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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 June 2006, 13:49 GMT 14:49 UK
The 'curse' of having a girl
By Navdip Dhariwal
BBC News, Delhi

Indian girl
Some villages haven't seen the birth of a female in years

India might be a country rushing headlong into 21st century but every year thousands of babies are aborted or killed at birth because they are girls.

Our correspondent contemplates this as she prepares to have a baby herself.

The heat is stifling here. Some days it's pushing 45 degrees. My body is overheating and we're only two thirds of the way there!

I'm not alone - 25 million other women are expected to give birth in India this year. With the very best medical care, our bundle of joy stands a good chance, but one out of 22 Indian babies will not survive beyond its first month.

According to UNICEF, poor nutrition and hygiene, and a high number of young mothers contribute to low birth weights and slim chances of survival.

Killed at birth

If our baby is a girl - her arrival is likely to be greeted, by some, with condolences. A friend - delighted with his new daughter soon became infuriated at comments that his home had been cursed with a girl.

"Relatives arrived laden with gifts of sweet meats," he said. "They cuddled her and shook their heads at our misfortune."

My mother told me how guilty and how much of a failure she was made to feel when I arrived a year after my older sister.

These are attitudes engrained in many sections of Indian society. More than 10 million female fetuses have been aborted in India in the last two decades.

The prospect of paying a dowry and knowing a daughter could never generate the income of a son is enough for some families to commit murder.

In my parents' native Punjab, girls are often killed at birth. It has skewed the ratio of girls to boys so much that some villages have not seen the birth of a female in years. Thousands of men in rural areas now have trouble finding a wife.

I remember the stories my mother told me - of the neighbour who would take baby girls in the middle of the night and drown them in the village well. My mother also told me how guilty and how much of a failure she was made to feel when I arrived a year after my older sister.

It is not only in the countryside that daughters are unwanted. Middle class, educated women are often at the front of the queue to terminate.

Blessings and curses

What a contrast to the welcome a boy receives. Then the gates of the baby's home will be crowded with screeching Hijaras.

They are eunuchs - castrated men, long haired and unshaven, dressed in bright Salwaar Kameezes or saris. Fierce, aggressive and unrelenting, they wander from home to home searching out new born sons and demanding cash.

"Your good fortune must be shared," they say, "otherwise we will shower you with curses or steal your baby".

Did the doctor really think that I would terminate the pregnancy if I was told a girl was on the way?

Theirs is a flourishing trade, profiting from deep rooted superstitions. The eunuchs' blessings and curses can be equally potent, so neighbours advise you to pay them off handsomely.

But we will not know the sex of our child until it is born. It is illegal for doctors to divulge the information because of the widespread termination of female fetuses.

We suggested to the charming middle-aged doctor that as foreigners surely that rule need not apply to us - he had already told other friends who are both white, the sex of their baby.

But the doctor smiled and shook his head. "Bad timing," he said, "I couldn't possibly - a colleague of mine has just been locked up and paraded in front of the local press for revealing the sex of a baby".

I am of Indian descent but my husband is a blonde, blue-eyed and fiercely proud Scotsman. He was gob-smacked. I felt deflated - did the doctor really think that I would terminate the pregnancy if I was told a girl was on the way?

Navdip Dhariwal
Navdip does not know the sex of her unborn baby

We could not know our baby's sex but we reassured each other that at least the scan showed it was healthy.

If all goes well, we will greet our new arrival at the end of August.

When we take him or her home from hospital, the baby will have its first glimpse of Delhi life.

Blaring car horns, loud belching exhaust fumes, the electronic beats of Bollywood tracks - all competing for attention in the kaleidoscope of sound that fills the air.

And the smells too, the foul stench across the highway from the Yamuna river: an exotic blend of poisonous sewage and household waste.

Along these banks sit small children who squat, wash and drink from the river. Their homes are in the filthy shanty towns that line the road the three of us will take home.

Dressed in rags, they will come scrambling towards our car and peer through the windows to stare at the child born into privilege. One grubby hand outstretched, the other motioning to a hungry mouth, they will beg for a share in our good fortune.

This is the world you came into, I will tell our child when he or she is old enough: a country on the cusp of incredible change. Full of contrast, contradiction and sometimes abject horror.

It is the home of your maternal ancestors, I will say, and just as my mother raised me with stories of a past that helped shape and direct me - I plan to do the same with you.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 29 June, 2006 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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