SAVE OUR GIRLS: THE PREVENTION OF FEMALE FOETICIDE IN THE ASIAN COMMUNITY
Dr Kamalroop Singh
An Oxford University study by Dubuc has found that an increasing number of Indian women in the UK are aborting their female foetuses, in order to have more boys. Research has found that over 1500 girls have "gone missing‟ from birth statistics in England and Wales since the 1990s. The research concluded that the proportion of boys over girls has increased abnormally overtime. This abnormal growth has been described as a result of "Sex Selective Abortion.‟ This is only preliminary research and health experts consider the problem to be much larger. The reasons for aborting female foetuses are varied, but generally some families still follow the dowry system while others favour males to carry on the family name, and others see women as inferior. A number of Health authorities in the UK refuse to tell the sex of an unborn child, so some British Indian women travel to India to abort female foetuses. There is a lack of awareness about this unethical practice in the UK, and this could also be a large contributing factor.
My paper will explore what the Sikh tradition has said about this practice, in particular from Sikh scripture and the rahitnāme from around the eighteenth century. I will also present a film titled "Saving Our Girls" that I jointly produced for the Punjab Cultural Association on the subject of female foeticide. I would like my talk to be a platform where interested parties can brain storm ideas about how to tackle this issue.
female, foeticide, femicide, gendercide, awareness, prevention, rahitnāme, Punjab, Cultural, Association, Yvoir, Kamalroop, Singh, Eric Schlaflang
Before describing Sikh Scripture and Rahitnāme it is necessary to examine female foeticide in a wider cultural context.
In some cultures, and in ancient times, women are/were seen as an economic burden, due to superstitions and cultural practices like the dowry system, and so the immoral practice of killing females at birth took place. A number of scholars have noted that it took place in Rome, Greece, Arabia, India and China. In the Punjab this was achieved usually by administering opium to the new born, which is common knowledge in most villages. Accordingto A. M. Hocard "The ancestor cults in Greece, Rome, India and China could only be transmitted only through the males and this also resulted in the destruction of girl infants." (S. S. Gandhi,1064). It is obvious that this practice and its reasons are immoral and are due to the perverted reasoning that males are to be appropriated with privileges, as well as deep rooted superstitions about women being the honour of the family, so a girl was better done away with, as she could lose her virginity before marriage and bring shame on the family, etc.During ancient Vedic period there were five cardinal sins, which were the killing of women, cows, foetus (bhrun hatya), priests, and babies (shishu). The Vedic culture's recognition of bhrun hatya as a cardinal sin emphasises the point that foetus is a living being. In their view, a foetus is a person just like a baby (shishu), and an adult woman, therefore they have equated foetal life with adult life. Hindu mythology also asserts this view, as in the famous epic of Mahabharat, Krishna tells Subhathra, his sister, who is pregnant with a child later known as Abhimanyu, how to break into the military formation of the city of Chakravyha. At the age of sixteen Abhimanyu broke into the city of Chakravyha, so according to this mythology this means that the child in the womb was able to listen to the story. Whether the myth is real or not is irrelevant here, as the Mahabharat is scripture of dharma in India, we can conclude that a foetus has the same status as a baby in the Hindu religion. Kaur Singh in "Imagining the Fetus: TheUnborn in Myth, Religion, and Culture" notes that historically, sons have been important in South Asian culture, with phrases such as "May you be the mother of a hundred sons!" being common blessings (Sasson, Law, 2008: 121). The colonialism by the Moghals also reinforced a patriarchal society. The Moghals introduced purdah, and previously the caste system subjugated women to their husbands and considered them a source of pollution due to menstruation. It was in this context that the Gurus wrote their bāṇī.
2. Sikh Scripture and Rahitnāme
The Guru‟s writing or bāṇī suggests that conception is the rebirth of a fully developed person who has lived many previous lives. That each human being is born with purpose and has a store of memory/actions from previous lives that is transferred to the present life, which in turn will influence rebirth in the next-one. A shabad that on first glance that also seems to be related to the prevalent Indian culture states:
"Brahmaṇ kailī ghātu kaṅyakā aṇacārī kā dhānu. fiṭak fiṭakā koṛu badīā sadā sadā abhamānu."
"Killing a Brahmin, a cow, killing a daughter, and taking charity from a person who has no morality. Anyone who commits any of these sins has committed many thousands of sins, this egotistical individual will be reprimanded thousands of times."
(Adi GuruGranth Sahib 1413)
Therefore, the Sikh Gurus strictly condemned the practice of female foeticide and infanticide. The first Guru describes the foetus praying upside-down while in the womb of its mother (Adi Guru Granth Sahib: 74). To be born as a human is the highest opportunity, for only in this birth, by devotion to the Divine and service t humanity, can salvation be achieved (Āsā Mahalā 5, Adi Guru Granth Sahib 12). We can see that the primary scripture of the Sikhs, the Adi Guru Granth Sahib, is very clear about Female Infanticide, and Guru Nanak stated clearly that without women there was no possibility of man, as "from the woman is man born‟ (paṅḍ jamīyai - Āsā dīVār).
Even though the message of the Guru is very clear, many Sikhs still have had prenatal diagnosis for sex selection since the availability of the ultrasound for sex selection during the late1970s. This has been due to the poor implementation of the "Prenatal Diagnostic Act.‟ In Kaur-Singh's chapter "Female Foeticide in Punjab and Fetus Imagery in Sikhism" she highlights the imagery of the mother, the womb, and the feminine in Gurāṇī.
The Adi Guru Granth Sahib is full of metaphorical images of the womb, which is seen as the conduit for all life and living. She notes that "The womb becomes a vital space for the Divine, and the foetus functions as a symbol for cultivating Sikh morality, spirituality, and aesthetics…‟ (Sasson, Law, 2008: 124-5). The various allegories "reinforces the generative power of the mother. She is the maternal continuum, one who retrieves the primacy of birth over death, and reaffirms the union of body and mind." In this way, Sikh scripture highlights our source instead of having a narrow focus on death. The Adi Guru Granth Sahib states, “You yourself are born of the egg, from the womb, from sweat, from earth: you yourself are all the continents and all the worlds.” (Sasson, Law, 2008: 127) Therefore, the Guru is world-affirming and celebrates both our physical as well as metaphysical source.
In "The Birth of the Khalsa: A Feminist Re-Memory of Sikh Identity" also by Kaur-Singh, she notes that from its very commencement the Khalsa was forbidden to be social with those who oppress women, where she quotes the work of Kuir Singh (9: 35) from 1751 AD:
He who kills or sells a girl
His flesh will be thrown into the lowest pit (Kuir Singh, 9: 37).
She notes that from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh each Guru was "extremely sensitive to the subjugation and victimisation of women.‟ That the Guru's loudly condemned the cruel practices of sati, purdah and female foeticide/infanticide and selling of daughters (Kaur-Singh, 2005: 57). The Tenth Guru sealed this commitment to banish these cruel practices in the codes of conduct.
Guru Gobind Singh made this practice an almost unpardonable sin, and ordered his followers to not socialise with those practicing it. The prohibition of female infanticide is introduced in the Prahlad Singh Rahitnāmā, which is seen by the tradition to be from the first Khalsa in a guration by the Tenth Guru, but by the Singh Sabha to be from a later date in the eighteenth century. Within it we find "A Sikh who associates with one who practices female infanticide is led to utter disaster." Various other steps were also suggested to eradicate this immoral practice. For example Sikhs should not accept a dowry from bride's parents and offer help to find matches for couples from proper families.
Another rahitnāmā traditionally seen from the Court of the Tenth Guru states:
kaṅniā ko māre mone ko kaṅniā deve so tanakhāhīā.
Those who kill their daughters and marry their daughters to those who cut their hair are punishable. (Rahitāmā Bhai Daya Singh)
Due to Guru Gobind Singh issued orders forbidding the Khalsa from associating with those that practice female infanticide, a famous incident occurred with Jassa Singh Ramgarhia.This Sikh General went on to join the enemy ranks as a hired mercenary, under Adina Beg Khan. Anumber of sources claim that even thought his family had served under Guru Gobind Singh andBanda Singh Bahadur, they has been ousted by the Khalsa for killing an infant daughter, thus breaking the prohibition against female infanticide (P. Dhavan, 2011: 87).
During colonialism the British did a great service by banning this unethical practice by introducing the Female Infanticide Act of 1870. Although it is true that it was attempted by the Administration of Lord Hardinge earlier in 1848 (Lord Hardinge's Administration 1844-1848:307). The condemnation of this practice by the Sikh Rahit has been noted by European commentators like C. H. Payne (Payne, 1915: 35), who writes:
Female infanticide, a custom prevalent then and for many years after in the Punjab, was strictly forbidden, as was also the practice of sati, and rules and regulations were enjoined relating to daily worship, marriage, the law of inheritance, and other matters in which the Sikhs had hitherto conformed to Hindu law.
The trend of hyper-masculinisation in Punjab continued as British colonialism contributed Victorian morals and engineered a martial race for use in their armies. Finally, theGreen Revolution caused women to have domestic roles only, where before they had worked in the fields and contributed to the family income. Kaur-Singh notes:
In spite of its centrality in Sikh life, the feminist import of Sikh scripture has not been recognized, and as a result the literary symbols and social reality of the community exist in opposition. The vital poetic images revered on the Punjabi soil need to be concretized in Punjabi habits and customs. We must explore Sikh literature and utilize its foetal imagery to end gender-specific foeticides. (Sasson, Law, 2008: 124).
3. The Current Situation
In rural northern India, the shift to cash crops in the late 1970s, which generated an enormous increase in the income of certain communities, has led to demands for larger dowries and a heightened sense of female children as liabilities (Miller, 1981). The escalating costs of dowry has made raising even one girl difficult, thus sealing the fate of many potential second daughters (Bumiller, 1990). The imbalanced sex ratio is a greatest threat to the contemporary Sikh community. The statistics shows that there is still a very high preference for a male child in states like Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Punjab. The male to female ratio in these states shows that the percentage of males to females is higher. Couples aspiring for a male child are using ultrasound scanning for determining the sex of the unborn child and the mother is forced to abort the female child. Demand proliferated as a result of the technology being non-invasive and widely affordable at about $10-20 for a scan (Arnold et al. 2002). There is an urgent need to change the mindset of family members because in many cases grandparents give consent to kill their granddaughter. The main reason for the female infanticide is exorbitant dowry demand.Some of the other reasons are the belief that son looks after parents in old age, men are bread earners and can perform the last rituals. The strong male preference and the consequent elimination of the female has continued to increase rather than decline with the spread of education. Due to excessive female infanticide in the northern and western states of India, resulted in the enactment of the Central pre-natal diagnostic techniques (Regulation and prevention of misuse) Act 1994. The act has two aspects viz., regulatory and preventive. It seeks to regulate the use of pre-natal diagnostic techniques for medical purposes and prevent the misuse for illegal purposes. (Outlook On The Biggest Social Issue - Female Foeticide, Jasmine Tiwana). The current consensus is that these regulations have made little difference (Visaria 2005). They are difficult to enforce because ultrasound scans (or alternatives like amniocentesis)are used for medical purposes and in routine prenatal care, making it easy to cover up sex determination as a motive. There appear to be enough families that seek sex-selection and enough doctors that are willing to cooperate in this for profit. India is witnessing increasing privatisation of health provision.
In the last few years the awareness of female foeticide has slowly begun. On April 9,2014, Lord Indrajit Singh gave a very succinct Sikh view on female foeticide during a debate secured by Baroness Knight in the House of Lords. He said:
"My Lords, as a Sikh, I am totally opposed to abortion on any grounds except that of real
and serious danger to the mother’s health, and it is important that those who facilitate
gender-selective abortions should be punished with the full rigour of the law. However, laws cannot create good behaviour; they can only define the boundaries of unacceptable behaviour. We must also look to education in tackling negative and outmoded cultural practices.
The Sikh religion is not a religion in which ―thou shalt‖ or ―thou shalt not‖ are strictly
imposed; Sikh teachings are couched in terms of gentle guidance about what we should or should not do to lead a responsible life. One of the few exceptions is a total condemnation of female infanticide. Sadly, this was all too common in the India of 500 years ago and was linked to the inferior status of women throughout the world.
From the very start of the religion, Guru Nanak taught the dignity and complete equality of women. Sikh women have always been able to lead prayers and occupy any religious position. The 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, gave women the name or title Kaur -literally, "princess " - to emphasise their dignity and complete equality. A Sikh woman does not have to take her husband’s name but remains an individual in her own right.
Despite the clarity of such teachings, negative sub-continent culture for some, even in the Sikh community, leads to discrimination against women and girls. Perversely, it is women who are often responsible, with mothers lavishing extra attention on male children."
Sadly not only has female infanticide has existed in India for a long time but now only the deadly method of delivery has changed. The advances in medicine and technology are being utilised to choose the gender of an unborn child and to abort it if it is a girl. Unfortunately women are either forced to have abortions through pressure and threats from family members or are persuaded to. The modern Sikh code of conduct, theSikh Rehit Maryada (1955) states:
(l) The Sikh will not kill the daughters nor shall he give his daughter in marriage into a family where this act is committed.
Furthermore when one is initiated as a Khalsa by taking amrit from the Panj Piāre all candidates are instructed that certain individuals are liable to chastisement involving automatic boycott. According to the Sikh Rehit Maryada this includes '(1) Anyone maintaining relations or communion... killers of female infants.' We can see that there are clear injunctions against female foeticide in the modern Sikh code of conduct. We have seen that the same injunctions in codes called Rahitnāme also originate from the Court of the Tenth Guru. Sadly, many Sikhs still have had prenatal diagnosis for sex selection due to the non-stringent implementation of the "PrenatalDiagnostic Act.‟
Dubuc and Coleman (2007) have found that there is a very high value of sex ratios in Punjab and Haryana. Please see the map titled "A Map of India Showing Females Per 1000 Males.‟ This disparity corresponds to regional differences in the status and treatment of females, and shows persistence in the regional pattern of mortality arising from postnatal bias against females (Visaria 2005). The trends have been interpreted as evidence of an increase in sex-selective induced abortion, this assertion they have supported by similar studies by Das Gupta and Mari Bhat 1997; Edlund 1999; Griffiths et al. 2000; Jha et al. 2006; Park and Cho 1995; Retherford and Roy 2003; Zeng et al. 1993. Even though it is difficult to get accurate data in India, we can still safely conclude that the figures are very telling (Dubuc and Coleman, 2007).
A Map of India Showing Females Per 1000 Males: Punjab is the Worst State
Dubuc and Coleman also employed the robust data registration system for births in the United Kingdom by birthplace of mother, compared sex ratios at birth between major categories of immigrant mothers and mothers born in the UK. The annual data for 23,420,189 live births from England and Wales from 1969 to 2005 was obtained from the Office for National Statisticsb (ONS) by sex, birthplace of mother, and birth order within marriage. The proportion of male births was determined for each year between 1969 and 2005 by the mother‟s place of birth. The limitation of data on births by parity to those births occurring within marriage is problematic. In England and Wales in 2004, only 57.8 percent of all live births occurred within marriage. The situation is quite different, however, in the Asian immigrant populations. Births outside marriage to women born in the Indian subcontinent have never exceeded 2.5 percent, so the sex ratio of births within marriage by parity is representative of all births to women of those parties. If we look at the table below we can see that the sex ratio between boys and girls is changing inIndian-born women, which is expressed as the number of males to per 100 females.
TABLE 1 Number of live births and sex ratio of third and higher-order births among India-born women living in England and Wales, 1969– 2005
Even though this evidence is circumstantial evidence it strongly suggests that since the 1990s, sex-selective abortions have become sufficiently prevalent among India-born mothers in England and Wales to alter the secondary sex ratio, especially among higher-order births. No other explanation seems possible. It also seems to coincide to the introduction of ultra-sound technology to the Punjab. Some may argue that there is a variance in sex ratios (Jacobsen et al,1999), but both authors have taken this into consideration, as the ratios are too high.
Almond, Edlund, and Milligan (2009) also noted that while all Indian states showed more boys than girls in this age group (which is indeed normal), Punjab topped the chart with a sex ratio of 125 boys per 100 girls, up from 114 in 1991. They concluded that it was in fact the richer states that had higher instances of this immoral practice (Bhaskar, 2007). As sex selection technology has improved, become more available, and become cheaper through time. However, higher levels of education, industrialization, and other markers of development may lead to more natural sex ratios, they hypothesized. High sex ratios are entirely driven by immigrants who are neither Christian nor Muslim, the highest sex ratio being found for Sikhs. For this group, there are more than two boys per girl for the third child if the two elder children were girls, implying a sex ratio that is 100% above the normal above for this group. Both Dubuc and Almond et al seem to be unaware that the both Sikh scripture and rahit prohibit this action.
Although it has been established that the preference for a male child is found more amongst the well off, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbhandak Committee (SGPC) has launched an-initiative to curb the practice amongst the poor. Pained by the state's schewed sex ratio and cruel tales of girls (unborn and born), being killed or left to die, the SGPC announced that it will adopt the abandoned baby girls, and important Gurdwara in Punjab will place cradles at their entrances for some to leave “those innocent children at God's door, not deaths...We will bear the expenses for bringing up these children. Don't kill them,” SGPC chief Avtar Singh Makkar told a gathering at Damdama Sahib. He said the decision had to be taken because of the spurt in cases of abandonment of girls, many of them just born. (Gurudwara to Adopt Unwanted Girls)
4. The Film and Ways to Prevent Female Foeticide
The previous papers bring to light with statistical and social evidence about the practice of female foeticide in the Panjabi community. However they do not provide solutions to this problem. One simple solution is the obvious pressure from the British Government on the Indian Government to enforce the legislation against this practice in Punjab, as we have seen that it is affecting the Diaspora not only in the UK but around the world. Further to this more statistics need to be gathered. Finally the key point is to raise awareness about this issue both on a cultural and religious level. Incentives such as the "Devirupak‟ to give benefits to those who have smaller families in Haryana, could be applied to girls, and seems to be a very good idea that could stamp out this practice (Anukriti 2013). This lead to film "Save Our Girls" by the Panjab Cultural Association, produced by Eric Schlaflang from "Yvoir‟ and the author of this paper.
Last year we went to the Punjabiand talk to numerous scholars like Surjit Gandhi, religious leaders, and those affected by this immoral practice. Our budget was limited so we were only able to produce a small movie, where we focused on the plight of the "dalit‟ community. This particular story was very hard hitting, and the higher classes seemed totally reluctant to be filmed on camera about this issue. We hope to work on a much larger movie soon, as well as launch a website with a lot of new material about this issue.Another way of tackling this issue is using a religious perspective Kaur-Singh contrasts sex-selective abortion with the place of the feminine within Gurbāṇī. In her aforementioned chapter “Imagining the Fetus: The Unborn in Myth, Religion, and Culture” Kaur-Singh orients readers with the history of sex-selection in Punjab. She then goes on to to show how Gurbāṇī is a key method to bring an end to this practice. This focus on our life's source being the Mother is often lost in today's conversations regarding Gurbāṇī, which often focuses on current politics, but where we have come from is integral to our identity. By highlighting how the Gurus celebrated motherhood and revered women as the source of creation, she celebrates the feminine and re-orients readers to our source. Kaur-Singh‟s revival of it is a much-needed and powerful message.
5. Some Concluding Reflections
We must bear in mind that this problem is not just one pertaining to Punjabi Sikhs, as research shows that in the world population there might be at least 1.5% variance which is a cause for concern (Ellis, 2008). Gill and Kahn and also note there is a higher mortality of women in some South Asian countries than in most of the world, they state "in certain parts of the developing world, sex ratios at birth are considerably skewed in favour of men.‟ This skewed ratio, when combined with greater male survival rates throughout the life cycle, typifies the concept of "missing women‟, a concept that highlights the female "deficit‟ in the sex ratios of some countries, such as India and China.' This is, therefore, a very severe problem (Gill, Kahn, 2009). How many of these deaths are due to back street abortions? We also find that there is prenatal discrimination were it has been shown that in China, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh those who are expecting boys are more likely to visit a doctor for regular checks, as is demonstrated by tetanus vaccine shot statistics, between 4 to 10% (Bharadwaj and Nelson, 2010).
What differentiates Kaur-Singh‟s work from all other works by academics on foeticide is that she offers a solution to the problem. While others provide us with information drawn from statistical and sociological models, Kaur-Singh uses Gurbāṇī or Sikh scripture as her looking-glass to understand Sikh theology and history. It is this message that calls for greater activism and research to learn lessons from their past, and find solutions for their future.
It is interesting to note that Indians who are not immigrants and born in the UK have normal ratios of boys and girls. Therefore, the root of this problem is the culture of the Punjab.Why is having girls no good? This needs to be discussed in the open. Why is it seen that boys can only do certain things? Whereas girls in the UK are independent, and women increasingly do not take their husbands surname, and dowry is generally a non-issue. Then, we can only see that it is cultural and ingrained to the Punjab. Could it be that as immigrants are doing this practice that they see girls as an economic disadvantage to them having to start afresh, and therefore want to be relieved of the burden of girls?
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