‘Children Are Precious, but Sons Are Essential’
With a population of over 850 million and a birthrate of 31 per 1,000, India sees some 26 million new babies born each year, equivalent to the population of Canada. It is not surprising that one of the most urgent government projects is to control the rapid expansion of its population. How successful is it? What are some of the obstacles it faces?
“BEFORE 20, No! After 30, Definitely Not! Only Two Children—Good!” is the advice given by one of the colorful posters that line the hallway to family planning headquarters in Bombay, India. Another portrays a harried mother surrounded by five children. It warns: “Don’t Regret Later!” The message comes through loud and clear: Two children per family is enough. But getting people to accept and act on the government’s two-children-per-family recommendation is not easy.
“The Hindus consider a man happy in proportion to the number of children he possesses. Among them, indeed, children are considered to be the blessing of a house. However numerous a man’s family may be, he never ceases to offer prayers for its increase,” says the book Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies. From a religious standpoint, however, it is the male child that is of greater value to the patriarch of the household. “There is no misfortune equal to that of not leaving a son or a grandson behind to perform the last duties in connexion with his funeral,” the book goes on to explain. “Such a deprivation is regarded as capable of preventing all access to an Abode of Bliss after death.”
Sons are also needed to carry on the rite of ancestral worship, or sraddha. “At least one son was almost essential,” writes A. L. Basham in The Wonder That Was India. “The intense family feeling of Hindu India enhanced the desire for sons, without whom the line would disappear.”
Along with religious beliefs, a cultural factor influencing the desire for sons is India’s traditional joint, or extended, family arrangement, whereby married sons continue to live with their parents. “Daughters marry and go to live in the homes of their in-laws, but sons remain at home with their parents; and the parents expect their sons to look after them in their old age,” explains Dr. Lalita S. Chopra of the Bombay Municipal Corporation Health and Family Welfare Division. “This is their security. Parents feel safe with two sons. Logically then, if a couple has reached the suggested two-child limit and both children are girls, there is a good possibility that they will keep trying for a son.”
Though in theory all children are viewed as God-given, the realities of day-to-day life dictate otherwise. “Medical neglect of girls is evident,” reports Indian Express. “Their survival is not considered really important to the survival of the family.” The report cites a survey in Bombay that reveals that out of 8,000 fetuses aborted following sex-determination tests, 7,999 were female.
An Uphill Struggle
“In a family, it is the male who generally decides how many children to have and how large the family will be,” explains Dr. S. S. Sabnis, executive health officer of Bombay Municipal Corporation, in an interview. Even if a woman would like to space her children or limit her family, she is under pressure from her husband who may be against it. “This is why we’re sending male-female teams to each home in the slums in hopes that the male health worker will be able to speak to the father of the home and encourage limiting the size of the family, helping him to see that he can give better care to fewer children.” But as we have seen, the obstacles are many.
“Among the poorer people, the infant mortality rate is high due to poor living conditions,” Dr. Sabnis says. “So there is definitely a desire to have many children, knowing that some will die.” But little is done to care for the children. They wander unattended, begging or perhaps picking through garbage for food. And the parents? “They do not know where their children are,” Dr. Sabnis laments.
Advertisements in India often portray a happy, prosperous-looking couple enjoying life with their two children, usually a boy and a girl, who are clearly well cared for. It is in this segment of society—the middle class—that the two-child concept is generally well accepted. But it is far removed from the minds of the poor, who reason, ‘If our parents or grandparents had 10 or 12 children, why can’t we? Why should we be limited to two?’ It is here among India’s impoverished majority that the war on population control is facing an uphill fight. “The population is young now and of childbearing age,” reflects Dr. Chopra. “It appears to be a losing battle. We have a tremendous work ahead of us.”