17,000 Indian doctors to deliver baby girls free of charge to challenge sexism in society

Delhi: An Indian doctor’s decision to alter society’s negative attitude towards girls by delivering baby girls free of charge is inspiring other doctors.

Since Dr Ganesh Rakh started his free deliveries seven years ago, his example has prompted thousands of other doctors to pledge that they too will either deliver baby girls gratis or offer a heavy discount to the parents.

It was one particularly upsetting bedside scene in his obstetrics ward that prompted Dr Rakh to take the step. A young woman had given birth to a baby girl and her parents were by her bedside, enjoying the moment. Her husband walked in and, on hearing it was a girl, fell into a rage.

“He gave her a big slap, abused her parents and told them to take her home to their house. He was wild. He said he was going to leave her and marry a woman who could give him a son,” Dr Rakh said.

The more “routine” version of this scene used to play out every day in his small hospital in Pune in the western state of Maharashtra. The husband and his relatives used to start crying and getting upset, showing their displeasure to the mother, and becoming livid when confronted with the bill.

Dr Rakh was so dismayed by the disparity between this welcome and the euphoria surrounding the birth of a boy – smiling faces, tips for the nurses, sweets distributed around the ward and a jaunty paying of the bill – that he decided to forfeit the fee of around 15,000-25,000 rupees ($300-$504) for a delivery.

It was decision he took to make his contribution to changing attitudes towards girls. Apart from not charging any fee, he celebrates the birth of every girl. The staff all gather around the bed with a cake, candles and roses to make the mother feel special and to shame the scowling relatives into behaving. More than 400 girls have been delivered without the parents being charged a fee.

As news of his mission spread, other doctors and medical students became interested. Dr Rakh says that, when his office updated the figures last week, a total of 17,000 doctors had pledged to reduce fees, or charge nothing at all, when delivering baby girls.

One such doctor is Dr Satish Andhale Patil of Mauli Hospital near Pune who has been delivering baby girls gratis, whether by normal delivery or Caesarian section, since last June. “I have seen 15 suicides of women who had given birth to their second daughter and were in despair. When Dr Rakh started, I knew I had a social responsibility to do the same,” said Dr Patil.

In Gurgaon, outside New Delhi, social worker Sunil Sainiji, inspired by Dr Rakh, visited hospitals and has persuaded two to deliver girls free and one to offer a 50 per cent discount. He is also persuading chemists and medical labs to knock off a few rupees for prescriptions and tests for baby girls.

“A few rupees damages no one but makes a difference to changing people’s mentality,” he said.

Dr Rakh, 41, is the son of a coolie and has experienced hardship and discrimination, a fact that made him feel compassion for the mothers-to-be growing increasingly anxious as their delivery date approached.

“They are so tense during their check-ups that their haemoglobin and blood pressure levels fluctuate. It’s the fear of hearing the words ‘it’s a girl’,” he said.

The cultural preference for boys remains entrenched in India. The result has been female foeticide and neglect of baby girls. Activists say that millions of female fetuses have been aborted over the past few decades.

The law bans ante-natal ultrasound tests showing the sex of a fetus but some unscrupulous doctors and technicians still tell the expecting parents surreptitiously. They often use code phrases such as “your child will like football” or “your baby will like blue skies” so that they can’t be reported for doing so.

“We obviously don’t tell our patients the sex of the fetus, it’s against the law. In fact, I do the opposite. I tell families from the start that it’s a baby girl even though I don’t know the gender of the baby. I keep saying this and the effect is that it prepares them mentally so that they are not so upset when it happens,” he said.

According to the 2011 census, for every 1000 boys born in India, only 927 girls were born. The latest figures, published last year, showed that this had fallen to 918 girls for every 1000 boys with some states having as low a figure as 836.

Dr Rakh, who has a daughter, says that he will continue not charging a fee until society ends its attitude towards girls.

“Of course I am losing out financially but how will anything change unless we all do our bit?”

He has also persuaded thousands of doctors around India to support his campaign. “They might not deliver free of charge but some give a 10 per cent discount, others a 40 per cent discount. It’s a gesture of solidarity,” he said.

His work has won him the praise of Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan who has been approached by the Maharashtra government recently to campaign against the evil of female foeticide. Bachchan called the doctor a “real hero”.

Dr Rakh says that, finally, he is starting to see a slight change in attitudes.

“The reaction is definitely less negative these days. I’m looking forward to the day when I can stop ordering  so many cakes.”