Female infanticide: old reasons, new techniques

By Radha Venkatesan

SALEM, JUNE 23. Even 15 years after the shocking expose of female infanticide in Tamil Nadu, the practice of killing female babies within hours of their birth is on a silent rise, particularly in Salem district.

Startling still, female infanticide which was practised by only a few communities, especially the Vellala Gounders till a decade ago, has cut through caste lines, and now baby girls are being killed in ``newer and more cruel methods'' to evade police action.

Last year, 1938 baby girls died in Salem district, the notorious heartland of female infanticide in the State.

While not all the female infant deaths were due to infanticide, officials claim at least 500 infants were murdered by their parents within a day of their birth.

At least 10 districts have recorded adverse juvenile sex ratio and infant mortality rates, which are crucial indicators of prevalence of female infanticide.

While in Salem, Dharmapuri, Namakkal and Theni districts, there are less than 900 girl babies for every 1000 male infants, in six other districts - Karur, Madurai, Dindigul, Erode, Cuddalore and Vellore - the juvenile sex ratio is between 920 and 940 female infants per 1000 male babies.

In Salem and Dharmpauri districts, the infant mortality rate (IMR) has alarmingly hovered around 70 to 85 deaths per 1000 births in the past five years as against Tamil Nadu's IMR of 40 per 1000 births.

However, as the NGOs and the police get tough with the infanticide perpetrators in the hinterlands in Salem and Dharmapuri, the villagers come up with ``newer killing techniques'' to keep the authorities off their trail.

Killing techniques

In the past, the common method of doing away with baby girls was feeding poisonous milk of ``irukkam'' and ``kalli'' plants. Or, dropping crude husks into just-born's throats. But as post-mortem exposes female infanticide, they now resort to ``more gruesome'' but ``less revealing'' techniques of asphyxiation.

Confesses 37-year-old Indrani of Bodinayakkanpatti in Edappadi block in Salem district, who killed her third daughter with tobacco juice: ``As the police hound us, we are now forced to kill babies in novel ways.''

One such ``novel'' method is feeding hot, spicy chicken soup to the babies. ``They writhe and scream in pain for a few hours, and then die.'' When NGO activists get wind of infanticide, the villagers promptly counter that ``the child was suffering from bloated tummy and had to be given chicken soup.''

Another ruthless elimination method catching up in Salem villages is to over-feed babies and tightly wrap them in a wet cloth. After an hour of breathless agony, they die.

In yet another chilling infanticide, the ``umbilical chord'' is let loose, leading to excessive bleeding and eventual death.

But the latest technique of asphyxiating the baby by placing it beneath a pedestal fan at full blast has stumped the police who have managed to register just five cases of female infanticide in rural Salem in the past one year.

While only the killing techniques are new, the reasons for ending the lives of girl babies are depressingly familiar.

The bottomline is that girls are ``expensive'' to maintain and marry off.

And, for the parents who commit infanticide, it is nowhere near an offence, leave alone a grave crime. ``What do we do when we don't have money to bring up and marry off girls. Will you bear the expenses?,'' asks Selvi of Sammundivalavu hamlet in Salem.

She is a mother of three children including two girls, and is expecting another baby next month. ``If the new one is also a girl, I cannot save it,''she says. Surely, there is no sense of guilt or anguish in her frail voice.

Sunday, June 24, 2001

Courtesy: http://www.hindu.com/2001/06/24/stories/04242233.htm