gender bias

Wanted: Pregnant decoys for sting operations to save the girl child

Ignoring societal pressures, a few brave women are helping activists nab doctors who assist in sex selection. Will their numbers increase?

Dr Sarawati Munde took less than five minutes to conduct a sonography and determine the sex of the foetus, recalls Prerana Bhilare of their meeting five years ago. When the doctor wrote “16” on the case papers, Bhilare asked her about her child’s sex. “Can’t you read the paper? It is good news. It is a boy,” came the reply.

Bhilare, pregnant then, was working as a decoy to catch doctors who assist in sex selection. Her testimony helped nail the doctor couple – Dr Saraswati Munde and Dr Sudam Munde – from Parali in Maharashtra’s Beed district. On June 17 this year, a Parali court convicted them to four years imprisonment for running a sex-determination racket. Had it not been for Bhilare, there possibly would have been no case. The couple had strong political connections, including with the family of a deceased senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader. There are now two more cases pending against them related to illegal sex-selective abortions.

Bhilare, 30, still remembers the disturbing sights at the Munde Hospital, especially the sight of the dogs which were allegedly meant to eat the aborted female foetuses. “One woman after me had a female foetus,” said Bhilare. “Dr Sudam Munde told her to get admitted. She said that she has come from a far-off village and could not take a foetus back. He told them not to worry and they would make arrangements.”

Besides the Munde case, Bhilare posed as a decoy in two other cases during her pregnancy in 2010. Due to her testimony and other supporting eyewitnesses, Dr Mohan Farne from Islampur in Sangli was sentenced to two years in jail and Dr Kavita Londhe-Kamble from Karmala in Solapur district to three years in jail.

After facing nerve-wracking cross-examinations, Bhilare is relieved. She is happy that she could use her pregnancy for a cause. The credit for her audacious work also goes to her dear friend Varsha Deshpande, an advocate and founder of the non-governmental organisation Lek Ladki Abhiyan, which works against sex selection and orchestrates the sting operations.

Assisted by law

As per the 2011 Census, Maharashtra has among the country’s lowest child sex ratios, which is defined as the number of females per thousand males in the 0-6 age group. As the start of the century, in 2001, the sex ratio was 913 girls for every 1,000 boys. By  2011, this was down to 883 girls. A series of crackdowns on sonologists and sting operations helped increase the sex ratio at birth steadily in the state.

“There were so many political pressures in this [Mundes] case,” said Deshpande. “We had to ensure that Prerana moved houses, just so that she could be protected... People would come to my house and offer inducements. It was a nightmare. No government agency offered any kind of support in this case.”

Section 24 of the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, 1994 ensures that the court presumes a pregnant woman is compelled by her husband and relatives to undergo sex determination, unless proven otherwise. Section 23(3) of the same law states that a woman who is compelled to undergo sex selection is not liable for punishment under the Act.

“This section helps us actively use decoy women for the purpose of catching doctors red-handed,” said Deshpande, who has conducted 42 sting operations in about two decades. “It protects the decoy women from prosecution.”

For anyone working in the field, finding a decoy to participate in a sting operation is an uphill task. Most expectant mothers refuse to become a decoy due to concerns for their safety or for fear of family’s disapproval.

“The women we mobilise worry where we are taking them,” said Rajan Choudhary, secretary of the Rajasthan-based NGO Shikshit Rozgar Kendra Prabandhak Samiti. “It is difficult to convince the family too. Of 10 women who initially say yes to participate in the sting, finally one may just become ready to actually go through with it.”

Dr Neelam Singh, who runs the NGO Vatsalya in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, echoes Choudhary. She says she has asked many of her patients and friends to become “decoy pregnant women” but “most of them back out. It is very difficult for a NGO to pursue this battle. We can try building the capacities of the government to sustain the campaign”.

Tapping into friends

Usually, in the stings conducted by Deshpande, her large circle of friends (“our large family,” she calls them) come to the rescue and agree to work as decoys. “We have to find someone who is 14 to 22 weeks pregnant. Many times, like in the case of Prerana, if a woman agrees to become a decoy, we start looking for information and conducting sting operations. There are also times when we have information about doctors but have no decoy pregnant women.”

One such friend, a feisty journalist from Satara, contacted Deshpande almost immediately after she realised she was pregnant in 2013. “I did not know I could help catch such doctors when I was pregnant with my first child,” she said on condition of anonymity. “When I realised that I was pregnant for the second time, I immediately contacted Varsha tai and told her that I want to help her conduct these stings.”

The team failed at three stings before they attempted to trap Dr Abhijeet and Sumit Devre from Malegaon. “We asked the rickshaw driver if he knows any doctor who can help us determine the sex of the foetus,” said the 33-year old journalist. “One man took us to this doctor and told us that we should give him money if it was successful.”

The journalist was six months pregnant and had to concoct an elaborate story to convince the doctor (as per Indian law, a woman is not allowed to abort her foetus after the gestation period of 20 weeks). “I was taken to a dark room. The doctor took a few minutes to realise I had a girl. I asked him if he was sure. He said he was 101% sure. After recording this, I had to while away some time in the clinic to wait for the health officials and the police to come. I lay on the sofa pretending to be dizzy.”

The journalist hasn’t mentioned her part in the sting to anyone in her office, nor to her parents and in-laws. “Only my husband knows about this. I vaguely got a hint that someone was trying to get in touch with me for inducement. I am not interested.” Her date to depose before the court is coming up later this month, two years after the sting.

Persistent gender bias

The delay in the trial causes many cases to fail. “We have done 21 sting operations since 2009, but not a single conviction,” lamented Choudhary. “Two of my decoy pregnant women turned hostile in court. The doctors keep giving inducements, whenever they meet them. The women slowly start sympathising with them and call them ‘bechare’, and that they made a mistake one time.”

In 2013, in a public interest litigation filed by Voluntary Health Association of Punjab, the Supreme Court ordered that the cases under the PCPNDT Act should be disposed off within six months. To expedite the process, Choudhary feels the police should record statements before a magistrate under section 164 of the Criminal Procedure Code soon after the sting. This statement will hold value in court, unless proven involuntary.

Choudhary welcomes the Rajasthan government’s recent decision to give a portion of the Rs 2 lakh handed out under the Mukhbir Yojana (the Informer Scheme) to decoy pregnant women. In Maharashtra too, since 2013, the government is supposed to give Rs 5,000 to the decoy woman in each case and Rs 20,000 to the informer. “The money is a small motivation,” Dr Padmaja Keskar, executive health officer of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. “But we have seen that the family refuses to let the pregnant woman participate in these operations.”

In some stings conducted by state health officers, the informants did receive the reward. However, for her stings, Deshpande says she hasn’t “got a single penny. I do not want it either. The defence can easily say that the case is a lie and it was concocted for the money”. More than the rewards, Deshpande feels the state should give protection to the witnesses and provide money for their travel and for the delivery of the decoys.

“I have spent so much money on travelling from Satara to Beed for the Mundes’ case,” said Deshpande. “Many cases fail because the government officials do not turn up or turn hostile. So many times, they turn up in the vehicles of defence lawyers. The system is hostile towards people like us who are trying to save the girl child. It has totally collapsed.” Of her 42 sting operations, she has been successful in getting convictions in 11 cases, while eight have resulted in acquittal.

This deep-seated indifference is what troubled most the journalist who worked as a decoy. She said she faced discrimination in her own family. “In front of the world, people pretend that they love girls and how girls and boys are equal. But, in my own family, I find so many examples of discrimination. My own father did not turn up to see my second daughter when she was born.”

Since the birth of her second girl, lots of people don’t invite her for functions, she said. “I can see the difference. Earlier I would be invited for someone’s baby shower or naming ceremony.”

Deshpande’s firebrand activism has made an impact among these women. “I tell the girls who come to my sewing class not to discriminate between boys and girls,” said Bhilare. “I will bring up my son, Kabir to respect and value women.”

So sickened is the journalist by the discrimination against women that she said she will happily do this again. “If I get pregnant the third time, I will start by nailing the quacks who claim to help produce a male child. Then I will get to the doctors. This will be my contribution to society.”

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