On November 16, Mumbai newspapers carried a ghastly story on their front pages. It was about how a young man, a part-time management student, bludgeoned to death a woman student who was his friend. The reason? The girl, apparently, was urging him to marry her. He was so fed up with her persistence that he picked up a cement slab on the road outside their college, and hit her on the head. She died after being taken to hospital.
The incident occurred a few days before the beginning of "Sixteen days of activism against gender violence". Each year, from November 25 to December 10, the United Nations and women's groups around the world draw attention to the continuing violence against women in all our societies. The dates include November 25, designated by the U.N. as "Day Against Violence Against Women", December 1, "World AIDS Day", December 6, "anniversary of the Montreal Massacre", when 14 women engineering students were gunned down for being feminists and December 10, "Human Rights Day". The very fact these days have been set aside to think and act on issues related to violence against women illustrates the seriousness of the problem that ranges from wife battering, rape, incest, dowry murders, honour killings, female foeticide and economic violence. It binds women all over the world rich and poor, black and white, from north and south, of every nationality, race and creed.
Violence prevention and health care system
The WHO has recommended that violence prevention should be integrated into health care. Health professionals need training to detect a woman who is the victim of such violence and taught how to give her psychological counselling even as they treat her physical wounds. Often, hospitals are the first places that women go to when they have been abused rather than police stations.
Another kind of violence against women that is being recognised as a public health issue is sex-selective abortion. With the data available of the extent to which girls are simply being eliminated and not allowed to be born, it is a subject that should concern everyone. Yet despite campaigns by concerned groups and even by government, and a law specifically designed to prevent such misuse, sex selective abortions continue to be performed in India. The medical fraternity, which could make a difference, has remained largely unmoved and public officials are indifferent claiming it is difficult to implement the law. Yet, even one determined official can make a difference. The Collector of Hyderabad, Arvind Kumar, is one such official.
The 0-6 years sex ratio in Andhra Pradesh is higher than the national average, 961 compared to 927 for India. Yet, as in most other States, there are wide variations within the State. The most prosperous and urbanised district of Hyderabad has the lowest 0-6 years sex ratio of only 942, down from 963 in 1991. It is also no coincidence that the largest number of ultrasound scanning centres is in the city, 389 out of a total of 2,141 registered units in the state.
Registering ultrasound machines
Arvind Kumar took upon himself to ensure that the provisions of the Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of sex selection) Act were actually implemented. Under the Act, all ultrasound machines are supposed to be registered with the District Appropriate Authority (DDA) who in most cases is the District Medical Officer. The DDA has the power to suspend and even cancel registration of scan centres, issue search warrants, and summon anyone to provide information. In other words, it is a quasi-judicial function that is rarely used.
Kumar got the DDA to check if the city's scanning centres had done the paper work required by the law. Predictably, records had not been kept at most centres. Where they existed, they were either incomplete or contained false information. The mandatory form that anyone undergoing a scan must fill includes information about the number and sex of the children the woman already has. In the majority of the forms, this vital piece of information was missing as also the foetus age at the time of the scan.
Based on this information, show cause notices were issued to 361 centres, that is 93 per cent of the all scanning centres in Hyderabad. The registration of 91 was suspended, 51 machines were seized (although 40 were returned after the owners had paid the fine) and three main suppliers of the scan machines were prosecuted for not following the law. Now the collectorate plans to follow each woman having a scan until the point she delivers and compile a scan centre based 0-6 years sex ratio.
The findings would be fascinating, particularly if they reveal a change in the trend. It is too early to tell now. But what it does illustrate is the kind of determined intervention that is needed to reverse the steady elimination of women in India.