Last week I bumped into the daughter of an acquaintance. I hadn't seen her since she was in middle school and, now, here she was with a brand new baby. The infant was adorable, dressed in a camouflage-patterned green sleeper and a white hat.
I learned long ago to never assume the gender of infants. Too many times my new-parent feelings were hurt when people looked at my bald-headed baby girl and asked, "What's his name?"
So I took the safe route, cooing, "And what's this sweet child's name?" Good thing, too, since the baby turned out to be a girl.
The new mom was chattering away. "Her daddy picked out the sleeper. We really wanted a boy. Maybe we'll have better luck next time."
I was speechless, horrified at the casual way she implied that this precious child was the result of bad fortune.
I struggled to find words to sweetly tell her she was an idiot wed to an imbecile. It's probably a good thing words failed me. Finally, I just murmured something about every child being it's own special blessing and, oh my gosh, look at the time.
I said a little prayer for that baby and her far too young parents. I hope in time they will come around to see her as the unequivocal gift that she is. If not, I hope there's someone else in the family who will nurture and treat her as a treasure, not a consolation prize.
When encounters like this get me down, I play a little game with myself called "It could be worse." In this case, I thought, "It could be worse. She could be in Madhya Pradesh, India."
That's the state in central India where it's been reported that as many as 300 families have had their daughters, ranging in age from 1 to 5, surgically turned into boys. The $3,200 surgery, known as genitoplasty, fashions a penis from female organs. The child is thereafter injected with male hormones to create a boy. He'll grow up to be impotent and sterile but these parents see that as an improvement over having a girl.
Why this desperate mutilation of healthy little girls? Some in the rising middle class in that area see girls as nothing but a financial burden.
The dowry practice was outlawed in India 50 years ago but the ancient tradition persists in the hinterlands. Parents of girls are expected to foot the bill for lavish weddings and pay the groom's family huge amounts, upward of $100,000. Then the brides leave to become part of the husband's family. She and her husband care for her in-laws for a lifetime, sort of a cultural social security system. The parents of girls get bupkis.
There's already a gender imbalance in India caused by the use of ultrasounds and selective abortion to avoid giving birth to girls. There are currently 7 million more boys than girls under the age of 6 and the numbers continue to climb.
Ranjana Kumari, of the Centre for Social Research is one of India's foremost defenders against female feticide. In an interview with the Telegraph, she said the surgical transformation of girls into boys without their informed consent was a sign of India's growing "social madness."
"The figures are getting worse. In 2001, there were 886 girls born to every 1,000 boys in Delhi. Today there are only 866. The more educated and rich you are, the more there is killing of girls," she said. "People don't want to share their property or invest in girls' education or pay dowries. It's the greedy middle classes running after money. It is just so shocking and an outright violation of children's rights."
The Thomson Reuters Foundation had experts from five continents rank countries on issues such as overall perception of danger, access to health care, violence, cultural discrimination and human trafficking. India ranked the fourth most dangerous country in the world for women, behind Afghanistan, Congo and Pakistan. According to the report, over 50 million Indian girls have gone "missing" in the last century due to feticide and infanticide.
In January 2010, the Indian Supreme Court stated that India is "becoming a hub" for large scale child prostitution rackets. That's another way to deal with unwanted girls: Sell them. According to Save the Children India, clients now prefer 10- to 12-year-old girls. All this in the land of the Mahatma. Oh my God.
So what can I do about a dystopian social problem a world away? I do what I can, that's what.
I'm heartened by the work of Gainesville's Vicki Moore and her staff and volunteers at Rahab's Rope, bringing hope and opportunities to girls and women who are trying to leave the sex trade in Bangalore. They offer them a safe haven along with vocational training, education, medial assistance and counseling. Here in the U.S., their Bradford Street gift shop sells products crafted by the women in the Bangalore program.
I can't change the world but I can do my gift shopping at Rahab's Rope. I can donate to it and other programs whose focus and work in India align with my own ideals. And I can pray for little girls who have never known how it feels to be safe and cherished.
The one thing I don't do when I consider the problems faced by many girls in India is think, "It could be worse."
No, I don't think it can. It can only get better.
Teressa Glazer is a Gainesville businesswoman. Her column appears biweekly on Fridays and on gainesvilletimes.com.