Essay: Why the Annihilation of Women Doesn’t Anger The World

Rita Banerji ’90 is an author, photographer, and gender activist. She is the founder of The 50 Million Missing Campaign, a global lobby that raises international awareness about the ongoing female genocide in India.  Born and raised in India, Rita has also lived in the US where she attended Mount Holyoke College and later The George Washington University.   Her work has been recognized by The American Association for Women in Science, The Botanical Society of America, The Charles A. Dana Foundation, and The Howard Hughes Foundation. Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies (Penguin Books, 2008), a historical study of the relationship between sex and power in India, and how it has led to the ongoing female genocide in India, was long-listed for The Vodaphone-Crossword Non- Fiction Book Award (India). She is also the recipient of a 2009 Apex Award for Magazine and Journal Writing (USA) for her articles on gender issues. Her website is

In another two decades, India will have annihilated 20 percent of its female population. To get an estimate of how many women that would be, add up the entire populations of Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and Portugal. In less than a century, more than 50 million women have been targeted simply for being female and wiped out from India.  Millions have been killed before birth. Millions killed as infants. Millions killed as little girls. Thousands killed as new brides. Thousands killed as they are forced through repeated, back-to-back, unsafe abortions  to get rid of girls.  Thousands more killed for so-called “honor” or branded as “witches” and mob lynched. And many burnt alive as widows on the pyres of their husbands. Killed at every stage of life–simply for being female! There is no other human group in history that has been persecuted and annihilated on this scale. So, how did the world close its eyes to this?

I don’t ask this question lightly, for I have asked it of myself first. How could I, a woman born and raised in India, have remained blind to this all my life? It’s a question that caused me tremendous angst and put me through a year long process of soul-searching, and eventually culminated in my founding The 50 Million Missing in December 2006  – a global campaign to end the genocide.

One of the incidents that my deliberation uncovered remains like a thorn in my soul, and I recount it here with much shame. It is an incident from my college days in the United States, and involves the Nobel Laureate, Dr. Amartya Sen, who had first used the term “missing” for the women who had been eliminated from India’s population. This is where the ‘Missing’ in my campaign’s title comes from. In 1986, Dr. Sen first raised the alarm on what his study revealed to be an abnormally high skewing of the normal, biological gender ratio in the populations of India and China. At that time he estimated that 37 million women who should have been a part of the populace of India, could not be accounted for.  Despite that forewarning, the number of “missing” or eliminated females has continued to rise at an alarming rate.

About four years after Dr. Sen’s news-breaking revelation, I had an opportunity to hear him speak. He was scheduled to give a seminar at a University in the Boston area, and my anthropology professor in the college I was attending, was keen to take our class to hear him speak. She urged us all to register, but since the seminar was on a Saturday, and most students (including me!) were not keen on giving up a holiday, she got a lukewarm response. She was disappointed but then had a brain-wave. She said, that after the seminar, we’d spend some time sightseeing Boston by night, and have dinner in Chinatown, before we drove back to the campus. She got a full class attendance!

This, however, is not the worst part of my story! What I feel most embarrassed about, is that no matter how much I rack my memory, I cannot recall a word of what was said at Dr. Sen’s seminar. I was attending a women’s college then, which has strong liberal and feminist leanings. There are other such women’s colleges in the vicinity, some of whose students must have attended.  Surely, someone must have raised the question of the ‘missing’ women? Not only do I have no recollections of that, but I am ashamed to say that I have a perfectly clear memory of what I had for dinner in Chinatown later that evening. It was Peking duck with plum sauce and mu-shu pan cakes.

It is the understated implications of this incident that have haunted me. I keep thinking of possible parallels. What if I was, say for example, a black African person studying in the U.S. and had the chance to meet someone who had just published a book on the horrendous scale of violence inflicted on black people under apartheid in South Africa. Would I drag my feet on the chance to hear this person speak? Would I need to be given an ulterior incentive to do so? Would I later, draw a complete blank on what this person said or what was discussed at his talk? How would I have responded?

The ultimate irony of this story is that during this very time period, I was actively involved in the student movement against South Africa’s apartheid government. Even before I had left India, at the age of 16, I had written an anti-apartheid poem that The Statesman newspaper in India had published. Soon after, I got my first passport and when I saw the stamp of the travel ban to South Africa on it, I had rejoiced that my government was not going to stand up for fascism. In college in the U.S., I eagerly attended talks by high-profile anti-apartheid leaders. I can still feel in my bones that highly charged energy and anger in the auditorium during a talk by Mark Mathabane. I spent weekends traveling overnight to attend public rallies in Washington D.C. and did not give a second thought to giving my time, energy, and concern to all other forms of anti-apartheid activism, including distributing flyers, and boycotting goods and companies sustaining the apartheid government.

It is therefore painful, and bewildering, that I remained non-responsive to the issue of the persecution – the systematic, mass-scale annihilation – of Indian women. Women like me!!  And so, I had to first ask myself, before I could ask the world: How could I, of all people, have slept though this genocide?

How could I have slept though the annihilation of my own kind? How did I, an Indian woman, live on in such oblivion to the systematic and targeted elimination of millions of Indian women? Why did it evoke no response in me – no anxiety, no outrage, no resistance, no action?  Not even involved thought! There is something so indescribable and bizarre about asking that question. I wonder if others belonging to groups that were targets of genocides have done the same?

In 2004-5, after I had returned to India, and was working on the research for my book Sex and Power, something clicked deep within me. The data on the systemic and mass-scale violence on Indian women and girls I was gathering for my book was playing out in its stark grotesqueness in my everyday reality. A baby girl is abandoned on the streets in my city, and as residents wait for the police to respond, street dogs kill her and start eating her.

A mother throws her new born girl out of the window of a city hospital a few hours after giving birth.  The police rescue the child unharmed from the tree she was caught in, and hand her back to the parents.  Our domestic help comes in late one morning and informs us that the daughter-in-law in the house next to hers had run out onto the street, fire blazing all over her. She died, and everyone knows she was set on fire though no complaint was filed. The daughter of a close family friend dies within seven years of her marriage under mysterious circumstances. Her parents who had invited us for her wedding, don’t even inform us of her death.  They cremate her quietly, and have the doctor write it off as a heart attack. She was only 30.

I saw the connection and for the first time felt uneasy, ashamed and outraged. Yet, I was also conscious that I had grown up in India, regularly hearing about incidents like these. Why didn’t they strike me this way before? Now, after much retrospection I finally understand why.

One, I think to many of us in India the immense scale of the violence and its character was unknown.  We’ve dealt with it like families often deal with incest. Everyone has or knows a dirty secret and learns to hush it down, till it becomes the dirty secret that an entire nation is participating in, while pretending that no one knows.  I think the collation of data by researchers, social activists, and institutions over the last two decades have been crucial in exposing this dirty secret.

Secondly, I think that the manner in which this issue has been addressed, has completely dehumanized what is in reality a massive human-rights violation of a specific group of people.  The ‘missing’ women and girls are referred to as numbers and ratios so that after some time one is not even aware that we are talking about human beings here and the gross infliction of violence against them.  More so, there is an attempt to dismiss the role of the perpetrators, be it in the form of the legal system, culture and individuals, much in the way the world has come to view news of an earthquake, or hurricane–something that just happens and cannot be controlled.  So girls and women in India simply go “missing”–-rather than a system comprised of individuals are deciding to and systematically targeting and massacring them.

A third and very important factor I now realize is the cultural internalization of the dehumanization of women. Yes, I did grow up like everyone else in India hearing about baby girls being trashed and married women being burnt to death – but there is a deep-rooted, cultural conditioning that taught us very early on to disregard these events, to remain unmoved, like we would if we heard news about the weather. If a cow was slaughtered in a Hindu neighborhood, there would be religious riots and reprisals across the country. So very early, those of us who grew up in India – learned to prioritize the value of different types of lives. The life of a cow was more sacred than the life of a girl or a woman.

What is personal to me, and probably an important factor in changing my culturally conditioned perspectives was my stay in the United States.  In 1995, Susan Smith, a young, single, struggling mother in the U.S., had killed her two children, drowning them by pushing her car into a lake.  The country responded with shock, outrage and an outpouring of grief. In another incident, Laci Peterson, a young pregnant woman was killed by her husband, in what turned out to be a coldly, premeditated murder for personal gain, as most dowry murders in India are.  Again, the public responded with shock, outrage and grief.  In both cases it was unacceptable that someone in the life of the children and the young wife, who is trusted with their safety and well-being, would deliberately violate their very basic human rights with such cold, premeditation.  When I finally returned to India, the total absence of public response to incidents of brutal violence against girls and women rankled deeply in me.  It felt outlandishly abnormal.

Yet over the last six years or so as I have worked with The 50 Million Missing Campaign to raise global awareness about the ongoing female genocide in India, I find myself looking at the women’s and human rights groups in the United States with equal puzzlement. Their response to the female genocide in India is often patronizing – almost accommodating.

‘Educate the people,’ it suggests, ‘and they will stop killing females some day.’

This, regardless of the fact, there is no correlation between education, economics and a tendency to eliminate daughters or kill women in India.  I wonder, would the same suggestion be made about the killing of blacks in the U.S. or Jews in Europe?  And while we are waiting for this misogynistic mindset to change, what do we do about the continued killing of girls and women every few minutes?

I had once asked an American friend, a feminist, what she thought the response of the women’s and human rights groups in the U.S. would have been, if 50 million women had been selectively annihilated  there – killed in the millions before and after birth, as girls and as women. She said, “They would have brought down the Capitol with their bare hands!”

So I wondered why they would respond differently to the genocide of women in India.  Perhaps it is as author Taslima Nasreen observes in her book, No Country For Women. She says that communities tend to view women as the property of the communities they are born and raised in.  When the human rights of women in one community are abused, the other community politely looks away. They think: It is “their” community. Let them deal with “their” women the way they see fit. Just as they would with all matters of personal property.

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About Sandi Sonnenfeld

Sandi Sonnenfeld is a fiction writer and essayist. Her memoir, This Is How I Speak (2002: Impassio Press), which recounts how her views about what it means to be a woman in contemporary America changed after suffering a dangerous sexual assault, was a Booksense 76 finalist. With the memoir’s publication, she was named a 2002 Celebration Author by the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, which recognizes writers whose work merits special notice. Sandi has published more than two-dozen short stories and essays in Sojourner, Voices West, Hayden’s Ferry Review, ACM, Raven Chronicles, Necessary Fiction, Perigee, Revolution House and The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review among others. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Sandi holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Washington, where she won the Loren D. Milliman Writing Fellowship. She currently resides in New York's glorious Hudson Valley with her husband and the two of the world's most playful cats.

25 thoughts on “Essay: Why the Annihilation of Women Doesn’t Anger The World

  1. I’m reminded of a story from the the holocaust here. after arriving at one of the camps a Jewish woman said to an SS man “sir I hear my children are going to be gassed! is this true?” the SS man replied “madam do you think we are Barbarians.” she belied him and did not resist. of coarse the woman and her children were dead by the end of the day. people caught in situations of genocide often dont understand what is happening until its over.

  2. I think there are two factors at work that contribute to the 50 Million Missing.

    First, it is culture. As you said, when one grows up hearing about things, they cease to be news. It is accepted because it has always been there. Like a mountain in the background that may erupt… you don’t think about the eruption because that only happens once in an age. So it’s just part of the background.

    Second, women’s peculiar survival skills sometimes betray us. That is, women often choose to be passive as a form of survival. We stick to what matters and what we can do. Very often, that amounts to keeping ourselves alive. So, when we hear these stories, we may even go so far as to justify what happened by thinking things like, “that’s what happens when you’re a bad wife or mother or child.” And we work harder to be good.

    From all you describe of the events, it seems like both men and women in India simply accept this as the natural order of things. Men come first, women second. We are all fighting this battle, throughout the world. Still.

    • Marige, You are right on women learning passivity and justification as a form of coping with extreme violence. It is like the ‘battered women’s syndrome’ but on a mass scale. There’s a paper I’ve just written for a gender journal which should be out soon, where I’ve analyzed this — and that’s the argument I make. And I also argue that the current response of women to violence in India, and I don’t mean the general public but the women’s groups, is itself reflective of ‘battered women’s syndrome,’ and till such time the women’s ngos here learn to self-reflect and change that, they cannot change the India’s perspective on genocidal gender violence!
      Your last para is also interesting to me. Because I’ve been wondering that too. 9 out of 10 western journalists who contact me are always apologetic. They will say, we don’t want to blame men, or the culture etc. but we just want to find out if there’s a way around this. And I always ask them — would they be saying the same thing, say if I was black in S. Africa during the apartheid, that they don’t want to blame the white apartheid government etc. I think part of the response is because they find hostility from other women’s groups here. But I also find that women’s groups in the west look at the gendercide in India, keep harping on how to convince men not kill girls or women. But if this involved say a group getting killed because of their race or religion, we would look at it so tolerantly. So even though the violence on women in the west is no lethal to the degree it is in India, perhaps it is in the same way internalized in the minds of western women? That’s what I’ve been contemplating on lately!

  3. Its called Apathy, this nation is mostly dead… its not limited to the women, near or far, its eviscerated every facet of this culture… Ive never known an age so out of touch with reality and the human soul, with Life its self…. Would it surprise you to hear even a god say that now? And men wonder why the gods have forsaken them…

    • It is apathy! And it has permeated every aspect of living in India. But if men were killed in India at this rate — as infants, removed as fetuses, or killed as grooms — there would be a civil war in India!

  4. I live in in India and I’ve seen the silence of people. My father always said the patriarchal system and religion are mass murderers, now I completely understand it.

    • Yes, Sophia, It is mass murder! And it is important that it be called that. It is the silence that goes with traditional communities that is sustaining it.

  5. I recently read a book, “The Secret Daughter,” which brought the genocide of women in India in stark focus. I also know many couples here who have adopted Chinese girls. What I want to know is this: What do Indian and Chinese men do when they want a wife? If there are fewer and fewer women available for them to marry, what will happen?
    I am dumbstruck that this goes on, day after day and nothing is done, nothing is said, like if we ignore it, it will go away.
    Thank you for your post and your brilliant points.

  6. I can see exactly why nothing is done. Because they are women and these are men countries. My grandparents are immigrants from Lebanon. Even though I grew up in Montana, I was still raised with an Arabic culture. There were three of us girls and one boy. I love my dad very much but I hated his beliefs. All of the women worked their butts off in our home while he and my brother sat on their thrones, if we complained, talked back, anything disrespectful we were punished. My father is wealthy, EVERYTHING goes to my brother. I guess my point is we are not equals in their eyes, we are “domestic slaves”. They see us as nothing else. There is no deep love. They are all about pride. To them the best way to show pride is through money. Only sons can continue this and keep making money for the family. This is a deep pride through all of those countries. It goes up to the political leaders, the rich and powerful. No one wants to step on their toes. So nothing is done.

    • That’s exactly what it is. It is patriarchal rule. And people keep saying empower the women etc. I keep saying go into any village or shanty in India — it is women who are working and paying rent and buying the food. Men often don’t work and if they do, they squander the money on alcohol and drugs. And the the violence goes all the way up to the upper classes too and political ruling classes. The politicians don’t want to enforce the laws to protect women and girls because — they don’t want to displease the voting public, which is largely men. Even when women vote in India they vote for whoever their husbands and fathers tell them to vote for.

  7. WOW. I’m in the US. I know an Indian man that’s been here only 3 years. He’s never mentioned this to me. Do members of the Sikh religion believe in this genocide?

  8. It is heartbreaking that this atrocity is perpetuated against Indian women by Indians themselves.
    What puts it in cold perspective is that 50million is the entire population of South Africa … Wiped out in 20 years.
    How do I reconcile the spiritual India which I so admire and love when confronted by this inhumanity.
    It makes a mockery of ahimsa and karma.
    What rationale supports this heart of darkness?

    • hi sjarn,
      I hope you will be able to read my book ‘Sex and Power:Defining History, Shaping Societies’ (Penguin Books) because it will answer your question in full. Violence is a very integral part of the history of Hinduism. Ahimsa actually is a Buddhist concept and Buddhism remained very peripheral to the actual development of Indian thought, philosophy and lifestyle, but never entered it. India’s most sacred books — the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are centered on horrendously bloody battles and justifications of violence. Regarding ‘karma’ if you go into the Hindu books and read what it really was, it was defined as the ‘work’ that each person was meant to do according to his or her caste. Esentially it was a tool of social control of the lower castes by the upper castes. So if a lower caste person who is say meant to be a butcher or a cleaner aims to be a priest or a teacher he is violating caste laws and therefore will accrue bad karma and in his next life will be born a some animal! That is actually how the Hindu philosophy viewed karma. And for men who violated the laws of dharma and karma the punishments were violent! Like the lower caste man who secretly tried to hear the scriptures would have boiling oil poured in his ears, or if he tried to learn to read and write — a privilege allowed only to the upper caste, he would have his tongue cut out! It is not inconsistent. What people think of as highly philosophical thoughts out of Hinduism, and really often lines taken out of context and put into a format that is appealing. But if you look at Hinduism and the development of Indian thought and philosophy in its entirety — it is extremely hierarchical, patriarchal, egotistical, inhumane and violent. The other odd thing during my research — I did not find any diaries. And that to me was very significant. Because personal diaries are indicative of not just psychological but also philosophical growth and contemplation of a community. And there are diaries in India by people of other cultures — Europeans, Chinese, Arabs etc. but none by Indians! I thought that was very telling.

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