BIRATNAGAR, NEPAL — On a balmy late afternoon, a baby suddenly wails for milk: 6-month-old Angel is hungry. Sworsoti Karna and Anjali Karna are a grandmother-and-mother team, experts at soothing the little one. Once she’s fed and happy, she wants to play.
Inside this home, there is joy but also anxiety.
“Our first baby is a girl. We are happy,” says Sworsoti Karna, Angel’s grandmother. In her community, a baby girl is not always cause for celebration. Many believe that the birth of a girl means a family is burdened with an eventual dowry.
“There is a lot of backbiting from our neighbors that we are happy even for the birth of a girl in the family,” says Sworsoti Karna.
“The second child must be a boy,” she continues. “Otherwise, it would be difficult for us to carry out their marriages. We can bear the costs of their education, but it would be difficult while carrying out their marriages.”
Yam Kumari Kandel, GPJ Nepal
In this part of Nepal, the birth of a second girl can mean tremendous economic difficulty. That’s led to a harsh reality: Some pregnant women abort girl fetuses.
“There is still a practice of carrying out feticide after determining the sex of the fetus through ultrasound,” says Dr. Paban Kumar Sharma, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Nepal’s Patan Academy of Health Sciences.
According to a 2007 report on sex selection in Nepal by the country’s Center for Research on Environment, Health and Population Activities, “… legal sanctions against pre-natal sex determination and sex-selective abortion have not stopped medical practitioners and ultrasonologists in Nepal from providing such services.”
Sharma explains that because sex-selective abortions are carried out secretly, there is no accurate data about its prevalence. In 2002, Nepal made it legal to conduct abortions up to 12 weeks of gestation, but sex-selective abortions are illegal. However, doctors can’t always be sure who is seeking an abortion because of the sex of a fetus.
To combat this issue, Biratnagar’s local government introduced the “Save the Daughter” campaign last summer. Indira Karki, the deputy mayor of the Biratnagar Metropolitan Office, spearheaded the program, which allocates money to women who give birth to daughters.
The program has been twofold: In its first phase, women received an allowance of 3,000 Nepalese rupees ($27) each time they had a girl. Families could use the funds for anything for the child’s welfare, such as milk or food, Karki says. Anjali Karna’s family received 3,000 rupees ($27) when Angel was born.
But the program has since expanded. In mid-July, the government began the second phase of the allocation program: A family’s second daughter will receive 25,000 rupees ($226) to be used specifically for the girl’s tertiary education. Some locals and recipients say that even though the monetary allocations aren’t staggering, the program has sent a positive message about the place of girls in Nepalese society.
The Save the Daughter campaign has stipulations: To qualify for either the 3,000 rupees ($27) or the 25,000 rupees ($226), the mother of the child must be at least 20 years old and must submit a birth certificate, a marriage certificate and a discharge letter from the hospital within 30 days of the girl’s birth. The pregnant woman must also have six pre-delivery checkups.
So far, 40 women have received the financial incentive, Karki says.
As Karki sees it, the real draw for families is getting girls set up for school – access to higher education among low-income families is minimal – even if the disbursement doesn’t make much of a dent.
“Twenty-five thousand rupees ($226) is not a big amount. But this money is a lot for the girls from those families whose economic condition is weak and cannot go to school. This money encourages such families to send the girls to school,” Karki says.
She explains that the higher allocation for a second girl contradicts how some families value any daughter born after their first.
“Some families happily accept the birth of a girl as the first baby. But they start discriminating when it’s a girl again as the second baby. So, we have given more importance to the second girl,” Karki says.
Yam Kumari Kandel, GPJ Nepal
Akash Karna, Anjali Karna’s husband, says that he is worried about sending his daughter to school due to financial problems, but the 3,000 rupees ($27) helped a little bit. With the money, the family bought some stationery for their daughter to use one day.
“At least 3,000 rupees ($27) helped us,” Akash Karna says. “This amount is not sufficient for financial support for the girl, but it motivates us to take care of the child.”
Nita Luitel also gave birth to a baby girl. Luitel received 3,000 rupees ($27) from the government and deposited it into her bank account so it could accrue interest for her daughter’s education.
“It’s good that those giving birth to a second girl would get money as an incentive, even though the amount is little,” she says. “Though the amount of money is not huge, it can help the girl get a higher education.”
Luitel says that if she had another daughter, she would happily accept her birth as a “blessing.”
Toyam Raya, the spokesman at the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare, says that the Save the Daughter campaign has sent a positive message to Nepalese society about giving birth to daughters.
The campaign, he says, has fostered the idea that a second daughter should be loved and valued.
Raya’s concern, though, is that the campaign may not have a long-term impact, depending on how much money the government allocates to the program.
Currently, the Biratnagar city budget has allocated 1 million rupees ($9,064) to the program for the next year.
For the program’s creator and its recipients, it’s a start.
“It’s obvious for people to say that [the money] is not enough,” says Karki. “And, of course, the money is not enough.”
But, she continues, she hopes that families will recognize the government is giving importance to girls.
“This [program] will create an environment for families to happily accept two daughters,” Karki says.
Sagar Ghimire, GPJ, translated this article from Nepali.