Bias against girl child: Science must speak loudly

The foolish notion that that women are responsible for determining the sex of the baby must be clearly dispelled by science education in schools and popular media.
Illustration: Soumyadip Sinha
Illustration: Soumyadip Sinha

It was recently reported that a woman in Mahoba, Uttar Pradesh was physically assaulted by her in-laws for giving birth to two girl children. While victimising mothers giving birth to daughters is sadly not uncommon, this case prominently made news because a police case was registered on the woman’s complaint and a video recording was available of the shocking public assault by two women relatives. The assaulted woman has been hospitalised.

Gender preference, in favour of a male child, has long been a blight of many families. Idolisation of a male child as the inheritor of the family name and tradition, besides property, has led to this preference becoming an obsession. Belief that a son will become a trusted caregiver to parents when they grow old, while the daughter marries and moves to another family, reinforces the yearning for a son. Such ingrained gender preference, when taken to the extreme, has led to evils such as female foeticide and infanticide.

While all such forms of gender bias must be countered and curbed, in an era where loving nurture and education of the girl child are seen as both social and ethical imperatives, the foolish notion that that women are responsible for determining the sex of the baby must be clearly dispelled by science education in schools and popular media. While ignorance is no excuse for cruelty, lack of knowledge on the biological mechanisms that result in a girl or boy baby is the cauldron in which prejudice boils and spills over to burn the innocent mother.

A baby’s sex is determined by the sex chromosome contained in the father’s sperm that fertilises the mother’s egg. Women’s sex chromosomes have no role to play in determining the sex of the child they conceive with their male partner. Women have two X chromosomes, while men have an X and a Y chromosome. The mother’s ovum will, therefore, only carry an X chromosome. The father’s sperm carries either an X or a Y chromosome. When a sperm carrying the X chromosome fertilises the mother’s ovum which invariably carries an X chromosome, the resultant XX combination leads to a girl baby. If a sperm containing the Y chromosome wins the race to fertilise the other’s ovum, the XY combination will lead to a male child.

Science also informs that ‘chance’ determines which sperm succeeds in fertilising the egg and whether an XX combination will result or an XY pattern will manifest in the baby. It is like flipping a coin, with a 50% chance of heads or tails turning up. Each time you flip a coin, it is the same. This is because each flip of coin is an independent trial with a play of chance, with the previous outcomes having no influence on the present trial. This applies to the union of the egg and the sperm too. A sequence of daughters is entirely due to chance.

Should the father then be held responsible? If it is his sex chromosome that casts the deciding vote on whether the baby will be a boy or a girl, should his wife pin the ‘blame’ on the man? Since it is chance that determines which sperm (X or Y transporter) fertilises the ovum, the father has neither a clue nor an ability to determine the sex of the child. It would be as unfair to malign the father as it is to slander and shame the mother.

Why should there be finger-pointing at either parent, if the baby is a girl? Parents should find joy in a child, whether boy or girl. If parents who have more than one girl child wish to experience the distinctive pleasures and challenges of bringing up a boy, they can adopt a boy baby. Many families with only girl children have experienced the joy of seeing their daughters grow into accomplished and supportive adults.

Feroz Abbas Khan produced an excellent short video film, which elegantly presents the science of sex chromosomes. This engagingly enacted courtroom drama features a wife who litigates against her husband, holding him responsible for not giving her a boy baby. This is in retaliation to the criticism directed at her. There is no hostility between the husband and wife, merely a debate on how and by whom the sex of a child is determined. A doctor, testifying as an expert witness, clearly explains the science around X and Y chromosomes. The husband admits that he is now better informed, the wise judge urges reconciliation and the vindicated wife happily accepts her spouse’s apology.

The short film may be viewed here.

While this film powerfully and pleasingly conveys its social message and supports the wife, there is an undertone that suggests that someone (in this case, the husband) has to be held responsible for the sex of a girl baby. The birth of any child has to be celebrated, without debates on who is responsible (or to be blamed) for a girl child. I hope that the Population Foundation of India, which commissioned and distributed this educational courtroom drama, will further proceed to produce films which celebrate child birth of boy or girl, while clarifying that chance is the key determinant and not either parent. It is also the bounden duty of central and state governments to promote scientific literacy among the public—to dispel ignorance that foments and feeds social evils.

President, PHFI, and Chairperson, Population Foundation of India

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