An examination of female infanticide across nearly two centuries can only locate and fix the infant in her absence. It is that disembodiment that is being archived, not the infant herself. To read the archive in relation to female infanticide is also to read the female body as archive. The body now documents for its readers signs of violence, apathy, misogyny, and greed. But it also denies full disclosure by locating its own “truth” elsewhere except in its own invisible body. Because the bodies of these infants were rarely, if ever, recovered, the kind of violence that was wreaked upon them might never be known. An infant that dies from being neglected embodies proof that it was never wanted, but the mutilated body of a new-born that was strangled or beaten reveals marks of a different cruelty . How might we account for these varying forms of violence? By structuring the death of the infant as a non-birth, the very conception of loss resists signification. Each death enacts the mythic origin of infanticide; it becomes a representation and a re-presentation of that originary loss, thereby entering the ritual performance of a scripted play and distancing itself from the violence and horror of the act. The ‘nothingness’ of the female infant, echoed in the absence of her body and the absence of affect surrounding her murder, can only be undone in the archives through an insistence on her displacement from a colonial accounting. A fantasy of detection and containment is operational here, which counters her tripartite absence on the physical, affective, and discursive plane. The absent female infant is written into presence as she gets signified through rumour, suspicion, and statistics, her textuality preserved and contained with the archival records and, indeed, in the archive itself – buried in the arkheia.
According to Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, there should be millions more women and girls living in India than there are. The acclaimed economist compared the natural ratio of men to women globally with the ratio in India, and twenty years ago had calculated that India was “missing” about thirty-seven million women. That number has escalated to fifty million today.
Rita Banerji ’90, whose photographs bravely document some of India’s least treasured citizens, explains, “Perhaps ‘missing’ is too innocuous a term for what is actually happening—the systematic and targeted annihilation of a group [through] female feticide, female infanticide, dowry-related murders, an abnormally high mortality rate for girls under five due to starvation and intentional medical neglect, and the highest maternal mortality rate in the world.
Numbers tell the story in chilling detail:
Some one million female fetuses are aborted each year.
Midwives in some regions regularly kill the infant girls they deliver for as little as $1.50.
Dowry-related murders of women stand at about 25,000 cases a year.
A UNICEF report found that the mortality rate for girls under five is more than 40 percent higher than for boys the same age.
WHO and UNIFEM estimate that one pregnant woman dies every five minutes in India.
These conditions persist due to a deep-rooted mind-set Banerji describes as “unresisting acceptance of female genocide. It’s almost like ‘this is cultural, normal, how it is and will always be.’”