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Religious differences partly explain why ‘missing women’ phenomenon grows in India but has reversed course in neighbouring Bangladesh





Religious differences partly explain why ‘missing women’ phenomenon grows in India but has reversed course in neighbouring Bangladesh

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

By Don Butler, The Ottawa Citizen

OTTAWA — Religion partly explains why the phenomenon of “missing women” is getting worse in India but has reversed course in neighbouring Bangladesh, according to new Canadian-funded research.

Thanks to female-selective abortion, infanticide, neglect and discriminatory access to health and nutrition, child sex ratios in mostly Hindu India have been growing more imbalanced. Among children, there are now 109 boys for every 100 girls, India’s 2011 census found.

Moreover, adverse child sex ratios are spreading beyond the northwestern states and upper landed castes to other parts of India and other castes and social groups.

“We’ve all been quite concerned and mesmerized by this really quite appalling tragedy,” said Naila Kabeer, co-author of a new report for the Ottawa-based International Development Research Centre.

But the story is quite different in Muslim Bangladesh, the report says. There, a culture of strong son preference “appears to be giving way to a growing indifference to the sex of a child.” Consequently, excess mortality among girls under five has virtually disappeared and the overall sex ratio is now balanced.

Kabeer, a professor at London University who will give a public talk on her findings Thursday at 3 p.m. at IDRC’s offices on Kent Street, said there are several reasons why sex ratios in Bangladesh have diverged from those in India.

Improved educational and employment opportunities for women are a big part of the explanation, she said. But differences between the Hindu and Muslim view of women and marriage also play a role.

While both religions view women as subordinate, Hinduism defines women as “ritually inferior, along with the untouchable castes,” said Kabeer. “Women under Islam can at least inherit property. Women under Hinduism cannot.”

But the way in which marriage plays out in the two religions is more important, Kabeer said. Islam considers marriage a contract, with the terms and obligations clearly spelled out. After a divorce, women are entitled to financial support from their husbands.

By contrast, marriage is a sacrament under Hinduism. Divorce is difficult and widows aren’t allowed to remarry. The caste system, which requires women to marry someone of higher status within their own caste, complicates matters. The payment of dowries can impoverish the parents of the bride. All this, said Kabeer, makes daughters an unwanted burden to Hindu families.

Caste doesn’t exist in Bangladesh and though the practice of dowry has emerged in the country, it’s not part of the religion. In many marriages, no dowry is paid and when it is, it’s generally far smaller than in India.

Within the Hindu caste system, the “worst and most discriminatory practices” are found among the upper landed classes, Kabeer said. “They have had the worst sex ratios for many years.”

But as people in lower castes have become more prosperous, she said, “they are actually emulating those sections of the population with the worst practices. We are seeing the spread of dowry, the ban on remarriage, spreading to other castes and parts of India that did not used to practise these things before.”

Though Bangladesh remains much poorer than India, poverty rates and family sizes have been dropping rapidly. The improvements have been driven by an expansion in education and economic opportunities for girls and women.

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