Rod Mickleburgh and Robert Matas, Globe and Mail (Toronto), January 22, 2008
The violent death of two-year-old Rajvinder Kahlon has prompted a wave of soul-searching within the Lower Mainland’s large South Asian community, where sons continue, in large measure, to be valued over daughters.
“Unfortunately, it takes a tragedy sometimes to act as a rude awakening,” Indira Prahst, a sociology instructor at Langara College, said yesterday, after a weekend of intense community reaction to reports that Rajvinder’s father, now charged with her murder, had been depressed at having three daughters and no sons.
The reports came from those close to the family, including a friend who had lived in the basement of the Kahlon home for four years.
The issue of ongoing patriarchy among South Asian families lit up the phone lines on Punjabi-language radio call-in shows, with many expressing their shame and embarrassment over the little girl’s death.
“People are very upset. It’s a shock to the whole community that this has happened, and patriarchy is the major issue that they are talking about,” Radio India host Harpreet Singh said. “It’s a big, big problem.”
No one spoke out more forcefully than former premier and Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh, who had just returned from a month-long trip to India, where he had strongly denounced the widespread practice in Punjab of aborting female fetuses.
For centuries in India, the birth of boys has been celebrated, but not the birth of girls, and that tradition continues to be strong in local South Asian culture, Mr. Dosanjh said.
“The fact is that ordinary people, in their own hearts, are embarrassed by this,” he said, referring to the death of Rajvinder last Friday. “I’m angry, actually. I’m at my wits end. It comes to a point where you say: What will it take to change?”
Mr. Dosanjh said local South Asians continue to visit clinics in Blaine, Wash., that will determine a fetus’s gender early enough in a pregnancy to permit an abortion. It is accepted that if the fetus is female, an abortion will likely follow.
“I understand those places are still doing a good business,” said Mr. Dosanjh, despite the fact that South Asian newspapers in B.C. no longer carry their ads. Doctors in the province are not permitted to advise couples of the fetus’s gender until the 24th week.
“I find it reprehensible . . . You commit feticide, you commit infanticide, you abuse and kill after marriage. It doesn’t stop.”
He said the valuing of boys over girls is unlikely to be eradicated within the South Asian community without widespread condemnation that such practices are “absolutely unacceptable.”
“Individually,” he said, “there is not much we can do. There has to be collective social action and shaming.”
Mr. Dosanjh acknowledged that patriarchy exists in other cultures, “but that doesn’t justify it among South Asians. Justice ought not to be relative. This is about fairness and dignity toward women.”
Ms. Prahst said girls are still seen as a liability in many South Asian families because: of the desire to retain the family name; the “enormous economic investment in the son,” who is then to care for his aging parents; and the ongoing tradition of brides having to provide lucrative dowries to their husbands.
“We can longer be silent about this issue. It’s time for us all to speak out against gender inequality,” she declared.
Rajvinder’s father, Lakhvinder Kahlon, appeared in Surrey Provincial Court yesterday afternoon, charged with the first-degree murder of his youngest daughter.
Mr. Kahlon, with short, frizzy hair and a trim grey beard, appeared stunned when brought into court for his brief first appearance. He stood with arms folded across his chest, then sat down and stared ahead, showing no emotion.
Judge William MacDonald ordered a 30-day psychiatric assessment to determine whether the accused is fit to stand trial. He also imposed a publication ban on all evidence presented in court.
Defence lawyer Kris Pechet said his 47-year-old client is “very distraught.”
Rajvinder was killed at home while her mother, Manit Kaur Kahlon, walked the couple’s two older daughters to school.
An uncle of the dead girl, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Jimmi, described her as “vibrant and very precious. One can only imagine what her mother is going through.”