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Deccan Herald » She » Detailed Story
Where have they all gone?
Photographer and writer Rita Banerji has begun an online campaign '50 Million Missing' through which she hopes to raise public awareness about the high mortality rate of women and girls in India and force the Indian government to act, says Colin Todhunter

Did you know that there are some 50 million missing persons in India? Who are they and where did they go? Many of them are girls, women and foetuses, and they were murdered, aborted or died through neglect. More specifically, they died as a result of female foeticide, female infanticide, dowry murders, the high mortality rate of girls under the age five due to deliberate neglect and a very high maternal mortality rate.

It has never ceased to surprise me that so little media attention in India is given to what is essentially a major human rights issue. This may be about to change, however, if Rita Banerji has her way. Through the online '50 Million Missing' campaign, she hopes to raise public awareness of the issue and move the Indian government to act.

Banerji says, "In an article in the Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics in September 2002, it is estimated that between two to five million female foetuses are aborted in India each year. Women in this country are lucky to escape being killed at almost every stage of their life; as a foetus, as an infant, as a little girl, as a bride and even as a widow."

The campaign began in December 2006 on the image hosting and community platform website Flickr. Banerji, a writer and photographer from Kolkata, says the ‘50 Million Missing’ campaign now has a photo pool of close to 10,000 pictures of Indian women and girls as a powerful visual reminder of the fact that millions of faces like these have been deliberately eliminated.

People who contribute to the 50 Million Missing campaign are photographers, amateurs and professionals, tourists, people from NGOs and those sharing family pictures. People who don't have any photos to share but still want to join the group are also encouraged to join, as there are many ways to participate.

Banerji opted to use Flickr as the focal point because visual imagery is a powerful tool and information and images placed on the Internet have a certain permanency and international reach. The campaign aims to increase national and international awareness of the issue and to make information available to the public about the various factors involved in this mass elimination. It has started a petition online to urge the Indian government to take rapid and urgent action, and to make its own laws effective.

Dowry murders

Some of the discussions covered so far on the site include dowry murders, abandoned widows in Vrindavan and Benaras, female foeticide, the exceptionally high mortality rates (40 per cent higher than boys of the same age) of girls under age five and female infanticide. Banerji wants the campaign to shed light on the fact that the very high maternal mortality rate means that one woman dies every five minutes; this is the highest MMR in the world and is largely due to the fact that 70 per cent of females married and reproducing in India are under the age of 17. She also wants to draw attention to the fact that women are repeatedly forced to undergo abortions in order to get that much-prized male child, and their bodies just can't take it.

The legalisation of abortion in India in 1972 may be a major cause of the current situation. Its legalisation was a very smooth process and did not involve the women's rights groups as it has in the US and Europe. In fact from the title of the Act 'The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1972', it is pretty obvious that there was a medical lobby behind it, she claims.

Banerji says, "One of the main reasons given by the government for this Act was 'population control'. That is strange: why would people choose abortion instead of contraception, which is much easier and economical if they wanted to limit families? My argument is that what the government knew from the start is that people would use sex-selected abortion to exclusively abort female foetuses."

Selective abortion

The earliest use of Amniocentesis to determine sex was in the mid 50s (in the US), which means by the late 60s doctors in India were definitely using the technology. 

"They just needed to legalise abortion to practise the selective abortion of females more freely," Banerji argues.
Banerji believes that the overall situation is largely due to a lack of motivation on the part of the government. She says that there are the Pre-conception and Prenatal Diagnostic Test laws which are ignored: "I would think that we would have had thousands of clinics shut down by now and thousands of doctors put on trial.

On the contrary, we now have about two million female foetuses selectively aborted annually. Our law states - 'if a woman dies of dowry death...', How does one die of dowry death? Is it a clinical condition? Why this reluctance to treat homicide as homicide? Whether in-laws and husband kill a woman or parents kill their new-born baby girl - all these acts are homicides."

In 2004, according to CNN-IBN, 58,319 dowry cases were registered. The total number of men arrested was 1,34,757. But only 5,739 men have been convicted, the rest were acquitted. Banerji asserts this state of affairs is a disgraceful failure of law and order.

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