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India Plea: Abandon, Don't Kill Babies


SALEM, India — Don't kill your baby, abandon her.

That is the message officials deliver to parents in this district of southern India.

In a male-dominated society, where millions of poor families live on the edge of survival, female infants are seen as a financial burden and often are killed.

The practice is common throughout India, but even government agencies were taken aback by a survey in this region of Tamil Nadu state last year that found that female infanticide touches one family in two.

In addition to cracking down on parents who kill infants, district officials have installed white-painted cradles outside 116 hospitals and clinics where parents who do not want their babies can leave them.

Mothers come quietly, deposit the infants and walk away without looking back.

"Nobody stops them or asks them questions," said P. A. Ramiah, the administrative head of Salem district.

In November and December, 18 girls were left, ranging in age from a few days to a few weeks, Ramiah said. They will be brought up in a government orphanage in Madras, the state capital 240 miles to the northeast.

Indian girls are often neglected, undernourished, uneducated and married off in their early teens.

But marrying a daughter off means paying a dowry, often more than poor rural families can afford. After having one girl, a woman may kill subsequent female infants. In cities, where tests are available to determine the sex of fetuses, females frequently are aborted.

Families "just kill the newborns and bury them," Ramiah said. "Everybody knows about it, but nobody complains."

The issue is raised often by the press, in Parliament and by social agencies, but authorities have been unable to address it in inaccessible villages.

No national statistics are available and the Salem survey conducted by two social service groups, Adithi and the Community Services Guild, was one of the few organized studies in such remote areas.

Workers questioned 1,250 women in 100 randomly chosen villages about infanticide. In videotaped interviews, 111 women admitted they had killed at least one infant, 547 said infanticide had occurred in their families and 837 said they knew it was common in their villages.

"Even a useless male buffalo calf fetches 100 rupees," or about $3.50, said one woman, whose face was electronically blurred on the tape to protect her identity. "A girl child means nothing but expense."

Publication of the findings in July, 1992, spurred local authorities to announce a crackdown. Fourteen people were arrested in the murders of six infants. Among those arrested were nine men accused of forcing their wives to kill their newborns.

A police inspector, Ayyappagounder Kuppuswamy, said the parents choked their babies with milk mixed with raw grains of rice or gave them the juice of a poisonous herb.

Infanticide is punishable by a maximum prison term of 10 years. Life is the maximum for premeditated murder of an adult.

But social agencies said making infanticide a more serious crime is not the answer.

"The government is treating infanticide as a law-and-order problem. That's wrong. It is a social problem," said Ramasubbu Rajagopalan of the Community Services Guild, which helps village girls in the district.

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