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Female feticide is blasphemy

May 2006
Female feticide is blasphemy

Female feticide is blasphemy, says activist

Renowned activist Swami Agnivesh is trying to curb the rampant but reprehensible practice by changing people's mindset

A recent study about the sex ratio in India revealed alarming details about prenatal sex determination and selective abortion of female fetuses. The study was originally published in the medial journal, Lancet, and has been widely reprinted around the world since. Even at a conservative estimate, it found that selective infanticide was responsible for about 500,000 missing female births each year.

For at least one man in India, the study was simply validation of what he already knew and has been working to abolish. That man, well know activist and religious leader, is Swami Agnivesh. On November 12, 2005, he held a massive gathering in Chandigarh against female feticide. The gathering was part of an ongoing campaign that began as a yatra (march) on Nov. 1 in Tankara, Gujarat and ended three days later in Amritsar, Punjab.

Born Vepa Shyam Rao, Agnivesh gave up his family's religion – orthodox Hinduism – to join the reformist Arya Samaj movement in the 1960s. A few years later he gave up his worldly possessions and assumed the title, Swami Agnivesh.

Since then – except for a short stint in politics – he has immersed himself in confronting issues affecting those most vulnerable in Indian society, from bonded labor to gender inequality, through peaceful means. He believes the turbulence the world sees is primarily because of injustice. "Peace is not possible without justice. Justice should be the focus?," Agnivesh says. "If you can bring about a greater degree of justice, then only there will be real peace."

He spoke to Khabar during a visit to Atlanta last year and describes himself as a "socio-spiritual activist." "In order to meditate on God, one only needs to imbibe the values of truth, love, compassion and justice in his or her life and address those forces which are of untruth, tyranny, unfreedom, violence and hatred, and injustice," Agnivesh says. "It is a proactive spirituality which helps us to relate to our Creator."

Agnivesh thinks female feticide is an issue of alarming proportions and he feels vindicated by the Lancet study and others that have pointed to the problem in India.

"Increasing number of well-to-do people – I am not talking about poor and uneducated, but educated and well-off people – are resorting to sex-determination tests, which is illegal," Agnivesh says. "But there are ways and means of doing it, skirting the law and then finding out the gender of the fetus. The next step is if it happens to be a female child, then they abort."

He believes that female infanticide is as much a spiritual problem as a social one. So he decided to involve members of all faiths in his campaign. "God doesn't discriminate between a girl-child and boy-child?God is compassionate toward both of them. So let us not defame our God," he says. "If we are resorting to manipulating the sex ratio that means we are being blasphemous in the true sense of the term."

For women to be treated with the same dignity as men, religious leaders need to establish some "non-negotiables." "Perfect equality of genders and equal dignity for both men and women is non-negotiable," Agnivesh says.

That would be a start in achieving what Agnivesh calls "gender balance." More needs to be done, however, before true equality is achieved. Other issues need to be raised including dowry and bride burning. Women should have reserved seats in both the Parliament and state legislatures, he says. And why stop at politics? "In 2,000 years why hasn't a single woman been made a Pope? Why is there not a single woman a Dalai Lama for the last 2,500 years among the Buddhists? Why is a single Shankaracharya not a woman? And why is a woman not allowed to be an Imam in the mosque? "There should be equality in matters of religion, in matters of economics, business, trade, politics, everything, in every walk of life," Agnivesh says.

It is the duty of leaders like him to confront the truth, rather than side with the establishment and those in power, he says. Many of today's social, economic and political problems have taken root because of a lack of conviction and truthfulness on the part of religious leaders. "I blame the politicians, I blame the economists, but I blame religious leaders the most," he says. "We have no courage to speak the truth. So how can we expect others to stand up for truth?" All the great spiritual and religious leaders that went before, he says, stood for equality and justice.

"So we owe it to ourselves, to our great religions, to our commitment to our Creator and God that we should have the courage to speak the truth," Agnivesh says. "That is the most challenging task today. Religious leaders should participate in social transformation rather than performing mindless rituals."


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