Published: March 7, 2013
USILAMPATTI, INDIA — Back in the 1980s, this rural patch of the southern state of Tamil Nadu had the dubious distinction of the worst reputation for “gendercide,” or murder of unwanted baby girls, in India.
There were no official statistics, of course. Just as no one keeps a tally of how middle-class Indians today use scans to determine a baby’s sex and whether to abort a female fetus, the child deaths in the Usilampatti region, home to about 85,000 people, were whispered about, not totaled.
Often, births were unregistered, conducted by a village midwife who would then also kill unwanted girls. This was done quite openly — and prompted Valli Annamalai, head of the Mother and Child Welfare Project, an initiative of the Tamil Nadu state branch of the nongovernmental Indian Council for Child Welfare, to act.
She started by trying to grasp the size of the problem. Council statistics suggest that, in 1990, there were as many as 200 unaccounted-for infant deaths, all of girls, in this region.
“Girls were considered a burden and a liability in these parts,” she recalled during a recent visit to a council center in the village of Pannaipatti. Raising economic prospects “was the only way to stop the mindless violence and discrimination.”
One way to improve women’s lot, she said, was to care for infants and thus allow mothers to return to their work — mostly toil in the fields of this spottily fertile region, where women have been second-class for centuries.
The Pannaipatti center — a bare room with dog-eared posters of fruits, letters and numbers hanging from the ceiling, — is one of three run in the area since 1988. At one point, there were 14 centers with more than 350 children, but when the government started to provide more child care, Ms. Annamalai diverted attention to other projects.
At Pannaipatti, as the midday sun beat down on a recent day, 22 children 1 to 3 years old were in the care of a teacher and a trained assistant, who work 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. six days a week, playing, singing, telling stories and ensuring that children eat a lunch of sprouted green gram, lentils and rice. Mothers, most of whom work in the fields from dawn, arrive about 3 p.m. to collect the children and chat.
Ms. Annamalai, now 62, recalled the long slog to win trust. “It took a year to break the ice,” she said. Getting direct access to young mothers through child care centers helped the council to understand their problems, she said.
A first daughter was usually allowed to live, said P. Pramil Kumar, 48, a council worker in Usilampatti. But subsequent girls were under threat, so “we would register every pregnant woman and monitor their second and third pregnancies, as these were deemed high-risk.”
In 1991, while counseling parents to keep their daughters, the council opened a center where babies could be dropped off in a special cradle. A total of 146 babies — all girls — arrived from 1991 to 1999.
Medical staff members had to be on hand, for babies often arrived with infections from crudely cut umbilical cords and needed monitoring or even hospitalization in the nearby city of Madurai.
In 1994, after failing to save one baby girl, the council started to recruit volunteers from Usilampatti’s 309 hamlets. “We realized that we couldn’t be everywhere,” said R. Ramraj, the council’s rural development officer in Usilampatti. “We had to create not just awareness, but allies too amidst the villagers.”
After just a month, a group in the village of Lingappanayaganur, tipped off council staff members in good time. “Not only did we prevent the murder,” Ms. Ramraj said, “we also got the family to sign the adoption papers.”
Rathinam, then a 22-year-old field laborer in the hamlet of Kaluthu, recalls the first baby girl she saved, early one Sunday 17 years ago. Rathinam, who like many women here uses only one name, arrived as a village family prepared to feed its newborn girl poisonous milk of oleander. With two other volunteers, Rathinam persuaded the midwife who had delivered the baby to hand her over.
“We took the baby, 10 minutes after birth, still caked in blood and with the umbilical cord wrapped around her, and fled,” Rathinam recalled.
En route to a council center, the three rescuers purchased sugary milk at a roadside tea stall. “What an appetite that little one had,” Rathinam said. “The way she drank the milk with such gusto, it struck me she would have drunk poison in much the same way.”
Outside a thatched hut near the Pannaipatti center, Mockapillai, 47, a construction worker with one daughter and two granddaughters, summed up the changes of 20 years: “There is no more infanticide in these parts. We used to think that if we kill a female baby, we would cry only for a day, but if the baby were to survive, we would cry all our lives. But now, with so many women and girls educated, working and earning well, our attitude has completely changed.”
Today, there are 300 self-help groups in Usilampatti with 20 to 25 members each. Now, they provide microloans, or lobby government for street lights and water.
“Earlier, we couldn’t even handle five rupees , but now we manage over a lakh of rupees in savings with ease,” giggled P. Arul Jyothi, 43, of Meyanampatti village, discussing an increase from 10 cents to about $2,000. She was married as a teenager, but after eight stillborn children, her husband abandoned her. “I was bedridden for years, depressed and alone,” she said. Joining and now leading her group, she said, “was like being given a new purpose.” She has taken and repaid loans five times, investing in home businesses like selling incense or firewood.
Women now command respect in a still patriarchal area. “My teenaged son approaches me and not his father if he needs money for books or school,” said Bharathi, 40, of Poochipatti, who joined a self-help group in 1998. “I make the decisions for my family now and no one lays a finger on me anymore.”
Kalaiselvi Pethusamy, 45, of Rengasamipatti village, joined her village’s group in 2005. At the time, she owned a small parcel of good agricultural land, but had very little skill or knowledge. Over three years, the council trained her in cattle rearing, soil testing, horticulture and floriculture, then sent her for a week to observe a successful poultry and cattle farm in another part of Tamil Nadu.
Most important, she saw how to irrigate barren, drought-prone land that had helped keep the Kallar people, the main inhabitants of Usilampatti, in poverty for centuries.
Her self-help group helped Kalaiselvi get a loan of 50,000 rupees (about $1000) from a bank. She invested in five goats and today owns 20. Her farm has expanded from one to seven acres; she is repaying the last of her latest 150,000 rupee loan. She sells cow and goat milk and rears poultry. A local radio station invited her to talk of her success.
Ms. Annamalai said that since 2001, no baby has been reported killed or abandoned in the region.
Levimatteo Mathews, who heads an Italian aid association that has been the biggest single donor to the council in Tamil Nadu, said the project had worked “because of its personal touch and its holistic approach” to mother and child needs. Since 1993, more than 1,000 girls from this region have completed high school with sponsorship.
His group most recently gave furniture for the new community college in Usilampatti, reflecting a shift in focus from babies to adolescents. Last year, 16 young girls trained as hospital nurses, and 19 graduated in garment stitching and design.
By contrast, boys as young as 14 have problems with alcohol and drugs. “Perhaps,” Ms. Kumar told Ms. Annamalai, “it’s time to focus on the boys now.”