The Greatest Genocide in History (Part I)

22 04 2008


It is estimated by historians that about 72 million people were killed during the second World War. Of this number 25 million died in combat, as much as 11 million were killed in the Nazi Holocaust and another 20 million perished in war induced famine. But this is not the single event with the largest killing of human beings in history.

Demographers and economists estimate that today over a 100 million women have been killed globally by societies which prefer sons over daughters. While guns, bombs and Zyklon B (the gas agent in the Nazi gas chambers) were used to kill during World War II, the present genocide against women is carried out by abortions, drowning, strangulation and nutritional and medical neglect. Unlike during a war where the combatants are known and kill only the enemy, in this genocide of women, it is the girl child’s most trusted and loved ones who kill her. It is important to understand that these 100 million women should have been alive and living today if not for the fact that they were killed, often directly in the form of abortion, killing after birth and death due to medical negligence and discrimination over food. It is important to understand that unlike in war where State institutions and politics is responsible for the deaths, here parents and close relatives of the unborn girl and the girl child are responsible for the deaths.

The blood of these 100 million dead women and girls is on all our hands as our hallowed families, which are meant to nurture and protect, have turned into killers of their own girls. Unfortunately, this problem seems to be concentrated in the countries of South Asia, East Asia and China.

The economist Amartya Sen gave the term “missing women” to this phenomenon of fewer women in populations than there should be and estimated that there are at present 44 million women missing in China and 39 million in India. Others have estimated that there are close to 6 million missing women in Pakistan, 3 million in Bangladesh and one million in Afghanistan. This implies that there are actually more women who are killed and missing in South Asia than anywhere else in the world. In India and China there are 107 men to 100 women, in Pakistan there are 108 men to 100 women. Truly a dubious distinction for a region which prides itself on its culture, history and civilisation!

To say that South Asian cultures are biased against women would be an understatement. Historically, some of the most devious, cruel and humiliating forms of female oppression have emerged in South Asia, China and the Arab world. From discriminating the girl child with food, medicine and education, from forcing subservience to male commands, from burning widows and enforcing purdah, from honour killings to female feticide, Asia and the Arab world have led the world in sexual apartheid.

Therefore it is not surprising that an overwhelming number of women reported missing – killed in action on the frontlines of patriarchy’s war on women – are from South Asia, China and its neighbouring countries. What is interesting to note that differences of religion, culture, climate, ideology, social system or economic growth have no influence on this killing of women. Hindu or Muslim or Buddhist, Democracy or dictatorship, feudal, capitalist or socialist, poor or rich, cold or tropical, all over the swathe of Asia, millions of parents are wilfully killing their children who are girls.

While it is important to recognise its wide-spread prevalence, it is also important to identify the causes for its existence, the variations of its practice and the implications of its prevalence if we are to try and end this unprecedented genocide.

Historically, girl children were often killed at birth by the mid-wife by feeding her poison, drowning her, strangulating her with her own umbilical cord or stuffing her mouth with salt. All these practices are reported from different parts of the British Indian Empire by the Firangi civil servants. Even those girls who escaped this death at birth, faced a childhood of neglect in the family with regard to food, medical care and education. Women were married off very early in life, often before they even attained puberty and became mothers in early teenage. Millions more were martyred on the altar of motherhood as the demands of repeated childbirth led to high mortality too. Many were killed when their husbands died, either by the religious practice of Sati or by the more prevalent custom of branding widows as “witches” and “dayens” and then lynching them.

Today, some of these more explicitly cruel forms of killing women may have become rare (though not entirely ended) but these have been replaced by the cold medical technology of the ultra-sound scan of the mother’s womb and the abortion of the female foetus. This brings us to the first of the main variations in the spread of missing women. It is the urban, educated, high income groups which display the maximum number of missing women! This means that the more educated, well-off and urban based a family, the more the chances of girl children being killed.

Men carry the family line and name, property is in the name of men who also wield political and military power (often the same thing), while it is men who are able to attain social status. Therefore if families have had to protect their property, pass it on to their progeny and acquire power in society, they have had to have sons. This feature has been called “son-preference” and is seen as the main cause for the killing of women But this is a necessity common to all forms of patriarchy, and as any Marxist would tell you, the history of all societies is the history of class struggle and the history of all class divided societies is also the history of patriarchy. So the importance of men to own private property, carry on the family line, hold power and control in society has been universal to all human history. But the killing of women, and that too on a scale where a 100 million of them are missing today, is a specific feature of Asian societies (and some North African ones which are influenced by Arab culture).

Some women activists and experts identify a social-psychological pathology which they term “son preference” which fuels this murderous desire for sons at the cost of killing their daughters. They argue that the existence of daughters implies a major loss of property and wealth in the form of dowry which has to be given at her marriage and also entails investments in her education and upbringing which develops her “human capital” which is “lost” to the family which invests but is a net gain for the family which “gains” her in marriage. This has been identified as the main cause of continuation of female foeticide and infanticide, specially in South Asia. Daughters are also a drag on the family’s ability to project themselves socially as economic and human resources have to be invested in protecting their honour and bodies.

While these are surely important causes for the continuation and increase in the killing of women, these do not fully explain this genocide. Next week, this column will explore some other possible reasons as well as look at the consequences of this genocide.

(to be continued)

~  ~  ~

This article was published in my weekly column in The Post on Wednesday, 23 April, 2008.


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11 responses

22 04 2008
family » Blog Archive » The Greatest Genocide in History (Part I)

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22 04 2008
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24 04 2008

The silent genocide has continued over centuries in South East Asia. In India primarily it was blamed on lack of education and poverty. Poverty definitely plays a key role in rural Tamil Nadu where mothers kill infant baby girls by feeding them husk, this was documented by BBC World Service in one of the documentaries only a couple of years back. But then we all are aware of the cotton farmers of Tamil Nadu and Vidarbha and the horrors faced by them. This poor farm worker had neither means nor the hope to see the girl child grow. But this is only a section where poverty guides every aspect of one’s existence and no one has the right to judge the mother here.

The shocking part is the middle class well to do India, where the pathology of “son preference” turns them into a fanatical sect by themselves. I have had the misfortune of knowing them up close and personal because they are my neighbours living in average neighbourhoods of India where the white collared work force lives and pre-selecting the gender of their child has become almost absolutely a mandatory thing for them. They will say with a shade of guilt “Had to abort, what to do with a second girl?” I am using the word “girl” and not daughter because that is exactly what they mean. It’s a boy over a girl for them. Have also had the misfortune of meeting people who have neglected their physically impaired daughters and have heard them say “death is better for her, after all who will marry a physically impaired girl?” The worst part is they treat their children as a product which has to be perfect because they are paying to see them blossom so the children better come with a brand value and status.

The patriarchal society has been completely successful in sowing the seeds of such sychophancy. Recently had the chance to visit Meghalaya and there too had the chance to see patriarchy spreading its tentacles. The wind is also changing for women here silently creeping without getting noticed. Men are discontent and are demanding equal share in the property on such lame excuses such as the daughter cannot be an electrician or a cab driver so the son must inherit the family business or should get an equal share at least. Have nothing against equality that is fine but to decide for what the daughter is capable of or not is the alarming change that is sweeping this northeastern state of India. And with that the last haven for the girl child will be lost to India forever.

8 05 2008

Tags to The Greatest Genocide in History Part I…

Tags: to . It is estimated by historians that about 72 million people were killed during the second World War … to be concentrated in the countries of South Asia, East Asia and China. The economist Amartya Sen … be and estimated that there ar…

8 05 2008

It is wonderful that so many groups are coming forward to create awareness on the issue of adverse sex ratio.
May I however, request that we stop using the language of ‘foeticide’ and ‘killing of unborn girls’ to discuss adverse sex ratio.
The ‘foeticide’ langauge is leading to a situation where women can be penalized for seeking abortion, and abortion services may likely be driven underground, making them unsafe.
We all know that women are not always able to negotiate protected sex, which leads to unwanted pregnancies, and therefore it is critical to provide them with the freedom to seek abortion if they see fit. This is also part of their reproductive rights.
The sex pre-selection technologies have moved fast, and now do not involve ultra-sound or abortion but other diagnostic technologies, so our mis-guided battle to regulate abortion is actually barking up the wrong tree!
In order to deal with the problem of adverse sex ratio, may I suggest that we look at more creative ways to establish the worth of girl children? We also need to re-look at the issues of daughters’ property rights and dowry within marriage.
Incidentally, in human rights terms there is no personhood of the foetus, so there can be nothing called the ‘unborn child’. So we cannot talk of right to life of the ‘unborn’ girl child.”

23 07 2008

As moshabai said, please don’t call aborting fetuses “foeticide” or “killing”. That would imply that a fetus is a person – it’s not.

I really don’t like the way you started your article. The killing of girls is really horrible, but unlike the Nazi world war/holocaust it’s not actually a planned genocide. Saying “this is worse than the Nazis” is never appropriate for anything, really.

3 08 2008

Tahnks for posting

8 11 2008
Shaheen Sultan Dhanji

Interesting read! Thank you for sharing!! Keep up.

cheers, SSD

10 04 2011
Sunday Reading « zunguzungu

[…] “Missing Women”: Demographers and economists estimate that today over a 100 million women have been killed globally […]

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