Gendercide in India
sex ratio is getting worse. The trend can be reversed.
THE news from
India’s 2011 census is almost all heartening. Literacy is up; life expectancy is
up; family size is stabilising. But there is one grim exception. In 2011 India
counted only 914 girls aged six and under for every 1,000 boys.
intervention, just a few more boys would be born than girls. If you compare the
number of girls actually born to the number that would have been born had a
normal sex ratio prevailed, then 600,000 Indian girls go missing every year.
This is less distorted than the sex ratio in China, but whereas China’s ratio
has stabilised, India’s is widening, and has been for decades. Sex selection is
now invading parts of the country that used not to practise it.
sex ratio shows that gendercide is a feature not just of dictatorship and
poverty. Unlike China, India is a democracy: there is no one-child policy to
blame. Although parts of the country are poor, poverty alone does not explain
India’s preference for sons. The states with the worst sex ratios—Punjab,
Haryana, Gujarat—are among the richest (see article), which suggests distorted
sex selection will not be corrected just by wealth or government policy. But it
can be corrected.
Parents choose to abort female fetuses not because they
do not want or love their daughters, but because they feel they must have sons
(usually for social reasons); they also want smaller families—and something has
to give. Ultrasound technology ensures that this something is a generation of
unborn daughters, because it lets them know the sex of a fetus. Sex selection
therefore tends to increase with education and income: wealthier, better
educated people are more likely to want fewer children and can more easily
afford the scans.
But whereas sex selection may be understandable for a
family, it is disastrous for a nation. It is an extreme expression of an
attitude that says daughters are worth less than sons—a belief that is damaging
both to women and to the next generation, since healthier, better educated
mothers have healthier, better-educated children.
If sex ratios stay the
same, 600,000 missing girls this year will become, in 18 years’ time, over 10m
missing future brides. Robbery, rape and bride-trafficking tend to increase in
any society with large groups of young single men. And because in China and
India men higher up the social ladder find wives more easily than those lower
down, the social problems of bachelorhood tend to accumulate like silt among the
poorest people and (in India) the lowest castes. This is unjust as well as
Over time, the problem may right itself—as the experience of
South Korea, where a sex ratio that was highly distorted in the 1990s and is now
approaching normality, suggests. In India, attitudes are changing. According to
the latest census, “female literacy, improving general health care, improving
female employment rates [are] slowly redefining motherhood from childbearing to
child rearing. Census 2011 is perhaps an indication that the country has reached
a point of inflection”; and in the worst-affected areas, sex ratios are becoming
less distorted. But governments need to hurry the process along.
Cherish the girls
India and China, to their credit, are trying to do so. India, for example, bans
ultrasound scans from being used merely to identify a fetus’s sex; it also makes
sex-selective abortions illegal. But gendercide cannot be reduced just by
coercive laws. In middle-income places, ultrasound scans are becoming basic
prenatal procedures; it is all but impossible to stop parents from getting to
know their child’s sex. If a government cracks down on legal abortions, families
will get illegal ones—risking the life of the mother, as well as that of her
Far more effective would be to persuade parents that
their daughters are worth as much as their sons. Changing social attitudes is a
difficult thing for governments to do; but ensuring that girls get their fair
share of education, and women their fair share of health care, would be a
India’s skewed sex
An aversion to having
daughters is leading to millions of missing girls
“WE’RE going for a
trip”, Sakina remembers her older sister saying. Orphaned and poor, the girls
were happy to leave their home in Kolkata. Taken 1,300km to Kotla, a village on
the wheat plains south of Delhi, the 12-year-old Sakina was dumped in the arms
of an older man while her sister fled. The man, a wage labourer, had paid over
5,000 rupees ($100, today) to a dalal, or broker, who arranged to ship unwanted
girls to places short of them.
Sakina, now taking a break from the first
harvest of the year, recalls the early misery of her new home. A Bengali forced
into marriage, she was jeered at as a paro, a term for female outsider in
Haryana, and shunned. We are treated as goats, mutters another woman, imported
from Hyderabad. “It was when I started having children that I realised I had no
time to be upset,” Sakina says. She has produced nine offspring, eight of them
boys. Now she worries about getting brides for them—and says she is even ready
to repeat her own sad history by contacting a dalal.
She may have to.
Early data from February’s national census, published on March 31st, show
India’s already skewed infant sex ratio is getting worse. Nature provides that
slightly more boys are born than girls: the normal sex ratio for children aged
0-6 is about 952 girls per 1,000 boys. Since 1981, the ratio has steadily fallen
below that point: there were 945 girls per 1,000 boys in the 1991 census, 927 in
2001 and now 914. Fast growth, urbanisation and surging literacy seem not to
have affected the trend.
The ratio is most distorted in the states of the
northern Gangetic Plain, such as Punjab. Haryana, Sakina’s home, remains the
direst of all, with only 830 girls per 1,000 boys. More worrying, places that
used not to discriminate in favour of sons, such as the poorer central and
north-eastern states, have begun to do so. Economic success, argues Alaka Basu,
a demographer, “seems to spread son preference to places that were once more
neutral about the sex composition of their children.” The new census showed a
worsening sex ratio in all but eight of India’s 35 states and territories
(though those eight include some of the most extreme examples, for instance,
The “missing girls” are usually aborted, shortly after the
parents learn of their sex. A short drive from Kotla to Nuh, a typical trading
town, shows how. The main road is dotted with clinics that boast of ultrasound
services. Requests for a scan to check the sex of a fetus are turned down at
“Bharat Ultrasound” and “City Care Hospital”, but a nervous medic at one does
recommend a place that would do it.
In fact, says Gaushiya Khan, a local
activist, medics are ready to reveal a fetus’s sex for as little as 600 rupees.
Doing so is illegal, and discouraged by various campaigns, but the law is almost
impossible to enforce. Slapping the father on the back and saying “you’re a
lucky man” is hint enough. Demand for scans is rampant. Entrepreneurs are said
to tour villages with scanners on bicycles.
The impact on Indian society
is grim. You might have thought that scarcity would lead to girls being valued
more highly, but this is not happening. One measure is the practice of giving
dowries. Almost no one, rich or poor, urban or rural, dreams of dispensing with
these. Rather, as Indians grow wealthier, dowries are getting more lavish and
are spreading to places where they were once rare, such as in Tamil Nadu and
Kerala, in the south. In Kotla women huddled around Sakina shake their heads
when asked to imagine life without dowries: “then nobody would find a husband”,
A skewed sex ratio may instead be making the lot of women
worse. Sociologists say it encourages abuse, notably in the trafficking of the
sort that Sakina first suffered from but is now ready to pay for. Reports
circulate of unknown numbers of girls who are drugged, beaten and sometimes
killed by traffickers. Others, willingly or not, are brought across India’s
borders, notably from Bangladesh and Myanmar. “Put bluntly, it’s a competition
over scarce women”, says Ravinder Kaur of the Indian Institute of Technology in
Men, especially if poor and from a low caste, suffer too. Women in
India are sometimes permitted, even encouraged, to “marry up” into a higher
income bracket or caste, so richer men find it easier to get a bride. The poor
are forced into a long or permanent bachelorhood, a status widely frowned upon
in India, where marriage is deemed essential to becoming a full member of
society. Poor bachelors are often victims of violent crime.
Yet, bad as
things are, sex selection may slowly be turning around. Though the sex ratio has
been worsening for decades, it is doing so more slowly. The figure in 2001 was
1.9% worse than it had been in 1991. The figure in 2011 was 1.5% worse than in
2001—an improvement of sorts.
Moreover, the ten-year census may not
capture what has been happening recently. For that, go to the sample surveys
that India carries out more often. These show a different pattern. The figures
are not strictly comparable, because sample surveys show the sex ratio at birth,
whereas the census gives it among infants up to the age of six. Still, it is
significant the sex ratio at birth is improving, not worsening. In 2003-05 the
figure was 880 girls born per 1,000 boys. In 2004-06, that had risen to 892 and
in 2006-08, to 904. It is not clear why this should be. The samples could be
misleading. But perhaps they reveal a recent change in Indian attitudes towards
the value of daughters.
The fears about India’s sex ratio are not merely
of the harm that today’s level will cause when children become adults. People
also worry that the ratio will get ever worse, deteriorating towards Chinese
levels (which are even more extreme: on a comparable basis, China’s sex ratio at
birth is about 833). This fear, thinks Monica Das Gupta of the World Bank, may
be exaggerated. Not only are there signs of an incipient national turnaround,
but regional figures give further reasons for hope. The states with the worst
ratios, Haryana and Punjab, seem to have had skewed ratios for decades, going
back to the 1880s. They now show some of the biggest improvements.
national average is worsening thanks to states which once were more neutral with
regard to sex, such as Tamil Nadu and Orissa. But because they have not had the
historical experience of a strong preference for sons, Ms Das Gupta suggests,
they also seem less likely to push the sex ratio to the extremes that it reached
in Punjab or China. If so, the next census in 2021 could show the beginnings of
a shift towards normality. With luck, the deterioration in north-east and
central India—damaging though it will certainly be—may not mark the start of a
fresh erosion in the value of Indian girls.
Dear Isha Khan
just in operating of a ultrasound observation with a doctor/technician in a
reputable hospital in Kuwait, the only measures to know either it is boy or Girl
is the vision of sex organ in the monitor, boys one giving a black spot sign and
girls are not or plain but this is in the month of 6 onwards at that time no
mother can abort her child. Can you please clear this matter how ultrasound
technology shall help the parents to control gender ? If you have time.
Mohammed Ramjan Ali Bhuiyan