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Renaming Nakusa

By Freny Manecksha

What's in a name? Plenty, if you happen to be one of 222 girls in five blocks of Satara district, Maharashtra, called Nakusa, which means 'unwanted'. These are also blocks which have registered a sharp decline in sex ratio over the last decade

Narayan Waghale welcomes us inside the dim central room of his mud and stone house where family members nestle in companionable ease with clucking hens, as the rain lashes down. He calls out loudly for 'Naku' and then smiles awkwardly. Old habits die hard. For he has forgotten that the seven-year-old daughter he has just addressed was re-christened Aishwarya a week ago.

But what's in a name? Plenty, if you happen to carry the indignity of being labelled Nakusa from your cradle, as this little girl and her elder cousin found. Meaning 'unwanted', the names of these two girls of Shankarwada, Narabdev village in Saygaon taluka, Satara district, Maharashtra, are a reflection of the lowly status of the girl-child in many parts of India.

A survey in Satara district carried out through anganwadi and health workers revealed that there were at least 222 girls under the age of 16 with the same name, in the blocks of Jwali, Mann, Patan, Khandala and Phaltan -- many of which have low literacy rates and are situated in hilly, rather remote terrain. Not surprisingly, Patan, which has the maximum number of Nakusas, also has the lowest sex ratio.

Now, an attempt is being made to bestow some dignity and status on these girls with a re-christening and official change of name.

District Health Officer Bhagwan A Pawar says: "We have been concerned about the declining sex ratio in Satara district over the past few years. From 2001 to 2011, the figure of 995 (that is, 995 girls born in ratio to 1,000 boys) declined to 886. When we launched a vigorous campaign in favour of the girl-child around two years ago in Mann block, we came across a health worker called Nakusa. Some probing revealed that it was customary for many young daughters to be named thus.

"We made a list to try and persuade families to change the names officially so that when school and college certificates are distributed or when the girl gets married she does not have to carry this indignity forward." The two girls were re-named in August 2011 -- Aishwarya's 13-year-old cousin chose the name Sunita for herself.

The re-naming is just one of a slew of measures being taken by the zilla parishad. As health workers and officials of the primary health centre in Saygaon point out, the re-naming should spur a change in mindset and attitude too. "It is not as if education alone counts. After all, it is educated doctors who are running illegal sex determination centres and conducting illegal female foeticide," they point out.

The desire for a male child can go to desperate lengths: those who can afford it will undergo sex determination tests; those who cannot, go through multiple births. Aishwarya was the seventh successive daughter in her family, and clearly unwanted.

On Raksha Bandhan 300,000 students of the district organised rallies and took an oath to prevent female foeticide. Posters in health centres portray successful Indian women -- from Sunita Williams to Sania Mirza and Lata Mangeshkar.

In this two-pronged approach, hard-hitting measures are also employed to boost the sex ratio. All pregnant women are monitored and there is tighter implementation of the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) (PCPNDT) Act. Anganwadi workers, ASHAs (accredited social health activists) and others keep tabs on all pregnant women under their care. If a woman does not turn up for her check-up, someone is dispatched to her home. This monitoring ensures that she does not attempt to go to an illegal sex determination centre and abort a female child.

"The problem is that even if there is a complete shutdown of such centres in Maharashtra there have been instances of women going across to Karnataka. Word about unscrupulous doctors willing to carry out sex determination tests and foeticide spreads very quickly," say the workers.

The civil surgeon of Satara, Dr S P Jagdale, and 17 medical superintendents have been keeping a vigilant eye on the 136 MTP (medical termination of pregnancy) centres and the 134 sonography centres that are located in various urban centres like Satara town, Karad, Wai and Phaltan. Over four years, 11 illegal centres were shut down. In 2003, the first case of misuse was lodged, and in 2005 a doctor from Karad was convicted and handed the maximum sentence of imprisonment and a fine.

For the Nakusas of Maharashtra, however, the new name and bid for enhanced status will assume significance only if during their lifetime they stand witness to a considerably improved sex ratio.

(Freny Manecksha is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. This is an excerpt from her article on www.indiatogether.org)

Infochange News & Features, December 2012