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Last Updated: Saturday, 22 January, 2005, 00:27 GMT
Soap opera fighting to save baby girls
By Jane Elliott
BBC News Health Reporter

Atmajaa poster
Using TV to change opinions

In some parts of India there are so few women that men are having to look away from home to secure a bride.

In the worst affected state of the Punjab there are fewer than eight girls to ten boys.

Experts blame the outlawed practice of female foeticide (aborting female babies) for the skewed male/female ratio and say that almost a million girl foetuses have been killed because culture and tradition state that boy babies are preferable.

In India, girls can be viewed as a burden, not least because many still believe a family must provide a dowry for their daughter's marriage - even though this practice is now illegal.

There is also a widespread belief that the family is continued through the male line and an interpretation of Hinduism that says the father's last rites must be carried out by his son.

Experts say sex determination scans are easy to get, even in the remotest villages and that, unless the trend is reversed, another 70 million girl foetuses could be aborted over the next two decades.


This is why the international charity Plan teamed up with the Indian Government with financial backing from the Edward Greene charity, to produce a soap opera 'Atmajaa' (Born from the Soul) to highlight the problems and to try and change opinion.

They felt that using a Bollywood style soap, rather than a lack-lustre government warning, would reach a wider audience and start the process of change.

They say that female foeticide is so widespread in some interior villages of Punjab and Haryana that the mobile sex determination scan is more easily available than a clean water supply
Sameer Sah

The 13 part series looks at the laws surrounding pre-natal diagnostic tests (the Indian government banned the misuse of this test in 1994), gender, poverty, anti-dowry laws, violence against women and the problems that can occur if there are too few women.

The soap's central character is Mamta, who is forced into a premature Caesarean when her middle-class family discover that she is carrying a girl.

They hope that the operation will cause the baby to die, but Mamta bribes the doctor to take her to an orphanage if she lives.


When her husband pushes her to have a second sex detection test she leaves him.

Sharon Goulds, of Plan, said that using a soap opera style would get the issue across to a wider audience.

"According to the series director it is the first time that a soap opera has been used in this way but in a culture where film and TV, and film and TV stars, is extremely influential it is a very effective way of getting the message across."

Her colleague Sameer Sah, who was based with Plan India, but now works in the UK, said there is great cause for concern about the female/male ratio in India which is dropping rapidly.

In 1991 there were 945 female to 1,000 males, but by 2001 that was just 927.

"If we calculate the ratios, there are a million girls who were killed in the womb because of the preference for boys. The Punjab has one of the worst ratios of 793 females to 1,000 males.

"They say that female foeticide is so widespread in some interior villages of Punjab and Haryana that the mobile sex determination scan is more easily available than a clean water supply.

"It is a very male dominated society."

Mr Sah said that the problem was often most rife amongst the richer elements of society.

The Indian Medical Association is urging international colleagues at the World Medical Association to support a campaign against female foeticide and female infanticide to rid India of what it calls "this social evil".

Ultrasounds can seal the fate of female foetuses

Dr Saarda Jain, from the IMA, based in New Delhi, said that although the practice of female foeticide was banned in practice that it was still flourishing in certain areas.

"We condemn female foeticide as a crime. We are aggressively against it. But when all is said and done it is still being carried out.

"When it comes to reality you find that there are many quacks still going round with their machines doing terminations.

"There are black sheep in our profession as well. I think it is a great problem for us, despite all the laws of the land.

"You find that the statute is not making much difference and even the educated and elite are having female foeticides done."

Indians hope the film will start to change opinions.

Arundhuti, who is a 25-year-old housewife with one son said: "I wish my mother-in-law could see this film. Anyway now I have got a little strength to protest if this happens to me."

Neha Masti, a 34-year-old housewife with two sons, agreed that the soap had changed her view on the practice: "We never thought that aborting female foetuses was a crime.

"I thought it was something very common......this film made me realise about the seriousness of killing female foetuses.

"Surprisingly, I did not know about the law at all. "

Santosh Kumar Singh, a 31-year-old father of a boy and girl said it had changed his attitudes on the issue.

"Being a husband, at times we don't understand our wives. This film made me understand never to force wives for such things. I need to discuss it with her."

India targets female foeticide
15 Feb 03 |  South Asia
India's lost girls
04 Feb 03 |  South Asia
Plea to save girl babies
04 May 00 |  South Asia
Campaign to save girl babies
16 Nov 99 |  South Asia

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