Lessons from Punjab's "Missing Girls": Toward a Global Feminist Perspective on "Choice" in Abortion

09 Jun 2009 06:03pm Mallika Kaur Sarkaria 

Finding Instruction from Punjab's "Missing Girls": Towards a Global Feminist Perspective on "Choice" in Abortion employs the current phenomenon of sex-selective abortions in Punjab (India) to call for a re-evaluation of the concept of "choice" as it pertains to women's reproductive freedom. It is hoped that this case study of sex selection in Punjab will effectively problematize "choice," not to weaken the abortion rights movement, but rather to strengthen it by making it more nuanced and globally applicable.

As is being widely discussed in South Asian and other media, Punjab today epitomizes the growing phenomenon of female feticide, or sex-selective abortion of girls. Research indicates that women abort girls due to societal pressures and deeply ingrained prejudices against the girl child. Such abortions have resulted in increasingly warped sex ratios:the sex ratio in Punjab has now fallen below 880 girls to 1000 boys as compared to the natural sex ratio of about 950 girls to 1000 boys. While abortion is legal in India, the growing trend of "missing baby girls" has prompted laws criminalizing sex-selective abortions across the country, including Punjab. Approaching anti-sex selection laws through a global feminist lens, this paper studies whether these laws help or detract from the struggle against Punjabi patriarchal norms. Similarly, it explores non-legal responses to sex-selection, e.g. vigils, and suggests that the campaigns are not only ineffective but might in fact adversely affect women's welfare.

Viewed within the binary notion of "choice" in Western feminist discourse around abortion, the women aborting female fetuses in Punjab are "pro-choice." But this label does not have the same implications in the Punjabi context of sex-selective abortions as it does in American society today. This paper thus argues for a broader notion of "choice." Given current societal norms and pressures, if the "choice" is between abortion and no abortion, a contemporary Punjabi woman will choose abortion. But when more choices are placed on the table-the choice to raise a daughter without worrying about dowry; the choice to have a daughter support you in old age without worrying about ridicule; the choice to raise a daughter without worrying about violence that will be inflicted against her-the same Punjabi woman might not then choose to abort her female fetus. Without assuring women security, honor and prestige regardless of the "choice" (son or daughter) they make, any law or governance banning sex selection will not only be unsuccessful, but also unfair. This paper calls for supporting the Punjabi woman in bringing about societal change, rather punishing her for finding a survival mechanism for herself and not wishing her predicament on a daughter.

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