A few years ago, I was visiting a friend who has two daughters, a newborn and a two-year-old. Reflecting on his experience of being a father he said that he felt he loved them so much he could “take a bullet for them”. I wept all the way home. If only I could feel that intensely. And here I am, a man who would love to have a child, wondering how I let this happen.
Some people surmise, “It’s different for men. You don’t have a biological clock.” And that’s pretty much the end of the discussion. As a 52-year-old man, can I know something of the anguish of women who long to have a child? The biological clock is, after all, a reality for women – I could theoretically still have a child if I were 70.
The problem is that “it’s different for men” translates easily into “it’s easier for men” and it’s one small step more to “you can’t understand what it’s like for us!” And from this the debate about not having a child is sequestered firmly into the experience of women: women grieve for the children they longed for and men don’t. Maybe that’s true – I can’t claim to be surrounded by men who talk about this. I think that by and large we don’t.
I am not sure what I am allowed to feel and how that differs from what I actually feel. Do men feel grief over being childless differently from women? If so, how? Does it matter?
Daily encounters remind me of what I don’t have. Just this morning, returning from the local shop, I saw my neighbour standing outside the door of our mansion block. Our building is set back off the road and has a communal garden bordered by hedges. There she stood with her two tiny ones, a little boy and girl gazing curiously at the pearled intricacies of a spider’s web spun across the lower branches of our hedge. I say good morning to their mother and then to them. I crouch down to join their wonder, and agree with their mother that probably the mummy spider was having a rest after her hard work and we should not disturb her. I watch their faces, their cheeks the lustre of rose petals, full of wonder at the spectacle. Adorable.
Shopping isn’t easy either. Politely standing aside for the harassed family of four as they pass, trying to manage the strollers, the shopping and the children’s runaround energy, I feel socially inferior. Despite loving my job and enjoying strong friendships, I feel I am not a real member of society – an unmarried man without children. I can’t participate in the hullabaloo about schools, catchment areas, snotty noses, and playdates. I am outside, looking in.
How do I disentangle these feelings? It’s easy just to distract myself. I think the most accessible layer of feeling is a sense of regret – I remonstrate with myself for the chances I missed and sadness for the people I have hurt. I can’t help but replay moments in my life that I wish could have turned out differently. These are so painful. That evening six years ago when I managed in one short hour to say all the wrong things to the right woman, precisely because she was the right woman. I could not bear to have that which I most wanted. So I destroyed something that I really longed for.
Only a few days later, she met someone else and two years later got married. They have a child now. I really wish I didn’t know that. But I do. A little girl. And I can’t help but wonder what it would be like if that little girl were my little girl. Would she have my eyes? My smile? What is it like to see in a child little mannerisms, a way of doing things, moving, speaking, laughing, playing, that remind us of ourselves? Or of course, she may have the eyes of my loved one. And what a joy that would be, to see in our child’s face, our love; to bring into this world a beautiful child that was of us – a child that would grow into her own person but growing out of who we are.
So another part of my sadness is born out of absence – fearing that I will never feel those exquisite joys; that I will never hear my son or my little girl call me dad. How sweet it would be to hear that word from the mouth of my little girl or my small son. To see them take first steps, to comfort them when they cry, to tuck them in before sleep and read them stories. To kiss them goodnight and be with them when the world seems too much. It could still happen. But it feels less likely with each passing year. And just because theoretically I still could doesn’t mean I don’t feel the loss of all those could-have-beens. Also, with the passing of the years, would I now have the energy if it were to happen?
And what of those parents who might answer me and say, “this guy is clueless. Does he have any idea of how hard it is to be a parent?” No. I don’t. I don’t know what it’s like to be short of sleep for a decade. To be exhausted and overwhelmed and have no time for myself. To feel mind numb after reading the same story for the 20th time. No, I don’t understand these things. But I do know what it is like to feel incomplete. To be fit for a purpose that I cannot fulfil. I will probably never know if I could bear the exhaustion and sacrifice that being a father would require but I long to try, precisely because that is the only way I can express something essential about who I am. It is not simply that I would like to be a father. I feel I am made to be a father. And because I don’t have a child, and it saddens me very much to admit this, in some ways I don’t feel fully like a man.
Sometimes, however, I get invited into the club. Four-year-old Archie arrived with his mother, Maggie, for a gathering of friends yesterday. Of course, he didn’t so much arrive as explode through the door. “I’m here!” he shouted as he ran into the hallway. While we adults exchanged smiles, Archie pulled out a dozen assorted soft toys, including a penguin, a lion, a giraffe and a hippopotamus, and left them strewn around the living room floor where he set up camp – a play base from which to launch sorties of boy energy into the kitchen.
Under his arm, too large and perhaps too fierce for any bag, is a pink Tyrannosaurus rex. The first chance I got, I served up food and went to play with him. Once we agreed that Captain America really was the best superhero, we were firm friends for the day, and Lego building and soft toy wars could ensue. Later, as we walked to the local cafe for tea and cake, he took my hand. For so many parents, this must be commonplace – to feel a small hand neatly clasped around the fingers of an adult – but for me it was special. His mother and I swung him, one, two, three, and up he went, until our arms were tired. An afternoon replete with the small joys of spending time with a little boy as he negotiates his way through the world.
And then they go home.
The best way to cope with miscarriage is for men and women to talk – to their partners, to their friends, to a counsellor. After a rich, successful man like Mark Zuckerberg publicly shared his grief about his wife’s miscarriages, it may make it easier for more men to finally open up about their own feelings of loss. There is nothing unnatural about grieving for the loss of your unborn child.
Jo Farrell’s most recent photography project began, by chance, in the back of a cab. Her career-long interest is in documenting disappearing cultural practices, and in 2005 she got chatting to a Shanghai taxi driver about foot binding. “He mentioned that his grandmother had bound feet,” Farrell recalls. “Most people told me that it was such an old tradition, there were no women left. I went to the village of the cab driver’s grandmother, in the Shandong province, and met Zang Yun Ying. She became the first woman in my project.”
What followed was a nine-year journey across China, tracking down the last survivors of foot binding. She found just 50 women. Five of them were still completely bound and in hiding, but most had released their binds. All were from impoverished villages in the provinces of Yunnan and Shandong. The oldest, Zhang Yun Ying, was 103. Farrell’s photobook Living History: Bound Feet Women of China, contains close-up portraits of the severe deformity they suffered.
Foot binding was outlawed in China 103 years ago, following almost 10 decades of the practice. But the last factory producing “lotus shoes” – the triangular embroidered platforms used to showcase the women’s minuscule pointy feet – closed just six years ago.
After foot binding was banned it became taboo, and in 1950 Chairman Mao ordered anti foot-binding inspectors to publicly shame any bound women they found. “It was considered an old tradition that did not reflect modern China and should be stopped,” Farrell tells me from her flat in Hong Kong. “Their binding would be hung in windows so that people would laugh at them.”
Most women were bound at the age of seven. “The first year is particularly excruciating because the girls were made to walk until their toes would break under their weight,” says Farrell. “After that, the toes became numb and now, 50 or 60 years later, they don’t have any pain in their feet. It’s all quite numb.”
Farrell insists her photo series isn’t meant to sensationalise, but to educate us about a little-known custom. She admits she was surprised by her own reaction to seeing bound feet close up. “The first time I met Zang Yun Ying and held her foot in my hand it was just incredible – so soft and so incredibly formed.”
In spite of the brutality the project lays bare, its message is one of hope, survival and grit. “In Chinese society, it was the only way forward for women,” says Farrell. “They did it because they thought it would give them a better future, a better life.”
Sexual predators in the police are abusing their power to target victims of crime they are supposed to be helping, as well as fellow officers and female staff, the Guardian can reveal.
An investigation into the scale and extent of the problem suggests sexual misconduct could be more widespread than previously believed.
The situation raises questions about the efficacy of the police complaints system, the police’s internal whistleblowing procedures, the vetting of officers and a failure to monitor disciplinary offences.
Police officers have been convicted or disciplined for a range of offences from rape and sexual assault to misconduct in public office relating to inappropriate sexual behaviour with vulnerable women they have met on duty. Others are awaiting trial for alleged offences, though many are never charged with a criminal offence and are dealt with via internal disciplinary procedures.
The problem is to a large extent hidden, as no official statistics are kept and few details are released about internal disciplinary action in such cases.
By analysing the data available – including court cases and misconduct proceedings – the Guardian has attempted to document the scale of the corruption for the first time.
In the past four years, there were 56 cases involving police officers and a handful of community support officers who either were found to have abused their position to rape, sexually assault or harass women and young people or were investigated over such allegations.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) and the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) are so concerned they are carrying out a rare joint inquiry into the scale of the problem, which will be published in September, the Guardian can reveal.
Their work was prompted by the case of the Northumbria police constable Stephen Mitchell, 43, who was jailed for life in January 2011 for carrying out sex attacks on vulnerable women, including prostitutes and heroin addicts, while he was on duty.
Despite being the subject of previous disciplinary offences, involving one inappropriate relationship with a woman and the accessing of the force computer to find private details of an individual, Mitchell had not been subjected to extra supervision or dismissed by the force.
Those targeted by the officers are predominantly women, but in some cases are children and young people, many of them vulnerable victims of crime.
The Guardian’s investigation has uncovered evidence of:
• Vetting failures, including a concern that vetting procedures may have been relaxed post-2001 during a surge in police recruitment.
• Concerns over the recording and monitoring of disciplinary offences as officers progress through their career.
• A tendency for women who complain they have been sexually attacked by a policeman not to be believed.
• A pervasive culture of sexism within the police service, which some claim allows abusive behaviour to go unchecked.
Debaleena Dasgupta, a lawyer who has represented women sexually assaulted and raped by police officers, said: “I don’t think any [victims] are quite as damaged as those who are victims of police officers.
“The damage is far deeper because they trusted the police and … believed that the police were supposed to protect them from harm and help catch and punish those who perpetrate it.
“The breach of that trust has an enormous effect: they feel that if they can’t trust a police officer, who can they trust? They lose their confidence in everyone, even those in authority. It is one of the worst crimes that can be committed and when committed by an officer, becomes one of the greatest abuses of power.”
The officers involved come from all ranks within the service: the most senior officer accused of serious sexual harassment was a deputy chief constable, who was subject to 26 complaints by 13 female police staff.
David Ainsworth, deputy chief constable of Wiltshire police, killed himself last year, an inquest heard this month, during an inquiry into his behaviour. He is one of two officers accused of sexual misconduct to have taken their own lives over the past four years.
In one of the worst cases in the past four years, Trevor Gray, a detective sergeant with Nottinghamshire police, broke into the home of a woman he met on a date and raped her while her young child slept in the house.Gray was jailed for eight years in May for rape, attempted rape and sexual assault.
Many of the cases documented involve police officers accessing the police national computer to gain access to the details of vulnerable women and young people in order to bombard them with texts and phone calls and initiate sexual contact.
Deputy Chief Constable Bernard Lawson of Merseyside police, the Acpo lead on counter-corruption, who is working with the IPCC on the joint report, said: “Police officers who abuse their position of trust have an incredibly damaging impact on community confidence in the service.
“There is a determination throughout policing to identify and remove those who betray the reputation of the overwhelming majority of officers.”
In its report on corruption within the police service published last month, the IPCC identified abuse of authority by officers for their own personal gain, including to engage in sexual intercourse with a vulnerable female while on duty, and the misuse of computer systems to access details of vulnerable females, as two of the five key corruption threats to the service.
IPCC figures show that 15% of the 837 corruption cases referred by forces to the watchdog between 2008 and 2011 involved abuse of authority by a police officer, and 9% involved misuse of systems.
Clare Phillipson, director of Wearside Women in Need, who supported some of Mitchell’s victims, said: “What you have here is the untouched tip of an iceberg in terms of sexually questionable behaviour and attitudes. The police service, in my experience, has an incredibly macho culture and women are seen as sexual objects.
“Police officers have a duty to steer away from vulnerable women in distress, some of whom see these police officers as their saviours. It is an abuse of their power to exploit that.”
One area to be examined by the IPCC is whether there might have been vetting failures from 2001 onwards during a massive recruitment drive in the police.
Between 2001 and 2007, the overall strength of the service grew by more than 16,000, with around 2,666 officers recruited each year on average.
Six years ago, a study of vetting within the police service by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary revealed “disturbing” failures that had allowed suspect individuals to join the service. The report, Raising the Standard, exposed more than 40 vetting failures among police officers and support staff. The report concluded: “The potential damage that can be caused by just one failure should not be underestimated.”
The government has promised to pump £1.5m into research exploring how to prevent suicides among those most at risk of taking their own lives.
The pledge comes as ministers unveiled a new suicide prevention strategy that is aiming to cut the suicide rate and provide more support to bereaved families
Funding will be used to look at how suicides can be reduced among people with a history of self-harm.
Researchers will also focus on cutting suicides among children and young people and exploring how and why suicidal people use the internet.
Launching the new strategy to coincide with World Suicide Prevention Day, Care Services Minister Norman Lamb said: “One death to suicide is one too many – we want to make suicide prevention everyone’s business.
“Over the last 10 years there has been real progress in reducing the suicide rate, but it is still the case that someone takes their own life every two hours in England.
“We want to reduce suicides by better supporting those most at risk and providing information for those affected by a loved one’s suicide.”
Around 4,200 people in England took their own lives in 2010 and suicide continues to be a public health issue – especially in the current period of economic uncertainty, the Department of Health said.
The suicide rate is highest amongst men aged between 35-49, while men are three times more likely than women to take their own life, according to statistics.
The new strategy, which is being backed by charity the Samaritans, is the first in more than 10 years.
Under the fresh approach, the government will work with the UK Council for Child Internet Safety to help parents ensure their children are not accessing harmful suicide-related websites.
It will also aim to reduce opportunities for suicide by ensuring prisons and mental health facilities keep people safer.
Improved support for high-risk groups – such as those with mental health problems and people who self-harm – and well as those bereaved or affected by suicide will also be offered.
Chair of the National Suicide Prevention Strategy Advisory Group, Professor Louis Appleby said: “Suicide does not have one cause – many factors combine to produce an individual tragedy.
“Prevention too must be broad – communities, families and front-line services all have a vital role.
“The new strategy will renew the drive to lower the suicide rate in England.”
Around 50 national organisations from the voluntary, statutory and private sectors have also agreed to work together to tackle suicide by sharing best practice and providing support to those in need.
Samaritans chief executive Catherine Johnstone said: “We are encouraged that the government has taken this step in continuing to acknowledge the importance of suicide prevention.
“We firmly believe that suicide can be prevented by making sure people get support when they need it, how they need it and where they need it.
“This means we all have to try harder to reach people who may not now be talking to anyone about the problems they face.”
Edmund Farrow is facing redundancy. For 11 years he has worked up to 90 hours a week, looking after Matthew, 11, Daniel, nine, and seven-year-old Joanna.
“I haven’t regretted being a house dad, but now we’re at a stage where I have to think about what next. I used to be a computer programmer, so obviously things have moved on a bit in that field.
“I got used to being the only man in a hall of 30 women and learned that if I saw another dad at the school gates he’d probably have a day off. The numbers of dads looking after young children is still very small.”
Small but growing. Whether changing nappies, playing with the children or reading a bedtime story, most fathers are undoubtedly far more involved in their children’s lives than their own fathers would have been 30 or 40 years ago.
New research from the Office of National Statistics suggests the phenomenon of the househusband has seen a rapid explosion in numbers, but experts say the trend is less about choice and nurture than an economic necessity that is not being recognised by policymakers.
Last year 62,000 men were classed as “economically inactive” and at home looking after children, tripling from 21,000 in 1996. The figures did not include fathers working from home or part-time in order to be the main stay-at-home parent.
A survey out last week from the insurance company Aviva suggested there could be 600,000 men, 6% of British fathers, in that role, a further rise from the ONS figures which recorded 192,000 British men as the primary carer for children in 2009 and 119,000 in 1993.
Farrow, from Edinburgh, who set up DadsDinner.com to tackle the gap in services, said: “My wife and I made the decision that I would stay at home because of personality. My temperament meant I’m better with the kids for long periods of time, whereas she can get wound up more easily by them and needs to be out and about. So it suited us. But every other dad I’ve talked to has done it for financial reasons.”
Adrienne Burgess, head of research at the Fatherhood Institute, feels there is little understanding in government about family life and that more men could be househusbands. “What’s changing is not the fathers but the mothers,” she said. “More mothers at the time of their first child are earning as much or more than their partner. So couples make rational economic decisions. By the time the child is 18 months old, three quarters of mothers are back in paid work and those who aren’t tend to be the most poor or disadvantaged who don’t have the options because of the cost of childcare. The fully fledged stay-at-home parent is a dying breed.
“Go to any antenatal class today and there’s a split between the mothers who are going back to work and those who aren’t, each side a bit beleaguered. Motherhood is still in that flux and, while men are seeing being the primary parent as an option, their voices aren’t heard. They are ghettoised. What holds a lot of men back is a lack of confidence and a culture that is sometimes hostile and excluding of men.”
Anne Longfield, chief executive of the family charity 4Children, said efforts were under way to make a transition to equal parenting and for services to target fathers “despite society’s undeniable prejudice towards seeing mothers as the core carers”.
“Whether or not dads are full- or part-time carers for their children, what we have seen is their increased presence, and this is fantastic. However, there is still work to do – while mothers are often involved in their children’s centres as volunteers, fathers are less likely to be, and there are still some who do not always routinely seek to involve both parents in their children’s early education and play. The wider issues of workplace flexibility and the gender pay gap are also still relevant if we are to seek a more even balance.”
But others warn how changing roles throw up new pressures for the fraught modern family. Divorce lawyer Vanessa Lloyd Platt said she was seeing a trend of relationships suffering because of resentment building up between couples trying to navigate traditional gender roles. “I hate to say it but things are changing so fast for women and an awful lot of men are not moving forward. Relationships are suffering.
“I noticed a trend some years ago. I started to act for a lot of husbands who were staying at home. There had been this revolution, women earning more, then children arrive and sometimes they don’t want to give that career up, or the husband just can’t earn as much.
“For some people it worked, it’s essential to say that, but for others there is a pattern of dissatisfaction set off by this reversal of fortune. That resentment builds up after a few years and suddenly the woman is working really, really hard and thinks the husband is sitting around with his feet up, and the man has seen his career fold and his ego is mush.”
It’s a pattern recognised by Andrew Holmes, 52, from Devon. He has started working again part-time now that his children are at school, but remains the primary carer. “Leaving work to pick the kids up still gets comments from other blokes. There is the sense that I’m not putting in a full day. It can be hard going at times. I did feel quite isolated and resentment did build up between my wife and I. She envied me spending so much time with the kids and I envied her freedom when she went off to work. Neither of us was entirely happy with the way things were, but it was the only way financially.
“I value having been at home with the kids, but if I was to do it again I’d do it differently. I’d force myself into social situations a bit more. Mothers definitely didn’t invite me round for a cup of tea and it’s difficult when you go to a toddler group and women sit talking about pregnancy, as invariably they did.”
The rise of the stay-at-home father remains against a backdrop of social pressures on women to be good mothers and on men to be economic providers. Half of fathers still do not take the legal fortnight’s paternity leave because of fears that it will affect their careers or because they can’t afford to.
Men also seem to stay at home for a shorter time than women, said psychology professor Dr Charlie Lewis of Lancaster University. “It’s difficult to do research because they are such a transitory group,” he said. “A lot of people go into it with rose-tinted spectacles and great enthusiasm and then, partly to do with the social isolation, find it doesn’t suit them. They think they are breaking the mould, but then realise what it’s all about and bolt.
“Dads have to surmount a lot of problems, not least that women can be very unwilling to delegate parenting, even to their partner. There is so much pressure to be the good mother that it can lead to them holding men at bay, even when they desperately want to be involved.”
He added: “The economic climate compounds the problem. People are under stress and families are more complex than ever, complexities rarely conceded in statistics. One study five years ago looking at 5,000 households identified 73 different family types. Yet we continue to hold to the simplistic stereotype of motherhood, but there are many permutations of what makes a good parent.
“To declaim role reversal as a bad thing is just as catastrophic as to declaim it as a good thing. When people change roles with great gusto and intent and it doesn’t work out, then that disappointment can destroy the relationship. What we should be thinking about is how can social policy support systems fit all types of families.
“There really has been a seismic shift in gender roles, but really we will only know it’s changed when men start cleaning the toilet. That’s the last bastion.”
But, for most couples, childcare remains a juggle in changing social and economic times. Dan and Ilana Rapaport-Clark, from north London, both work part-time, although Dan is the main parent for Lola, three, and Jacob, one.
“I always wanted to do it, even before we had kids,” he said. “My family was supportive but some of my friends thought it was a bit odd. You definitely have a different experience to mothers and you rarely see another dad. A lot of men who would like to do it are put off by the dominance of women, so it becomes a bit of a chicken and egg situation. I wanted to see them walk and hear their first words, childhood is such a finite time. I love hanging out with my kids.”
A 15-year-old boy was describing to me and a group of 12 other young men his relationships with teenage girls. He held firm with his opinion that if a girl came round to his house it implied that she wanted to have sex. But there was one boy in the group who, even in the face of pressure from the others, was certain that “even if she’s naked, she’s not supposed to be raped”.
I was interviewing the young men about their experiences of relationships for the Female Voice in Violence project, and it was clear that the majority of the boys did not understand the concept of rape. They could not see it.
Would you “see” rape? This is the question being asked in the second stage of a government campaign to raise awareness of abuse in teenage relationships. The initiative is launched at a time when there is an increasing focus on young women’s experiences of sexual violence. To date, those shouldering the responsibility of rape prevention have been the victims: girls are blamed for making themselves vulnerable to rape, and their low self-esteem or a craving to belong is the reason, we are told, that they place themselves in situations where they may be victimised. Now, however, it is the turn of those who commit sexual violence to be challenged to recognise it.
It is right that girls are supported to reduce their vulnerability. However, there is a growing sense of frustration among girls, and some services that work with them, that this vulnerability is communicated as the cause of sexual violence. The message they hear is that girls are raped because they are vulnerable. Where, they ask, is the space to consider the responsibility of those who are perpetrating abuse? So a campaign that challenges the perpetrators to ask whether they see rape is welcome.
Girls have told me they are relieved that they are not once again being told to modify their behaviour in order to avoid abuse. Those same girls would call for services to support victims of sexual violence; these are essential. However, providing services to pick up the pieces, or reduce vulnerabilities, will never, on their own, prevent sexual violence. Until the behaviour of rapists is understood and challenged the abuse will continue.
The campaign signals a move to reframe and revisit questions about how to prevent sexual violence, so it is crucial that the response on the ground is able to mirror this. While investment has been made in services for boys and men who commit forms of violence such as gun and knife crime, little attention has been given to preventing their use of sexual violence. This needs to change.
Young people’s views are shaped by a mosaic of messages, images and attitudes. Professionals need to be supported to challenge these ideas in order to stem the development of abusive attitudes and behaviours.
Challenging the ideas that normalise sexual violence, from the outset, should underpin any such preventive work. The inclusion of men and boys in this debate is critical. The young man who condemned rape in the face of peer pressure is not a one-off. We need to understand the difference in attitudes between young men. Only then will we move from seeing rape to stopping it.
It’s a girl, a film being released this year, documents the practice of killing unwanted baby girls in South Asia. The trailer’s most chilling scene is one with an Indian woman who, unable to contain her laughter, confesses to having killed eight infant daughters.
The statistics are sickening. The UN reports approximately 200 million girls in the world today are ‘missing’. India and China are said to eliminate more female infants than the number of girls born in the US each year. Lianyungang in China has the worst infant gender ratio on record with 163 boys born for every 100 girls. Taiwan, South Korea and Pakistan are also countries in which unwanted female babies are aborted, killed or abandoned.
Gendercide in South Asia takes many forms: baby girls are killed or abandoned if not aborted as foetuses. Girls that are not killed often suffer malnutrition and medical neglect as sons are favoured when shelter, medicine and food are scarce. Trafficking, dowry deaths, honour killings and deaths resulting from domestic violence are all further evils perpetrated against women. This femicide has led the Geneva Centre for Democratic Control of Armed Forces to report in ‘Women in an Insecure World’ that a secret genocide is being carried out against women at a time when deaths resulting from armed conflicts have decreased.
The brutal irony of femicide is that it is an evil perpetrated against girls by women. The most insidious force is often the mother in law, the domestic matriarch, under whose authority the daughter in law lives. Policy efforts to halt infanticide have been directed at mothers, who are often victims themselves. The trailer shows tragic scenes of women having to decide between killing their daughters and their own well-being. In India women who fail to produce sons are beaten, raped or killed so that men can remarry in the hope of procuring a more productive wife.
It is an oft-made argument that parental discrimination between children would end if families across south Asia were rescued from poverty. But two factors particularly suggest that femicide is a cultural phenomenon and that development and economic policy are only a partial solution: Firstly, there is no evidence of concerted female infanticide among poverty-stricken societies in Africa or the Caribbean. Secondly, it is the affluent and urban middle classes, who are aware of prenatal screenings, who have access to clinics and who can afford abortions that commit foeticide. Activists fear 8 million female foetuses have been aborted in India in the last decade.
The Chinese cultural bias towards male children is one exacerbated by the birth control policy. India, however, poses a more complex problem where the primary cause is a cultural one.
Activists attribute a culture of valuing children by their economic potential to South Asia’s patriarchal social model in which men are the sole breadwinners. Sons both carry the family name and work from a young age. Daughters, on the other hand, impose the burden of a dowry before leaving the home upon marriage. Strict moral codes, onerous cultural expectations and demanding domestic responsibilities are all forces that further subjugate women.
Dr Saleem ur Rehman, director of health services for the Kashmiri Valley, has conceded that a healthy male to female infant ratio in Kashmir in 2001 led him and his team to become complacent. Since 2001, the ratio has dropped from 94.1 to 85.9 girls per 100 boys. The solution, however, lies beyond merely holding officials to account.
The cultural root of the problem partially explains why an effective solution has eluded authorities. Legal prohibitions have proved ineffective. In India, dowries were outlawed 1961 and in 1994 the Prenatal Determination Act outlawed gender selective abortions. Yet dowries remain a condition of marriage and action against unregistered or non-compliant clinics fail to intercept registered medical professionals performing illegal operations.
A crude supply and demand distinction can be drawn. Activists argue the demand for eliminating female fetuses is independent of the supply of illegal services. Only those that can afford to abort will do so. Others simply kill or abandon female infants after birth. This foeticide/infanticide equation will only skew towards the latter if the problem of illegal clinics and criminal doctors were solved.
In the New Statesmen, Laurie Penny explained that South Korea improved its infant gender ratio through a programme of education. But is increasing the awareness of contraception, abortion laws and women’s rights a panacea? No. Educational efforts insufficiently target the core cultural canker. Similarly, economic policed designed to encourage development are necessary but insufficient. Any improvement in living conditions is unlikely to offset the financial burden of raising a child and a dowry.
A solution therefore must be three-fold. Policy efforts combatting poverty must be supplemented by legal prohibitions. There must be an educational programme informing women of their rights. Finally and most importantly, there must be a social and religions campaign aimed at destroying ossified cultural attitudes.
The distinction between, on the one hand a programme of economics and education and on the other a cultural campaign is not qualitative but quantitative. The latter warrants a greater level of official engagement, allowing governments to actively discourage femicide rather than passively encouraging change.
A ‘secret genocide’ is a malaise in response to which government paternalism must surely be justified. In Kashmir, officials have enlisted the help of social and religious leaders. It is religious and social leaders that must reinforce legal prohibitions on dowries with campaigns attacking the social pressures of producing one. And they must supplement information of women’s rights by persuading mothers to educate their daughters and to allow their daughters to work. These cultural channels are best placed to begin to erode sexist cultural monoliths.