Last updateSat, 22 Jul 2017 6am

You are here: Home | Agenda | Child rights in India | The battle for survival

The battle for survival

By Kiran Moghe

The declining sex ratio was pointed out as far back as 1974. But it was only taken seriously after the shocking revelations of Census 2001. How can the female foetus and the girl-child be protected? Preventing sex-selective abortion by law is one way. But it cannot be the only way

June is the month of school admissions, a trying and testing time for most parents and teachers. However, apart from the usual hassles that characterise this period, a new problem has apparently emerged in places such as Sangli district in Maharashtra. Schools, or divisions run exclusively for girls, are now apparently facing a shortage of admissions. Considering that the kanyashalas (girls’ schools) were inspired by the social reform movement led by Mahatma Jyotiba and Savitribai Phule, Maharshi Karve, Gopal Ganesh Agharkar and others who pioneered women’s education in Maharashtra, this is a sorry state of affairs. While the evidence may still be anecdotal, it reinforces the gravity of the situation in no uncertain terms -- the number of girls/women in the state is declining steadily, and that too in a state where the question of gender equality was firmly and squarely a part of social reform.

The continuous decline in the proportion of women in the country has been a matter of concern for the women’s movement for a very long time. As far back as 1974, ‘Towards Equality’, the report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India, noted that the “decline in the sex ratio ever since 1901 is a disturbing phenomenon,” and pointed out that the lowest ratio had been recorded in Punjab, and in the metropolitan cities of the country. But it was only the publication of the 2001 Census report that forced the Government of India to acknowledge that the phenomenon was reaching alarming proportions.

The census report indicated that there had been the sharpest-ever decline in the child sex ratio (0-6 age-group) between 1991 and 2001. The decline was greatest in the relatively prosperous states of Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat and Maharashtra, and in urban areas. Significantly, Delhi, India’s capital, recorded a decline from 915 in 1991 to 865!

It was clear that apart from the traditional means of neglect of the girl-child, which include undernourishment, lack of medical attention, lack of education, early marriage, etc, purposive sex selection using modern methods such as ultrasonography was contributing heavily to the decline. It also meant that the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PNDT) Act that had been legislated in 1994 following the efforts of women’s organisations and health groups to prohibit sex selection and the consequent abortion of female foetuses, had been pretty much useless.

The report prompted a sharp response from women’s organisations that demanded urgent strategies to protect the girl-child. The Supreme Court also issued interim orders in a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) that had been filed earlier by Dr Sabu George, CEHAT and MASUM to seek directions for the implementation of the Act and explicitly include pre-conception tests within its ambit. In February 2003, the Act was amended and is now called the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act. Meanwhile there has been some effort by government agencies to put in place the administrative structures necessary to implement the Act, and some sort of media campaign to highlight the issue.

But mid-term data for a state like Maharashtra indicates that the decline, far from being arrested, continues unabated (the child sex ratio further declined from 922 in the 2001 to 898 in 2005) and calls for far more serious measures in the future.

The law is not enough

While it is absolutely necessary to have laws that support the struggle for women’s equal status in society, it is equally true that the existence of a law by itself does not prevent anti-women practices, whether it is sex selection, dowry or bigamy. There have to be simultaneous social campaigns to create awareness amongst women and the public at large in order to bring about a change in attitude. This, in turn, requires a proper analysis and understanding of the various factors that contribute to such anti-women practices being upheld by people.

Son-preference in India is rooted deep in religious and cultural practices, as is evident from the various rituals in different communities. Despite women’s contribution to the economy and family, there has always been a traditional patriarchal perception that women are a burden, and therefore a liability. They are considered temporary residents of the natal family, biding their time before they enter into matrimony. On the other hand, sons are seen as bringing pride and honour to their families. They are also the source of inheritance of property, and therefore security in old age.

The challenge before the women’s movement is the continuation of these perceptions even in the current context, when women have obviously made their mark in all fields in modern Indian society. In the case of sex selection, traditional son-preference has become intertwined with a slew of other reasons that effectively combine to devalue women and the girl-child. This calls for a multi-faceted strategy by the women’s movement to deal with what is really a basic struggle for existence.

Impact of market-driven globalisation

The current policies of market-driven globalisation are responsible for a further devaluation of women’s labour. With shrinking employment opportunities, more and more women are forced to take up poorly paid work in the unorganised sector, much of which is invisible. The economic insecurity of women also increases the vulnerability of women to various forms of social and domestic violence. The presence of young girls in the family becomes a source of parental worry. In stark contrast to the fact that women are actually taking on greater and greater economic burdens in increasingly adverse circumstances, the cultural perception that they are a burden is being reinforced.

Globalisation is not just about economic issues but also the values it promotes in the process. Market-driven consumerism has resulted in the practice of dowry, once confined to upper-caste and prosperous families, extending across all classes, castes and communities. The exchange of gifts is no longer restricted to the time of marriage; the girl’s parents are expected to provide a steady stream of cash and/or other items to her matrimonial family. Bollywood cinema and television companies that need constant fodder for their 24x7 channels systematically fuel ostentatious marriages. Corrupt politicians provide the social sanction for such vulgar display of wealth. Hapless parents are forced to borrow at exorbitant rates of interest. This in turn leads to the specious argument that it is better to spend money to illegally abort a female foetus than be burdened for life with a girl.

The same market values have taken over the medical profession; some doctors have no qualms about informing parents of the sex of the child, and, in turn, justify it as a matter of ‘choice’. Others argue that they are doing society, and particularly women, a service by helping get rid of unwanted girls. It is the same set of values that makes people believe that if the number of women in society goes down, their ‘price’ will increase, as if women are sacks of potatoes or onions!

The need for a social campaign

Therefore, as noted by the Seventh National Conference of All-India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), held in Bhubaneshwar in 2004: “The fight to save the female foetus and the girl-child from elimination is a political struggle linked to the discriminatory policies and cultures that strengthen patriarchy.” AIDWA’s struggle against sex determination is not confined to implementation of the PNDT Act but has been expressed in multiple forms.

For this national mass organisation of women, the problem of declining numbers of women in the country has been an issue of concern for a long time. For example, in Tamil Nadu, the AIDWA state unit was at the forefront in exposing the prevalence of female infanticide in the districts of Salem and Madurai. Eventually, the state government adopted what is now known as the Cradle Baby Scheme, which is basically an incentive scheme to protect the girl-child. As far back as 1993, the Haryana unit of the organisation held a demonstration against a clinic in Sirsa that was displaying female foetuses preserved in jars in its window with a view to attracting potential clients, and was successful in having it closed down. In Maharashtra, AIDWA was part of the sustained campaign that led to the passage of the Maharashtra Regulation of Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, in 1988. Calling for a ban on sex selection, AIDWA also presented a detailed memorandum to the parliamentary committee that examined the draft legislation proposed by the government.

Starting with a countrywide survey of the practice of dowry conducted by its own activists, national and state-level conventions have been conducted to bring out the pernicious nature of dowry and its consequences. At all these conventions, the organisation has also stressed the importance of AIDWA members taking a firm stand on the practice in their own families. In Haryana, the state unit has highlighted the plight of ‘bought wives’, a phenomenon that is the direct result of the shortage of girls in many villages, and which belies the perception that the value of women will improve if their numbers decline! In Maharashtra, the organisation has conducted an awareness campaign in the four districts that have shown the sharpest decline in sex ratios, particularly Pune, Satara, Sangli and Kolhapur. Linking the campaign to the rich tradition of social reform in the state, the campaign has highlighted the changing values in a state that espoused the cause of women’s equality as a central theme of its renaissance. Inspired by the campaign, activists in Pune city went on to use a decoy to nab a doctor carrying out sex selection using sonography. The case provided an opportunity to examine the various aspects of implementation of the PNDT Act. It brought to light the fact that the state government had not notified appropriate authorities that are legally responsible for implementing the Act, showing up the nexus between the private medical sector and the public establishment.

Simultaneously, AIDWA has been reiterating the issues of economic vulnerability of women and growing devaluation of their labour, demanding the implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and comprehensive protective legislation for the unorganised sector, including agricultural workers, of whom women make up substantial numbers.

The campaign has thrown up many challenges. It is our experience that while there is a willingness to recognise the value of women, especially their economic contribution and supportive role within the family, there is resistance towards taking concrete steps to end dowry, or son-preference rituals. The wider struggle for the economic rights of women, including equal property rights, has to be linked with the struggle against sex selection. The depiction of women in the media, and the role models that are played out have a deep influence on the youth of the country, and there have to be effective strategies to counter it. There is a need to initiate debate amongst doctors, who prefer to ignore the fact that illegal practices are rampant within their community. This is, in turn, linked to the regulation of the private health sector. Implementation of the PCPNDT Act is vested with the Health Ministry, and there is a reluctance to expose members of their own fraternity. Most importantly, there is a need to bring the question of declining sex ratios on the agenda of the ruling parties. Unless there is the political will, strategies to combat sex selection will remain only on paper. To build that political will is the major challenge facing us.

Important human development indicators for the girl-child





Population (0-6)1




Sex ratio (0-6)2




IMR (April 2006)3








Child mortality rate (0-4)5 (2000)




Anaemia (15-19)6




Literacy rate




Gross drop-out rate7




Class I-V




Class 1-VIII




Class I-X




Source: ‘Girl-child in the 11th Five-Year Plan’, Ministry of Women and Child Development, India

Problems faced by the girl-child in India


Problems faced

Before birth to 1

• Foeticide and infanticide


• Infant mortality


• Discrimination in breastfeeding and infant food


• Neglect of health (immunisation) 

1 to 11 years (this includes specific problems faced by age-groups 1-5 years and 6-11 years)

• Discrimination in access to food and healthcare
• Malnutrition and anaemia 
• Health problems like polio and diarrhoea 
• Iodine, Vitamin A and Micronutrient deficiency
• Low school enrolment and school drop-outs 
• Vulnerable to trafficking, child labour, child marriage
• Abuse, exploitation and violence
• Domestic chores
• Looking after siblings
• Restrictions on mobility and play
• Discrimination in overall treatment and parental care

11 to 18 years (adolescents)

• Poor health
• Low literacy level


• Restrictions on mobility and play


• Frequent illness due to malnutrition, anaemia and micronutrient deficiency


• Child marriage


• Early childbearing morbidity and mortality


• Poor access/denial to information and services


• Early and frequent pregnancy, coupled with abortions


• Marital and domestic violence


• Dowry harassment, desertion, polygamy, divorce


• Child labour, trafficking




• Heavy domestic work, including commuting long distances to collect firewood/ drinking water


• Unpaid and unrecognised work and drudgery


• No voice either in the home or in society

Source: ‘Girl-child in the 11th Five-Year Plan’, Ministry of Women and Child Development, Indi

(Kiran Moghe is President, All-India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), Maharashtra State Committee)

InfoChange News & Features, June 2007