India’s 2011 census shows a worrying trend in the number of girls under the age of 6. There are now 914 girls under the age of 6 to every 1,000 boys. This is worse than the figure ten years ago when the ratio was 927 to 1,000. The picture is varied across the country but the siutation in the north generally worse than in the south. Haryana is at the bottom with a ratio of 830 to 1,0000 followed by Punjab with 846 to 1000.
There are many reasons to explain this trend including female infanticide, abuse and neglect of girl children, but the main reason is sex selective abortions. A study in the British medical journal, The Lancet, estimates that up to 12.1 million girls were aborted in India over the last three decades. This happened despite a 1996 law banning the use of ultrasound screening or other testing for the sex of the unborn child.
Researchers found that wealthier or more educated women were more likely to abort girls because they could afford to pay for sex tests and abortions. They also found that families who already had one girl were more likely to abort a second child if they knew the unborn child was female. Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, said the findings were “worrisome and threatening” because “we always believed when people are rich and educated they will be more socially aware but that is not the case.”
The problem is not confined to Indians in India. Journalist and author Lady Kishwar Desai last year pointed to statistics from the University of Oxford that showed almost 100 baby girls were “disappearing” from British Indian families every year.
The statistics clearly point to a significant cultural preference among Indians for baby boys. Why is this the case? The main reason is dowry. Although outlawed by the Indian government in 1961 the practice remains rampant, affecting all religious communities, rich and poor alike. There are other reasons for having boys too: they are bread winners; they are expected to look after their parents in old age; they often inherit their parents’ property; they carry forward their parents’ family name; and in the case of Hindus, they are allowed to light their parents’ funeral pyres.
Lady Desai, who was born in Amabala in Northern India, said: “Jewellery, cash, cars, even houses – the value of the dowry an Indian girl’s family must pay to the family of her future husband can run to tens of thousands of pounds.”
“Marrying off one daughter can be expensive, but two, three… that can be ruinous”, she said.
She said that estimates varied as to how many Indian women are now ‘missing’ but “Female foeticide, gendercide – call it what you will – it’s a terrible and chilling statistic”. It is certainly is.
Unless the deep cultural prejudice against having baby girls is dealt with I do not think the situation is likely to improve. We will inevitably see more and more female foetuses being aborted each year in India. Not only is this the wilful execution of unborn children but it is an affront to the value of a girl’s life. I have to agree with the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who called this a “national shame”. Government laws by themselves will not solve the problem as they have thus far proved ineffective in dealing with the issue. What really needs to happen is social transformation, but the question is: is that really possible?