When Mitu Khurana found out she was pregnant with twins, she should have been overcome with joy. But, she says, her discovery marked the start of a cruel campaign by her husband and in-laws during which she was ignored, deprived of food, verbally and physically abused and pressured to abort her babies – because they were girls.
The 36-year-old doctor is believed to be the first woman in Delhi, India, to bring a criminal case against her husband, his mother and brother, and members of the medical establishment for finding out the sex of her unborn twins – an act that is banned in India. But her complaint is also being described as one of "grave national importance" that involves the doctor leading a nationwide struggle for gender equality.
India officially condemns the practice of female foeticide, and prenatal scanning to determine a baby's sex has been banned for almost two decades. But the government's own figures, as well as Dr Khurana's high-profile allegation, suggest the practice has not been stamped out.
Overall, there are around 940 females for every 1,000 males in India, according to the most recent census. The disparity is even more striking when you look at the child sex ratio, which has widened in the past decade. There are around 914 girls to every 1,000 boys, the lowest ratio since 1947, the year of India's independence. In some high-income areas, such as Delhi, the gap is even wider. In 2011, there were around 870 girls to every 1,000 boys in thecity.
Experts put the decline in the number of females down to neglect, high maternal mortality and the killing of female babies and foetuses – a trend thought in part to be motivated by India's historical dowry system, as well as a strong preference for sons and increased use of sex-selective technology. UN Women said the "dramatic fall" in the sex ratio at birth is of "significant concern" for India.
Dr Khurana says her husband, Kamal, and his family tricked her into having a prenatal scan to determine the sex of her foetuses in 2005 and then tried to pressurise her into aborting them. All family members deny the accusations and have been granted bail. They will appear before a district court, with a representative of Jaipur Golden Hospital, where the scan is alleged to have taken place, later this month.
Two doctors named in the complaint have appealed to the High Court and proceedings against them have been stayed, according to Dr Khurana's lawyer, Sujatha Balachander, from one of India's top law firms, which is taking on the case free of charge.
Dr Khurana told The Independent on Sunday that the abuse she suffered during her pregnancy included being pushed down the stairs by her husband, locked in a room and denied medication and bed-rest. "They said I should have an abortion because I was an educated woman and would not want a third child... [which would mean] no son to carry on the family name. They also said they would have to pay a dowry to get the daughters married," she said.
After lodging her complaint, Dr Khurana left her husband. She said giving birth to her daughters made everything worthwhile. "It has made me stronger and more confident. My parents and my daughters are my inspiration and strength," she said. "Things are changing. Women are coming forward. They are speaking out against abuse, but a lot needs to be done. The system is still patriarchal and wants to suppress any voice of women. Many times, I still get blamed for what happened."
Dr Khurana filed her complaint under India's Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, which bans prenatal sex determination. Anyone found guilty is liable to up to three years in prison and a fine. But the conviction rate under the Act lags at about 6 per cent. Sushma Kapoor from UN Women's Office for India said: "The small number of cases brought to court is [due to] the lack of a cultural shift in the preference for sons." She added: "Existing patriarchal values and mindsets compound the problem."
Ms Balachander added that she blamed the dowry system, which she said is "pretty much plaguing society as far as the girl child is concerned". She added that Dr Khurana has also issued a complaint of dowry harassment against her husband and her mother-in-law, which the state is also processing.
Dr Kamal Khurana, an orthopaedic surgeon, has denied the charges. He said: "These allegations are false. She is trying to ruin me and my career. I don't know why she is making these allegations. There was no demand for dowry, there was no physical abuse." He referred to a report from the chief district medical officer, which concluded that "there was no direct and/or circumstantial evidence of sex determination" at Jaipur Golden Hospital. Dr Kiran Chawla, the head of quality control at the hospital, said: "This is a very respectable hospital. No such tests are done and anyone making such claims is wrong."
Mitu Khurana disputes the report's findings. "I have to fight to hand over a better world and better society for my daughters," she said.