Having given legal protection to intersex kids against unnecessary surgeries, India must proactively put an end to intersex and female infanticide
The recent killing of a one-day-old girl child in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruvannamalai district has brought to the fore the unending practice of female infanticide. The murder was discovered on the complaint of an alert medical officer who suspected foul play.
Being the second reported instance of female infanticide from the region, this case has demonstrated that this evil practice is alive even during the current pandemic. Nearly 30 years ago, economist Amartya Sen argued that 100 million women were “missing.” However, much before this usage was coined, the phenomenon behind the phrase was a reality in India, reflected in the practice of sex determination, selective abortions and female infanticide. There were no official numbers on female foeticide until the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) started collecting data on this crime in 2014. However, the consequences of killing the girl child before or after birth are clearly reflected in the skewed sex-ratios in the country.
In 2016, the Government released data based on the civil registration system. It showed that the sex ratio at birth (SRB) had fallen from 946 girls for every 1,000 boys in 1949 to 877 in 2014. A deeper crisis is revealed when the data on girls in the age group of zero-six years is examined. In 2011, the number of girls below six per 1,000 boys stood at 914 — which is the lowest since Independence. Now that the registration of births is compulsory, the SRB data is considered to be quite accurate. The problem is graver in five States (Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Uttarakhand, and Tamil Nadu) which have an SRB equal to or below 840.
Prevention of female foeticide and infanticide has been the focus of a wide range of the Government’s efforts since the 1990s, with some successes and many challenges. The child sex ratio has continued to be on the decline even after the enactment of a Central law in 1994 banning the use of prenatal diagnostic tests for sex determination. Aside from this legal measure, the Union and State Governments have undertaken several policy initiatives such as the National Action Plan of 1991 to Balika Samriddhi Yojana in 1997 to the latest Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao campaign of 2015, to incentivise retention of the girl child. Several State Governments have also implemented innovative initiatives like the “Cradle Baby” scheme of the Tamil Nadu Government. Launched in 1992, the aim of the scheme was to encourage parents to give female children up for adoption by providing for cradles at Government hospitals and Primary Health Centres (PHCs). The two-fold objective was to prevent female infanticide and also stop illegal sale of babies.
This measure of the Tamil Nadu Government also encouraged reporting of this crime unlike other States where the cases are massively under-reported. In addition to improving law enforcement and preventing access to ultrasonography, measures like “Cradle Baby” scheme are critical.
The preference for the male child leading to a skewed sex ratio has been well-documented. However, another major consequence of such preference poses a serious risk to bodily integrity of intersex infants and children. Intersex children in India are at constant risk of forced surgical and medical intervention in the form of sex normalising surgeries to align their body as per the normative definition of traditional gender identity i.e. male and female. In most cases, intersex children are assigned as male at birth.
This heinous practice is widespread in several Indian States, including Kerala, which claims to be a model State in terms of human development indicators. Even worse, the medical community also justifies such procedures, displaying a shocking ignorance of intersex human rights. For instance, doctors working in a hospital in Kerala have admitted performing such surgeries on intersex children and have also highlighted the preference of parents for the male child. In 2019, the Madras High Court outlawed this practice and directed the Tamil Nadu Government to pass an order implementing the ban. However, infanticide of intersex babies and children continues to be an ignored issue in India. It is estimated that every year, more than 10,000 intersex children are born in India.
Still, our official statistics, including the census, do not provide any authentic population data of intersex children in the country.
Over the years, various United Nation (UN) committees have highlighted this issue. In 2019, expressing concern over the “mercy killing” of intersex children with disabilities, the UN Committee on Rights of Persons with Disabilities recommended the Government to “protect intersex children from attacks against their lives and any related harmful practices.”
The “missing intersex children” phenomenon is not limited to India. There is an urgent need for more research and documentation on this subject globally. Further, it is also critically important to initiate a dialogue on the need for an international instrument to prevent intersex infanticide and a complete ban on sex normalising surgeries.
Having already established a legal protection regime for intersex children against unnecessary surgeries, India has a unique opportunity to lead the intersex human rights movement if it can proactively put an end to intersex infanticide. To achieve these goals, the Centre and States must undertake urgent steps to ensure prevention and prosecution in cases of female and intersex infanticide.
(Singh is Executive Director, Srishti Madurai-LGBTQIA+ student volunteer movement and Madurai is the elected Intersex Representative and Executive Board Member of International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, Geneva)