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Socio-Economic and Political Factors Promoting the Continuation of Infanticide in India and Brazil

Socio-Economic and Political Factors Promoting the Continuation of Infanticide in India and Brazil

“Infanticide is the killing of one’s offspring in the first twelve months of life, and is a practice that continues in some cultures today. Indirect (or passive) infanticide, sometimes by way of prolonged nutritional deprivation or dehydration, is a discrete form of infanticide. It has been found in much of China, the Republic of Korea, Hong Kong, India, Pakistan, and some of the Middle East, with females being the usual target in these areas (Miller, et al. 2002:134). In other places, such as the shantytowns of Brazil, indirect infanticide has become “modernized,” and despite a growing economy, infant mortality has risen among the poor (Scheper-Hughes 1992:280). Because of recent technologies, feticide (the killing of a fetus through means such as abortion) has also become a common method of infanticide. In order to understand why indirect infanticide and feticide occur in some cultures to this day, one must look at the regions’ economic, political, and social setting, and how these factors influence (and sometimes promote) the deaths of so many infants. For sake of this paper, the areas covered will be the northern plains region of India and Brazil.

Economic influences can be some of the most impacting causes of heightened levels of infant mortality. For instance, in the Alto do Cruzeiro shantytown in Brazil, the falling of real minimum wages and government expenditures on health, as well as rising food prices, resulted in hunger – nutrition and child health suffering in particular (Scheper-Hughes 1992:284). While Brazil’s overall economy has grown, and the country’s child mortality rate declined by 50 percent between 1940 and 1970, infant and child mortality grew in this area (Scheper-Hughes 1992:280). Nancy Scheper-Hughes discovered the potential to save many infants and toddlers from unnecessary death from such causes as dehydration and diarrhea (using a “simple sugar, salt, and water solution” or even Coca-Cola), but found it “more difficult to enlist mothers themselves in the rescue of a child they perceived as ill-fated for life or as better off dead” (1992:342). Allowing their infants to die, despite the possibility of saving them by such simple means, is certainly a form of passive infanticide. How do these women accept the deaths of their children as so natural? Coining the term “mortal neglect,” Nancy Scheper-Hughes claims it to be attributable to their ability to cope with such a high level of infant mortality (1992:342). In the Alto do Cruzeiro, a pattern emerges: Children are either born “already wanting to die,” or as “keepers” (strong, vibrant babies with lusty cries), and mothers stoically accept the predisposition to death that some of their infants have, and even promote it by means of mortal neglect, which results in this naturalization of infanticide (Scheper-Hughes 1992:342).

Brazil’s shantytowns are not the only locales where economic reasons have this kind of influence. In places such as India, female infanticide exists because girl babies are considered to be economic liabilities (Miller 1987:100). Barbara D. Miller states that “Sons bring in dowries with their brides; daughters drain family wealth with their required dowries and the constant flow of gifts to their family of marriage after the wedding” (Miller 1987:100). Female infanticide in India appears to be more prevalent among the upper castes (Gill 1998:204-205; Miller 1987:100). A correlation between castes with traditions of large dowries and higher levels of female infanticide can be drawn (Miller 1987:104-105). In places where female labour is in high demand, dowries are smaller (or else bridewealth is used as an alternative), and female infanticide is less common, as compared to those areas where few females are employed in agriculture, large dowries persist, and female infanticide is a more regular occurrence (Miller 1987:104-105). With the advent of amniocentesis in India’s Punjab, women would use this medical option as a tool to determine the sex of their fetus, and therefore as a determiner of whether or not the child would be aborted (Gill 1998:204). Gurjeet K. Gill makes this clear, claiming that “… in the past the success of producing a baby boy entailed the cost of keeping the unwanted baby girls, [but] they now had the choice of being blessed with a son” (1998:204). While feticide has grown in commonality because of amniocentesis, mortal neglect also continues. Barbara D. Miller illustrates this with a report from a public health physician:

In one village, I went into the house to examine a young girl and I found that she had an advanced case of tuberculosis. I asked the mother why she hadn’t done something sooner about the girl’s condition, because now, at this stage, the treatment would be very expensive. The mother replied, ‘Then let her die, I have another daughter.’ At the time, the two daughters sat nearby listening, one with tears streaming down her face (Miller 1987:95).

Both Brazil’s shantytowns and India’s female infanticide show how economic reasons affect survival rates for infants, be it for reasons of vast poverty or costs associated with large dowries and marriage-related gifts from the daughter’s family. However, one must also look at the local political systems in order to further understand why infanticide continues today.

There are numerous potential reasons why local politics would influence levels of infanticide in a country. In the case of Bom Jesus, the high infant mortality rates have yet to “seize the imagination of political leaders, administrative and civil servants, physicians, and priests or religious officials as an urgent and pressing social problem about which ‘something must be done’” (Scheper-Hughes 1992:272). In other words, it is not necessarily viewed as problematic; it is considered the norm for families stricken with poverty (Scheper-Hughes 1992:272). While mothers may appear indifferent to the deaths of their babies, this point of view is a “pale reflection of the ‘official’ indifference of church and state” (Scheper-Hughes 1992:272). Further, it is extremely difficult to even document the number of child deaths among the shantytowns of Brazil. Not only does the municipality fail to record figures on child mortality in Bom Jesus, they also fail to keep track of the number of infant and child coffins given free to residents (Scheper-Hughes 1992:288). Nancy Scheper-Hughes claims this lack of information to be a demonstration of the “social embarrassment and the bureaucratic indifference” of government toward this “premodern plague” (Scheper-Hughes 1992:288).

In India, the political system is not necessarily a reflection of indifference. In fact, in 1978, North India’s public health programs had the goal of equal health care for everyone by the year 2000 (Miller 1987:96). In this case, it is the individual families that influence the number of female children seen by health care professionals, and as long as daughters are an economic burden, they are less likely to occupy hospital wards (Miller 1987:96). This is made clear by the fact that “the Ludhiana hospital built equal-sized wards for boys and girls . . . [but] the girls’ ward is relatively empty while the boys’ ward is overflowing” (Miller 1987:108). Also in contrast to the Brazilian’s government failure to record infant deaths, some North India hospitals such as Ludhiana (which is located in an area where female mortality is the greatest) carefully recorded these mortalities both in family folders and “Master Registers” (Miller 1987:106). Clearly, despite the government’s attempt at intervention, female infanticide continues in North India. While political influences can be important, social influences are key in discovering why infanticide continues.

One of the primary social dilemmas that plagues the Alto do Cruzeiro is the use of powdered milk (or mingau). In the case of a new infant, the father is expected to provide the new baby with their first supply of “Nestogeno,” a type of mingau fed to newborns that is quite expensive, in order to claim the child as his own (Scheper-Hughes 1992:323). Many women believe their breast milk to be no good, and describe it as “salty, watery, bitter, sour, infected, dirty, and diseased” (Scheper-Hughes 1992:326). They also believed that their own sins could be transferred through their breast milk to their infants, and “took comfort in the belief that an unbaptized baby, if it had never been breast-fed, could go directly to heaven free of stain of original sin passed into the infant through the mother’s breast” (Scheper-Hughes 1992:326). However, a government-sponsored study shows that only 9 percent of breast-fed infants were malnourished, as compared to a staggering 32 percent of bottle (or mingau) fed infants (Scheper-Hughes 1992:316). As socially unacceptable as breastfeeding is, because of the common belief that a mother’s colostrums is “dirty,” birth control use is also looked upon as negative and not to be used. Despite the fact that the pill is available to women of the Alto without prescription for a price that is modest enough to be affordable (even to the poor), it is viewed as an “’unnatural’ form of birth control that adversely affected, as one Alto woman put it, ‘the whole organization of the nervous system’” (Scheper-Hughes 1992:333). Eighty-five percent of people in Bom Jesus are devoutly Catholic, and believe that if God wants them to have a child, they must be willing – to refuse would be going against their faith (Scheper-Hughes 1992:331). When asked what the ideal family size would be, younger women of the Alto felt that 2.6 children was enough, while older Alto women felt that 3.5 was the ideal (Scheper-Hughes 1992:332).

Abortion is regarded with some ambiguity in the Alto do Cruzeiro, with even a local Franciscan nun providing remedies that are intended for “regulating the normal menstrual cycle” – they are not said to have actual abortive properties, but rather as a way to bring on a late period (Scheper-Hughes 1992:333). There were also several others who provided other abortifacient plants, including a doctor (who would only induce periods in women who were fifteen days or less “late”) and several local healing women (Scheper-Hughes 1992:334). It is widely understood among women of the Alto that it is dangerous to use medications in the early stages of pregnancy, and another form of inducing abortion is the overuse of pharmaceuticals (Scheper-Hughes 1992:335). The loss of the child as a result of this overuse is often referred to as an unwanted side effect, and as a whole, women of the Alto “vigorously condemned medically induced abortion” (Scheper-Hughes 1992:335). Alto women’s disapproval for birth control and the use of medically induced abortions would clearly result in more children being born, while their preference for mingau over breast milk contributes to higher levels of malnourishment among infants – all of these things raising the levels of passive infanticide among the poverty-stricken shantytowns.

In India, one of the major social factors behind such high levels of female infanticide and feticide is also an economic one. The belief that girl children are a liability and will serve only to benefit the families they marry into puts them at much higher risk than a male child. As a highly patriarchal society, it has become an acceptable practice to allow one’s daughter to die unnecessarily, or even promote her death through deprivation of nutrition or medical care (Miller 1987:107). Gurjeet K. Gill states that, in the Punjab, a baby boy’s birth would result in large amounts of celebration, especially if it was a first birth (1998:203). However, he claims that, “if a birth was not talked about, it was understood that it was a baby girl” (Gill 1998:203). Barbara D. Miller reinforces this:

The extreme disappointment of a mother who greatly desires a son, but bears a daughter instead, could affect her ability to breastfeed successfully; “bonding” certainly would not be automatically assured between the mother and the child; and the mother’s disappointed in-laws would be far less supportive than if the newborn were a son. (1987:95)

As well as receiving less support from one’s family if the newborn is female, and being faced with the difficulty of providing her with a dowry when she marries, prestigious families may have difficulty finding suitable marriage partners for their kinswomen (Gill 1998:205). Pride, then, becomes a large factor in encouraging female infanticide. Gurjeet K. Gill says it best, “A man took pride in having more sons than daughters because people took pity on those who were not blessed with a son” (1998:206). Sons also carry on the family name and take care of their parents in old age, as well as being allowed to work in the fields (Gill 1998:206). Daughters cannot do this, and are instead taken away to provide labour for their husband’s families (Gill 1998:206). On a more religious note, there are certain ceremonies that a son can perform upon death of their father, which girls are not allowed to do (Miller 1987:100).

As one can see, there are numerous factors that would contribute to the active use of infanticide and feticide in a culture. For sake of this paper, only a few of these reasons were covered, and only in the context of north India and Brazil’s shantytowns. The advent of technology such as amniocentesis in India serves to make it more difficult to study, with the ease and privacy of abortion becoming an issue. In Brazil, on the other hand, the country continues to modernize and grow, with shantytown infant mortality rates also growing “in tandem” with the economy, in some cases (Scheper-Hughes 1992:280). By looking at north India’s and Brazil’s active use of infanticide, one can see that it does not simply exist in one place for one reason – these two regions utilize it for vastly different purposes, and only by examining the economic, political, and social contexts of these areas can we understand why it continues today.” (here for citations)

Written for Anth 220: Cultural and Social Anthropology in 2004. (c) Robbin Shandler.
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