Dr Harshindar Kaur was on her way to a remote village on the border of Punjab and Haryana. The villagers in this area were deprived of even basic medical facilities and Dr Kaur, a child specialist, along with her medical specialist husband, Dr Gurpal Singh, volunteered to serve in a camp.
The village was just minutes away when the couple heard strange shrieks coming from an area reserved for the carcasses of animals. Curious about the source of the noise, Kaur and Singh changed directions and headed towards the dumping ground. What they witnessed was nothing short of horrific.
“We saw a few stray dogs tearing apart some living thing, and the shrieks were coming from there. On further investigation, we beheld a shocking site. There, atop a heap of bones, lay a newborn girl who was then dead. The scavenging dogs had torn her apart,” Kaur tells The Better India.
Shaken at that gory scene, the couple approached the villagers, questioning as to how this could happen.
It was even more shocking for them when one of the villagers indifferently told them that the baby might have belonged to a poor family who probably did not want a daughter.
Up until then, Kaur and Singh were organising free medical camps in remote areas around Punjab. They had discovered their shared passion for social service after marriage and decided to foster it together. This one incident, 24 years ago, shifted Kaur’s focus from providing medical aid to fighting female foeticide and advocating the rights of the girl child.
Although the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act (PCPNDT) had been passed in 1994, thousands of female foeticide cases were recorded in the two states every year. Between 1996 and 1998, 51,000 sex-selective abortions were recorded in Punjab and 62,000 in Haryana.
“The usage of ultrasound for sex determination and sex-selective abortion is rampant in our country, even though laws like the PCPNDT are in place,” says Dr Kaur.
She adds, “But even if a girl child is born, she is neglected from her early years. After birth, daughters are not brought for free vaccination, they are denied nutrition and even medical care in cases of illness.
What is even more appalling is the ignorance due to which the mother is blamed for giving birth to a girl, although medically, it is the man’s sperm that determines the baby’s sex, not the woman’s ovaries.”
Kaur decided to tackle female foeticide at its roots and empower villages with the knowledge about the role of X and Y chromosomes in reproduction. This began with speaking to the masses during various social events, village meetings, religious congregations, social events and wedding functions.
“I concentrated on a single village near Patiala where I worked for five years, explaining my thesis to the village folk. They were convinced, and the sex ratio of girls versus boys which stood at 845/1000 rose to 1013/1000 after five years. I used a novel technique using coloured threads to make the scientific principle understandable to the illiterate people,” explains Kaur.
Of course, change will take years, but Kaur was determined to fight hard.
It started with a couple among the group understanding the basics of human reproduction, then turned into awareness about the law, and gradually into acceptance.
Elaborating on this process, Kaur told Tribune India, “Around 25 years back, people in rural areas were so open about killing their daughters, they would not mind showing the places where the foetuses were dumped. But today, they are afraid of sharing the same.”
Kaur faces challenges like age-old taboos and prejudices, but the lack of support she gets from some of her peers is just as trying. On one occasion, she was also temporarily let go from the hospital she worked at on account of speaking “against” the state on a global platform. Although her duties were resumed soon after, this is an example of the external challenges the doctor faces in her crusade.
Expanding from small social events that hosted rural populations, Kaur also started delivering lectures on mass media communication platforms that helped her reach a wider population not just in Punjab but across the world. Her work was gaining pace, and she was gathering support from like-minded people in helping uplift the rural communities.
Her passionate voice against female foeticide was heard at a Humans Rights Conference in Geneva, at the Federal Parliament of Australia, the Parliament of Canada and the International Conference in Toronto. The “Dhee Punjab Di” (Daughter of Punjab) also won several awards on national and international platforms. One among them was a place among the 100 women achievers presented by the Union Ministry of Women and Child Welfare in 2016.
As her work to reduce the number of sex-selective foeticides in remote areas gained momentum, Kaur started branching out to other factors that would emancipate women.
One among them was dissent against dowry.
“I found that dowry is one of the main reasons for discrimination against girls in the Indian subcontinent as also in China and other countries,” she tells TBI.
She adds, “Some Indians living abroad have taken this illegitimate means of exploitation along with them to foreign lands. We started a ‘No Dowry’ campaign in Canada to address this issue and expanded it to other countries with considerable Indian population. Up until today, about 55,000 girls and boys have taken the pledge to refrain from giving or demanding dowry. Students from Canada, USA, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Europe and India have joined me, and so far, about 800 children have fulfilled the pledge.”
In 2008, Kaur, along with her husband and friends, started the Dr Harsh Charitable Trust to provide quality education to the underprivileged girls of Punjab. In the last ten years, 415 girls have been fostered by the Trust, with the financial responsibility of their education. Some of the girls come from farming communities where the breadwinner committed suicide. Two girls from these batches were daughters of Kargil Martyrs who were financially supported by the Trust until the government paid the compensation to the martyrs’ wife.
The doctor has also published books about the condition of girls in India to show people how the action of one woman can impact thousands of lives, as also about child psychology. Even at 52, she has not slowed down. If anything, she is utilising global support to drive change in many parts of the country.
If you wish to support Dr Kaur and her efforts, reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. She will be happy to answer your queries, share her experiences and help you understand the grassroots situation in rural Punjab and Haryana.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)