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Afreen, Falak and fair vaginas - when will it change for India's women

Another baby girl killed before she got a chance at life, another father unable to contain his disappointment at begetting a daughter, another mother mourning her child and her helplessness. The sickeningly familiar story has been repeated once again in Bangalore with the death of three-month-old Afreen from burns and bites allegedly by her father.


Two-year-old Falak had a cardiac arrest and died after 60 days at New Delhi's AIIMS, unable to recover from the broken skull, fractured limbs and bite marks inflicted on her

It is the latest chapter in the sorry tale of women in India, where regressive practices and age-old traditions continue to sit uneasily with claims of progress and rising economic prowess.

Afreen died of grievous head injuries, a dislocated neck, cigarette burns and even bite marks, just three days after she was admitted to hospital. Her mother Reshma, just 19 and as much a victim, sobbed uncontrollably as she recalled her husband's brutal assault on the baby because he wanted a male child.

In a continuing chain of exploitation, Reshma, it is reported, also alleged that her husband, car painter Umar Farooq, tried to poison her and harassed her for dowry. She did attempt to fight back and even approached the Bangalore Child Welfare Committee.

But it was clearly a losing battle for the young mother and her infant daughter. In the end, despite the very best in healthcare, Afreen died of a cardiac arrest shortly before noon Wednesday.

Less than a month ago, on March 16, another baby died in horrifically similar circumstances, also in the public gaze. The subject of countless headlines, two-year-old Falak also had a cardiac arrest and died after 60 days at New Delhi's All India Institute of Medical Sciences, unable to recover from the broken skull, fractured limbs and bite marks inflicted on her.

Falak, like Afreen, was just the smallest link in a chain of sexual exploitation and gender disparity. Hers was a twisted tale of human trafficking that revealed a fresh atrocity at each turn. It started with her biological mother, the victim of an abusive husband, and ended with a 14-year-old girl, who took the battered baby to hospital and claimed to be her mother.

She was of course not the mother. Barely a teen, she was just another oppressed girl who was trafficked herself and given custody of the baby by her abusive boyfriend.

And this is the proverbial tip of a very deep iceberg in a country where there are only 914 women for every 1,000 men.

For every Falak and Afreen who become the talking points of an entire nation thanks to the media - but still don't survive - there are millions of girls who die in oblivion, or are killed in the womb itself. Like the two-day-old child in Madhya Pradesh's Gwalior town who was given nicotine by another father desperate for a son.

So, where does it end?
It probably doesn't, not even in the India of today that prides itself on its many achievements, its woman president, its woman speaker, its woman leader of opposition and woman chair of the ruling alliance.

Because it is the same country where one end of the spectrum of discrimination constitutes Falak and Afreen and the other, the buyers of the latest fairness cream in the market - a 'clean and dry intimate wash' that promises fair private parts. It's a wide arc that takes in dowry victims, foeticide, domestic violence, rape and so much more.

The woman who buys the wash - the ad promising that it will liven up your love life - is subject to the same bigotry that the two babies were. She will use it, hoping to induce greater romance in her life and succumb a little more to the pressure of looking good -- even in her most private parts.

The product addresses the insecurities of millions of women - and rakes in the moolah. The fairness industry is a multimillion rupee one, just as the foetal sex determination and selective abortion industry that Unicef estimates is now worth Rs.1,000 crore ($244 million).

It's a brave new world out there, but for Indian women, and doubtless women elsewhere too, it is a question of many steps backward and one step forward. The momentum of backwardness stays unchanged, despite Afreens and Falaks tugging at our conscience every now and then.

It's the tired cliche, the more things change the more they remain the same.

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