of social legislation which emerged due to active involvement of women’s groups and a sustained campaign. As the law stands today it has two objectives to fulfil. The first is to regulate the pre-natal diagnostic procedures and the second, is a total prohibition of ‘sex selection’, a term defined primarily to denote any kind of pre-conception test or method used for sex selection.2 The Act is largely unused due to a complex nexus among medical practitioners, families seeking the service and the government machinery.

The other issue that impacts the implemen-tation of this legislation is related to the feminist groups, especially a section of the pro-abortion feminists. They are of the opinion that a strict implementation of the PCPNDT Act will lead to essential abortion services going underground. As women and families begin to feel the pressure of these external campaigns, they might begin to resort to unlicensed providers and resist medical care, endangering the health of women and their babies.3 This section of the pro-abortion feminists thus wants to steer clear of the issue of sex-selective abortion. Since they make their arguments for abortion on the basis of choice, they feel it is untenable for them to make a case for denying women the choice to determine the sex of the foetus. Other sections of the pro-abortion feminist group, however, continue to engage with the complexities of the issue at hand. Kaur elaborates upon this in the context of the United States. According to her, pro-abortion feminists in the reproductive justice movement perceive the narrow notion of indivi-dual choice as exclusionary and even incom-patible with the reality of many women’s lives. The movement seeks to expand the concept of choice. She cites April Cherry who states that “the right to choose means very little when women are powerless”.4

The criminalisation of sex-selective abortion is thus important because it takes into account the implausibility of an empowered choice in a context where women may be coerced or conditioned to do sex-selective abortion. It also critiques the basic reason for the choice which is the prejudice against daughters in society. It highlights the role of the medical practitioners who provide sex determination and conduct sex-selective abortion in rampant violation of the Act. While the pro-choice feminists’ approach to abortion is to protect individual women’s decisions, sex selection and sex-selective abortion falls outside this ambit of choices.

The government has unfurled a number of schemes, both at the Centre and in the States, to incentivise the birth of girls in India. Most of them are Conditional Cash Transfers (CCTs). They include the Girl Child Protection Scheme in Tamil Nadu, Balri Rakshak Yojana in Punjab, the Ladli scheme in Delhi and Haryana and many others. The schemes are mostly in the form of financial incentives of cash deposits which are delivered at the end as a lump sum between Rs 12,000 in some States and Rs 1 lakh in others. The scheme, which seems benign and well-intentioned, comes with a set of eligibility criteria and conditionalities. The eligibility criteria are tied up with restricting the number of children and the income criteria of parents. Feminists have questioned the population control mindset of the government. According to studies by feminist research scholars, the linking of financial incentive schemes for girls to an insidious population control policy has an adverse impact on girls. It can increase sex-selective abortion and also the vulnerability of girls who fall outside the ambit of the schemes. Moreover it stigmatises the poor making them seem like the guilty when it comes to sex-selective abortion whereas it is clear that the poor are the last in the queue to discriminate against girls.

Feminists have thus critiqued these schemes and have asked for a review of the same in order to rid them of their gender insensitive and contradictory elements. So while some feminists critique the PCPNDT Act for overlapping on the right to abortion and ask for its complete withdrawal, others would like to see this law retained while protecting the right to safe and legal abortion. Some feminists outrightly reject the conditional cash transfers for protecting girls while some believe it can be retained if reviewed in the light of the critique presented by them.

The emphasis in this paper is to understand the importance of each feminist position and suggest ways to reconcile them in order to engage with the issue of sex-selective abortion. I proceed to explain this reconciled position which is a syncretic approach and which engages with intersectionalities like caste, class, region with gender. In doing so, the aim here is to demons-trate the significance of the syncretic feminist perspective with an intersectionality approach to be used in the context of sex-selective abortion in this country.

The Syncretic Feminist Approach

The UNFPA in India has been working closely with this issue for the last twelve years. They have supported civil society initiatives to counter the issue. They have also steadfastly followed a consultative process by listening to both the feminists in activism and academia as well as grassroot organisations working on the issue. The reproductive rights discourse is common to most global bodies working on human rights and gender. The basic framework of the discourse is drawn from a combination of elements from liberal, socialist and radical feminism. The engagement here is with women’s rights and not with child rights or following a pro-life approach.

The common strategy of global and local bodies is to follow a life-cycle approach addressing issues of gender violence and discrimination through laws and entitlements and capacity-building of women and girls. This approach is derived from multiple feminist perspectives. The liberal feminist belief is that rights, entitlements, and political participation would entail gender justice. The radical feminist perspective relies on the idea of patri-archy and remains doubtful of the patriarchal state. Marxist feminism is a critique of capita-lism. The socialist feminist perspective is under-pinned by the complex relationship between relations of production and reproduction. The post-modern feminist perspective focuses on diversity and difference. It also keeps in mind an inter-sectionality approach, that is, the considerations of class, caste, gender, age interconnections.

A single feminist perspective is limited in terms of its vision to engage with the issue. It is in the accessing of rights for women that have been promised to them that problems emerge. So liberal feminism fails to explain why women have not been able to achieve equality irres-pective of rights and entitlements formally guaranteed to women and girls. The ‘patriarchal state’ engages in making women-friendly laws thereby offering a challenge to the radical feminist understanding on the state.

While inter-sectionality and heterogeneity are important issues to be considered as posed by post-modern feminism, there remains a need to examine the relevance of “strategic essentialism”. Drawing from Gayatri Spivak, Jill Steans discusses the notion of “strategic essentialism” in the context of feminist strategies to bring about gender equality. According to Steans, while the diversities among women in terms of class, race and other categories need to inform feminism, it is also important to recognise the commonalities which exist between women. The common experience of gender discrimination and violence for women, irrespective of their differences, needs to be privileged at certain moments in order to be able to provide meaningful context for developing useful measures for change.

Nussbaum’s ‘capabilities approach’ is also one which straddles different feminist perspectives. The capabilities approach, of which she is the most influential proponent is a critique of the rights discourse. However, Nussbaum herself does believe in strict binaries. According to her, the idea of capabilities is a complex one. It requires the fostering of internal capability through education, health care and supportive relationships as well as ascertaining that her efforts are not thwarted by unequal legal, financial or physical obstacles. It requires looking at how laws, movements, groups and social institutions enable women.5 So in her own words, “a capabilities approach is closely linked to a rights-based approach and can be under-stood as one way of further specifying a rights-based approach.’’6

Susan Okin’s arguments are an intermeshing of liberal, radical and socialist feminist principles, although she would be categorised as a liberal feminist. Nancy Fraser believes that post-modern feminists need to go beyond Foucault’s analysis of power, by hanging on to radical feminism’s sense of moral outrage and modifying this with recognition of the diversity of women’s condition of life.7

The feminist discourse in India, which is largely a combination of liberal and socialist feminism, has also raised similar critiques of the state discourse on sex-selective abortion. The women’s movements in India have played a very significant role in critically laying down the basic parameters of discussion on the issue of sex-selective abortion. By emphasising on the need to make a distinction between the law on abortion (MTP Act 1971) and sex determination (PCPNDT Act 1994), it has circumscribed the issue around gender discrimination and violence. The right to safe, accessible abortion has remained a concern with them. It has questioned the market, coercive population policies as well as the state. It remains sceptical of the state in terms of its ability to be wholly gender-sensitive in its structures and institutions, but works ‘at bringing the state back in’ to deliver its promises to women.

Global bodies and institutions like UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) and UN for Women are alert to the dynamics of local feminist discourses. They engage in consultations, work-shops and supporting direct advocacy and research interventions in the field. They also lobby with policy-makers to strategise change. The syncretic feminist perspective is evident in the UNFPA approach of emphasising on the three As. The three As of tackling daughter aversion, as suggested by them, include:

Assets: Assets with girls/women earning income, owning and inheriting property and ownership of land are also protective against violence. It should include policies that improve financial standing through employment, tax rebates for women, etc.

Autonomy of women and girls: Autonomy of women and girlsto be enhanced by emphasising on ability, power, providing choices, ensuring physical safety and mobility by making laws work for women and to address impunity and improve safe public spaces, transport, etc.

Ageing to beaddressed: Access to social protection for women and men which sees to it that children cannot be the only source of support. The idea is that policy-response to ensure social care should be a must.

The global perspective here is to be alert to the rights and bodily integrity of women. The critique of the inflexibility, unimaginativeness and anti-women elements of the CCTs were brought out by a UNFPA study. So also were the anti-women and anti-Dalit elements of coercive population policies like the two-child norm. Interestingly, the two-child norm and other coercive population policies have been critiqued by feminist scholars and researchers as well. This partnership is very evident. For example, a recent publication of the UNFPA, which has discussed in detail all laws favouring son-preference in India, is written by a leading legal feminist of the country, also a member of the AIDWA (All Indian Democratic Women’s Association). Such synergies are common and reflect the openness of the global discourses to the learning from the local field.

Alternative discourses, which exist in non-funded movements and activism in the field, are based on syncretic feminist perspectives. They are nuanced with their in-depth analysis of class and caste. Saheli in Delhi is a non-funded women’s group. Its research and activism on sex-selective abortion is refined and sophisti-cated in offering the distinction between pro-life and pro-choice arguments and the critique of the market which offers sex determination.

Women’s active engagement in tribal move-ments to protect their land and the complex issues that they have raised about their lives are also important for the global and State-level discourses to engage with. However, there are silences and exclusions here. Within the alter-native discourses some have become hegemonic while some have been excluded from being linked with global discourses. The syncretic feminist perspective needs to be derived from all the positions which look at issues of marginalisation and oppression specifically for women and girls and beyond women and girls. Issues of tribal communities losing land to corporate giants, of environmental degradation, of working class men losing employment, of farmers committing suicides because of agrarian crisis are all to be taken within its fold.

Thus the syncretic feminist perspective brings in the two dimensions of inclusion and reconcep-tualisation here. Inclusion of women and girls within programmes, and their access to political, economic and social rights are derived from the principles of liberal feminism. The idea of reconceptualisation is derived from radical and post-modern feminism. While the liberal feminist perspective would emphasise on formal equality and political participation, radical feminism’s main concern would help to question the power structures at play, whether within the state agencies or the educational institutions. Post-modern feminism cautions about treating women as a homogeneous category and the intersectionality approach would be to delve into the class, caste, community, race, ethnicity and age dimensions. The implications of this theoretical framework in this context are that countering gender-discriminatory programmes in India demands much more than just cash transfers and creating women-specific laws. They require addressing many challenges like implementing gender-sensitive laws, building women-friendly educational institutions, and providing quality education which counters gender stereotypes and creates a truly egalitarian ethos. It should also include leveraging markets for the poor and marginalised women, along with skill development, and vibrant collectives with ideas based on participation and self—sustainability.

Way Forward

After critically assessing the significance of the CCTs and PCPNDT Act in addressing gender-justice in the context of sex-selective abortion, the relevant question to be asked here is whether they should be continued since they have not delivered? In an examination of other social protection schemes in India, Dreze and Goyal say that the answer did not lie in abandoning schemes, but in improving the quality ‘to go forward rather than backwards’. Similarly Kabeer believes that it is important to realise three things about social protection schemes and legislations, namely,

• They need to accommodate a more pro-active role of the state while understanding that the state may not always be a benevolent represen-tative of public good,

• The state can also be a site for struggles over the interpretation of needs and the allocation of resources, and

• Building the capacity of the marginalised and excluded groups to participate in these struggles is indispensable to the promotion of more inclusive systems of social protection and to the achievement of gender justice.8

Towards a Conclusion

Does this mean that the strategies emerging from the syncretic feminist perspective will be the magic bullet to counter sex-selective abortion? By withdrawing coercive population control elements from the CCTs, will girls better life-chances? Will penalising doctors and families indulging in sex determination and sex selective abortion create a loving world for daughters in India? These are questions for further research and probing. The aim here is to point out to the political significance of the feminist perspectives to create space for critical discourses regarding women as persons with rights and entitlements which is being denied to them due to material, structural and cultural impediments. In this context, Menon writes: “There can be no quick fix for the selective abortion of female foetuses. The practice reflects the fundamental devaluing of women, which will have to be tackled in other ways, through consistent feminist politics. Such politics would have to confront marriage itself and more importantly, question the necessary framing of motherhood within discourses of hetero-patriarchal legitimacy.”9

I have emphasised the need to focus on the state and its contexts, structures and discourses which are amenable to change due to both global and local reflections. When informed by the syncretic feminist perspective with an inter sectionality approach, this change can be towards achieving gender justice by providing women and girls an enabling environment to be persons of their own free will and choice.

[I would like to acknowledge Prof Vidhu Verma, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi for her comments and suggestions for this paper.—B.N.]


1. Johanna Kantola, Feminists Theorise the State (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), p.157.

2. Indira Jaisingh and others, From the Abnormal to the Normal: Preventing Sex Selective Abortions through the Law (New Delhi: Lawyers Collective, 2007).

3. Mallika Kaur Sarkaria, ‘Lessons from Punjab’s Missing Girls: Towards a Global Feminist Perspective on Choice in Abortion’. California Law Review, Vol. 97, 2009.

4. Ibid, p.940.

5. Martha Nussbaum and others, Essays on Gender and Governance (New Delhi: UNDP, 2003), p. 17.

6. Ibid., p.18.

7. Johanna Kantola, Feminists Theorise the State (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), p. 16.

8. Naila Kabeer, Gender and Social Protection Strategies in the Informal Economy (New Delhi: Routledge, 2010).

9. Nivedita Menon, Seeing like a Feminist (New Delhi: Zubaan-Penguin, 2012), p. 211.

The author is an Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Miranda House, University of Delhi. He can be contacted at

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