Mumbai (AsiaNews) The figure of ten million missing baby girls in India that the medical journal Lancet revealed yesterday has put the status of women in India back front and centre in the public debate. Selective abortion is but the tip of the iceberg of a situation that includes forced marriage, sexual exploitation, humiliation and suicide due to high dowry costs. Irrespective of social class and economic status or religion Indian women remain vulnerable in a society that still divides human beings between touchables and untouchables and the Catholic Church has found itself hard pressed to do so something against such deeply rooted cultural and historic inequalities.
In the past, some nomadic tribes forced women into sexual slavery, including polyandry. In some areas of Punjab, women were forced to marry all the men of a family to retain agricultural lands within the kin group.
Today, selective abortion and amniocentesis to determine a foetus' sex is just a more "civilised" way to perform female infanticide, a custom that was still regularly practiced 20 years ago in India, from the North to the South. Usually, the victims were either choked to death, forced to ingurgitate vast quantities of opium or (especially in southern India) suffocated by forcing rice into the mouth.
India banned sex determination and selective abortion in 1994 but amniocentesis remains popular among women of all social classes. Many hospitals and clinics carry it out in secret, but for every facility uncovered by the authorities, ten or more get away scot-free.
The net result is an abnormally skewed male-female sex ratio in places like the northern states of Haryana and Punjab where daughters continue to be seen as a burden to and a stigma on the family.
In the south, daughters instead represent above all a financial burden on families because of the high cost of dowries, which often run into the millions of rupees.
In Kerala the issue affects the local Christian community as well. Many young women end up taking their own lives because their parents cannot afford to pay their dowries. The state has in fact the highest rate of suicide among teen-age girls and women.
Many other young women opt instead for an out-of-state marriage, far from their religious community, so as to avoid dowries altogether.
Whatever their denominations, Christian Churches have so far failed to contain the problem and are often seen by many women as defenders of men's privileges.
In many quarters, demands have been made for the Church to take a more decisive stand in favour of Indian women, not only in opposing abortion but also in actively campaigning against the dowry system and male-only land property rights.
Anger is growing among women, brewing just below the surface to the point that it might spark protests. However, too often women are still culturally unprepared to oppose their oppression and take their place as effective social agents in society.