Religious leaders vow to oppose gender bias

New Delhi, India - Raising their voice against gender discrimination, several religious luminaries Tuesday pledged to lead a movement against sex selection which has resulted in a sharp decline in girl population in many parts of the country.

The brainchild of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the all-religious party meet was organised in the capital by the Art of Living Foundation spiritual head Sri Sri Ravi Shankar to send out a message that there can be no greater sin than killing a girl child.

"People are forgetting their religious values as they fail to realise that killing one girl child is equivalent to killing one million cows. We are planning a campaign in all villages across the country to spread the message," said Shankar.

"Given the prevailing situation in the country, how can we turn a blind eye (to this)?" said Shankar, who plans to join hands with all other religious leaders to press home the message that well-being of women is intrinsic to the prosperity of a family and economic development.

A common sentiment expressed by leaders of all religions - Sikh, Jain, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and sects like Brahma Kumaris among others was that misuse of new techniques to have a male child rather than a healthy child amounts to murder and insult to a mother who is revered in Indian tradition as being next only to god.

"We are trying to begin a campaign to educate people, particularly in urban areas where people are follow religion but forget the true value of religion to practice non-violence," said Muni Mahendra Kumar, a disciple of Jain guru Acharya Mahapragya.

Alarmed at increasing evidence of how pre-conceptual sex selection, female infanticide and foeticide has contributed to the sex ratio declining in some parts of the country to 800 girls for every 1,000 boys, the UNFPA has reached out to the religious leaders, NGOs and film luminaries like Nandita Das and Hema Malini among others to spread awareness about the adverse impact of this trend.

"There is a need to change the mindset of the people and religion has a role to play in this," said Hendrik van der Pol, UNFPA representative for India.

"We must join hands to stop this evil practice. It is our religious duty to provide protection to women and girl child," said Giani Joginder Singh Vedanti of Akal Takht, the Sikh religion's primary seat based at Amritsar.

He expressed anguish that Punjab and Haryana have emerged as places where the ratio of girls is the lowest in the country.

Decrying the practice of lavish weddings and dowry, the Sikh spiritual leader said it is a shame that the religion that emerged to give equal rights to all people is now discriminating against women.

Citing the example of women like Kalpana Chawla who brought glory not only to their families but also the country, Singh urged Sikhs to give proper education and respect to women and "not treat their wives like slaves and the goose that lays the golden egg."

Alahaj Sayed Kiberia of Dargah Ajmer Sharif condemned the "misuse of science to snuff out the life of a girl child in the womb. We need to fight this practice wherein the woman who gives birth to another life is being killed in infancy or shown disrespect."

In powerful presentations on the consequence of sex-selection and declining ratio of girls in states like Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat, an NGO showed how men in some of these states are having to buy women to have a male child.

In some cases, the lack of women of marriageable age is witnessing a trend where brothers are being forced to share a wife.