The state of Haryana is leading the fight against useless – and potentially harmful – remedies illegally peddled to pregnant women desperate for a boy
In February, like countless other young Indian women, Meena expected to give birth to a healthy baby. She and her husband were hoping their second child would be a boy. But she had a stillbirth, one of hundreds of thousands that are recorded in the country every year.
Sitting on the floor of her small home in Sampla, a village in Rohtak district in the northern state of Haryana, the 23-year-old said: “The doctor told me the child died in my womb. He said there was no heartbeat. There was no explanation.”
Six months earlier, Meena had taken what are known as sex-selection drugs (SSDs) – traditional remedies that Indian women turn to in their desire to have sons. What many women do not realise is that the sex of a child cannot be changed in the womb, and that they are being scammed.
“I took the drugs because we wanted a male child – because my first baby was female. I vomited a lot after it. I couldn’t digest it,” said Meena, sitting with her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter.
The drugs are typically taken six to 10 weeks after conception: women are sold them through an underground network involving rickshaw drivers and midwives, who connect families to sellers. They are promised a male child if they take the remedies – which come in tablet or powder form – following a strict ritual.
Women are often told to take the drugs in the morning with a glass of cow’s milk while looking at their husband. The drugs are sold for as little as $3 (£2.50) or up to $50, according to locals.
Research has found that the drugs often contain phytoestrogens – compounds from plants that are similar to the hormone oestrogen – in levels beyond that considered safe.
According to a recent study published in the journal Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology, SSDs were found to be a factor in 20% of all stillbirths in Haryana, where the use of such drugs is pervasive.
Research by Dr Sutapa Bandyopadhyay Neogi, a maternal and child health specialist at the Public Health Foundation of India, found that large doses of phytoestrogens are linked to birth defects and developmental disorders in mammals that “could be potentially detrimental to the growth and development of the foetus”.
“In north India there’s a huge preference for a male child but it’s wrong to say that this practice is not happening elsewhere in India,” she said. More research had to be done to determine the drugs’ prevalence across the country, she added. “It’s not just the fact that the drugs are illegal. Women need to know that they are dangerous; that they are potentially harming their baby.”
Neogi and her team are working to educate the public about the dangers through films and newspaper adverts. She, along with the non-profit organisation Apoorva Pande Foundation, has made a short film she hopes will be shown in cinemas across north India.
Sex-selective abortion and female foeticide have given India one of the world’s most skewed sex ratios. According to the most recent census, in 2011, there were 914 girls to every 1,000 boys in India for children up to the age of six, but in Haryana that ratio was 830. According to government officials, the number crossed the 900 mark for the first time last December.
Experts attribute Haryana’s strong preference for boys to the ingrained belief that women are a liability rather than an asset and because of the state’s strong tilt towards men inheriting land.
It is estimated that up to 60% of women who have a female child first take SSDs for their second birth.
“Haryana is infamous for killing its daughters,” said Dr Rakesh Gupta, additional principal secretary to the chief minister of Haryana. “We need to empower the girl child with the idea that girls are equal to boys. We need to create an environment where girls are actually equal, but this is going to take some time.”
Last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government launched its national campaign to address the sex ratio in Haryana with a renewed focus on enforcing laws that forbid sex-selection abortion and diagnostic techniques that are used for female foeticide.
More than 300 complaints have been lodged against medics carrying out illegal ultrasounds since last May. The complaints have resulted in some convictions.
But government officials are quick to acknowledge there is only so much the law can do. Often offenders get bail and are back in business within a few months.
“The demand in society for a male child is so high that even if the laws and acts are implemented, people will find a way,” said Dr Varun Arora, who works at the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences in Rohtak.
Still, officials in Haryana remain adamant that law enforcement, rather than working to change people’s perception of having baby girls, is the way to tackle the issue. The state has set the ambitious target of a sex ratio of 950 girls to 1,000 boys.
“Nothing can be done to change people’s mindset. They are practising century-old rituals. Nobody wants a girl child. The target is to save as many as possible,” Arora added.
Back in Sampla, Meena is unsure whether she will try for another boy but is resolute that the SSDs could not have caused any ill effects. “No, it’s not at all possible my stillbirth happened from the drugs,” she said.