Ganga Devi Gautam from Tatopani in the north-western district of Jumla gave birth to four children, hoping one of them would be a son. Her family was unhappy that Gautam had not had a son—until she finally gave birth to one in her fifth attempt. When that happened, her family and neighbors, accompanied by a band, reached the hospital to celebrate the occasion. They also organized an abir jatra (a colorful procession) and a communal meal. Gautam’s family members started treating her better.
When word spread that Laxmi Raut from Thantikandh, a rural municipality in Dailekh, gave birth to a son, her family and relatives also went to the health center with a band. They also celebrated the occasion by doing an abir jatra, to the surprise of the health center’s staff.
These two are representative examples of gender discrimination. In Karnali Province (where both Jumla and Dailekh fall), girls are discriminated against right from the womb. Family and relatives do not celebrate the birth of a girl because of the entrenched belief that while a son takes care of the parents in old age, a daughter leaves home after marriage.
As a result, most couples face societal pressure to have a son, and women keep producing babies hoping they would finally give birth to a male child. Meanwhile, having so many babies wrecks women’s health.
Pushe Nepali, 65, from Tila rural municipality in Jumla got married when he was just 14. His wife gave birth to 11 daughters in the hope of having a son. Because of the dire financial situation of the household, it was difficult to raise 11 daughters, three of whom died. Says Pushe, “I wanted a son but ended up with many daughters. I regret it now.”
Because she did not give birth to a son, Jhan Maya Rokaya from Kanakasundari rural municipality in Jumla was thrown out of her house by her husband, who faced family pressure to do so. The Rokayas have six daughters together. Jhan Maya’s case is not atypical; most women in Karnali have to endure domestic violence if they do not give birth to a son.
Also on the rise in recent years are cases of female feticide, which is common even among educated folks. Latest statistics show that female birth rates have gone down in the provincial capital of Birendranagar. Local and provincial governments have introduced various schemes to check the trend. To encourage couples to have daughters, the provincial government has started opening a bank account in the name of all girls born in Karnali Province and depositing Rs 500 every month in their account for 20 years.
Khandachakra municipality in Kalikot, another district in the province, has started handing over a cash gift to couples who give birth to a daughter. Says municipality chief, Jasi Prasad Pandey, “We are facing the problem of a skewed sex ratio, so we have had to provide incentives for couples to have daughters. Any couple in the municipality giving birth to two daughters at most and undergoing sterilization will be given Rs one lakh in cash.”