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The sex-selection killing fields

By Havovi Wadia

The sex ratio of children aged 0 and 6 in India has fallen further in the last decade to 914 girls per 1,000 boys. Why are government and civil society campaigns making so little difference?

Sex ratio in India

For well over two decades, the ‘development’ sector in India has worked tirelessly in villages, mofussil towns and slum settlements running campaigns on the girl-child.

In schools each year children do assignments and projects on ‘female foeticide’ and ‘female infanticide’, invariably focusing on practices in ‘villages’ where people are ‘uneducated’. The problem has persistently been traced to a lack of education and that wonderful word on which all social evils can be blamed -- poverty.

Governments have put in place incentives for educating girl-children, subsidising their food, awarding a rupee a day for each girl-child who attends school regularly. Most importantly, in 1996, the Pre-Natal Diagnostics Techniques Act made it illegal to use ultrasound technology to identify the sex of the foetus. Since then, at least by law, doctors are banned from revealing the sex of a foetus to expecting parents.

In 1991, the number of females per 1,000 males in India was 927. In 2001, the number rose marginally to 933. The 2011 census put this figure at 940.

However, a closer look at the census reveals that the steady rise in sex ratio is somewhat misleading, masking several practices that violate both the law and the rights of female children. The sex ratio in children aged 6 and younger is only 915 girls to every 1000 boys (2011 census); the expected ratio would be 950 and 975 girls per 1,000 boys.

Absolute numbers of children between 0-6 years of age

Number of children aged 0-6 in India158,789,287
Number of boys aged 0-6 in India82,952,135
Number of girls aged 0-6 in India 75,837,152

There are 71,14,983 less girls aged 0-6 in the country as compared to boys in the same age-group.

Sex ratio of children between 0-6 years of age

DecadeSex ratio
1991-2001927
2001-2011914

Thus, the sex ratio of children between the ages of 0 and 6 in the country has fallen in the last decade by 13 points. Interestingly, in 1961, the ratio was 976 girls for every 1,000 boys in this age-group. This means that over the last 50 years, the sex ratio has fallen by 63 points.

Number of sex-selective abortions

If we accept the calculations in the Lancet study (Lancet 2011 May 24  [doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736 (11) 60649-1]), there were fewer than 2 million sex-selective abortions of girls in the 1980s. In the 1990s, this figure can be calculated to be as high as 4.1 million. And in the decade ending 2010, the number of sex-selective abortions is possibly 6 million!

Number of sex-selective abortions of second-born girls

Where the first-born is a girl, the incidence of sex-selective abortions for the second conceived child is high.

In 1990, the number of girls born second in the ordinal sequence was 906 for every 1,000 boys; in 2005, this figure dropped to 836. This amounts to an annual decline of 0.52%.

Sex-selective abortions in Maharashtra

The district of south Mumbai, arguably the wealthiest district in Maharashtra, has the lowest sex ratio in the entire state -- 838 females for every 1,000 males.

Population First Director Dr A L Sharada points out, however, that south Mumbai has always had poor sex ratio figures compared to the state and national figures. According to her, the more disturbing trend is in Beed, which now has the lowest sex ratio in the state. “Earlier we knew that the higher income areas practised sex-selective abortion. Now it is very worrying because across the spectrum the sex ratio is going down in this state -- even in tribal areas where we used to say there is more gender parity.”

The sex ratio for children 0-6 years of age in Maharashtra is 883/1,000. In 2001, this figure was 913. Over the last decade therefore there has been a drop of 30 girls per 1,000 boys.

Modernity, development and the gender discourse

Several stories one comes across in everyday life reinforce these statistics.

  • One activist tells the story of a lawyer in Punjab who has two daughters. However, after her second daughter was born she began to be increasingly reprimanded by family and friends. “Of what use is all your education and intelligence? You don’t even know how to plan your family properly, and now you are stuck with two daughters.”
  • Sufiya (name changed) has a daughter. She is principal of a school and is very popular with her students. During a discussion on gender discrimination, she took a strong stand against sex-selective abortions. “I won’t ever do that. Even I want a son, but I’ll just have children till God gifts me a boy. I won’t kill my baby just because she is a girl.”
  • Kamal runs a beauty parlour. She is educated, market savvy and reasonably well-off. Her first two children are girls, much loved by the in-laws and the extended family. Yet, when she conceived for the third time, the family took a joint decision to check the sex of the foetus and have it aborted if it was female. It was. And they did. The mother-in-law said: “As it is Kamal works so hard and she has only just had the second one a year ago. She needs time to recover properly.”

However, two months later when she conceived again and the foetus was discovered to be male, she carried the child through the nine months and is now the mother of a baby boy.

  • “You know, there’s no problem with girls. They’re so loving and do so much for their parents. But when Suresh (name changed) has worked so hard to build this business he obviously wants to hand it over to his child and make sure that it continues in our family name. At the end of the day, whatever we say, girls do marry and develop other priorities. Then what will happen to decades of this work?!”
  • Nazma (a 28-year-old software engineer who lives in suburban Mumbai) says: “I just don’t want a girl. Look at how much we have to go through as women. It’s getting harder and harder! I know what I’ve had to listen to and do to meet expectations. I am not bringing another girl into the world so that she has to go through it all, and I have to watch it on top of that!”

Each of the above stories shows the several ways in which the discourses of ‘modernity’ and ‘development’ are used to subvert the purported objectives of the discourse. Arguments regarding the health and wellbeing of the mother, the ethic of hard work and focus, and moral arguments on abortion all get co-opted into the larger patriarchal framework.

Nilangi Sardeshpande, Director, SATHI (Pune), says that, strangely, the legislation banning the use of technology for sex disclosures of foetuses has backfired. While the ban effectively puts sex-selection out of bounds for poor families, it has unwittingly made it a privilege of the rich. With doctors aware that disclosure of the sex of the foetus is illegal, the cost of such disclosure has gone up. This means that poor families cannot access the technology. However for those with means it is something they suddenly become ‘enabled’ to do by virtue of their ability to pay for the service.

She also points out that there is yet another campaign that has contributed in some measure to the selective abortion of female foetuses -- the two-child norm. She argues that it is well taken by the educated elite in the country. But contextualised in a strongly patriarchal framework, it puts on women the pressure to ensure that they do have a male child to ensure continuation of the family name. As a result, if the first-born is a girl the woman is faced with an ethical dilemma and chooses sex-selection before the ‘foetus’ becomes a ‘child’ and the dilemma is further compounded.

Dr Sharada of Population First has a similar view. She contends, in fact, that even families that choose to have one child opt for sex-selection because they aspire to a better life, passing on business or family wealth, etc. With a daughter they feel hamstrung because they have to save for her dowry and her wedding. Even now, and especially among the wealthy, she says daughters are not seen as good returns on investment.

It also seems as if the primary concern of most wealthy families is to ensure that assets remain ‘within the family’. Since family continues to be defined in terms of male lineage, leaving all one’s assets to a daughter implies that wealth will be taken away from the ‘family’.

Interestingly, when one speaks to parents in upper middle class families, a clear distinction is made between ancestral property and wealth. So, parents are clear that both their daughters and their sons will get an equal share in the wealth of the family. However, ancestral land, family businesses, and ancestral jewellery invariably are handed from father to son.

Addressing the issue

It is clear that the easy correlation between income, illiteracy and sex-selective abortions was camouflaging a deeper patriarchal worldview that cuts across class, region and caste. The campaign for the girl-child is now far more complicated -- the target audience has expanded, variability in its profile increased, and the languages it speaks have multiplied. Most disconcertingly, the discourses of rights and modernity are twisted to fit into the patriarchal framework and therefore become counterproductive.

The approaches of both government and civil society will thus need to focus both on the symptoms and the structure that is nurturing them.

Ensure effective implementation of the law: Dr Sharada believes this is the first and most important step that needs to be taken. Her experience in clinics across Maharashtra shows that several ultrasound machines are not registered. In clinics with multiple machines (some of which are sealed), the numbers on registration certificates do not match the numbers on the machines. It is this kind of sloppy implementation of the law that allows medical practitioners to continue their malpractice.

Stringent punishments for doctors who disclose the sex of a foetus:  Current punishment under the legislation is sealing the machine and a fine of a few thousand rupees. However, there is a need to ensure that every case that comes up is filed in court and that the punishment includes a fine as well as a conviction. If this occurs, the licence of the doctor will be revoked and together with other aspects of the punishment will serve as a deterrent to others.

Control over MNCs that sell machines to doctors: There is an urgent requirement to monitor the way ultrasound machines are sold. The company must be made accountable for whom they sell the machines to and how many are being purchased. Dr Sharada recommends that these records be maintained in the public domain.

Promoting two-girl families: Dr Sardeshpande sees this as one of the immediate ways in which the issue of second-child sex-selection can be addressed. She recommends that the government fund the education (including higher education) and other expenses of children in families where both children are girls.

Locating gender as a human rights issue: In the current framework, prospective parents are told: “Ladkiyaan bhi…” (“Girls too can…”) There is, therefore, an attempt to cast girls as more loving, kinder, more capable, a safer investment, etc. This instrumentality to the campaign on promoting girl-children needs to be avoided because it creates unnecessary pressure on women and girls to cater to an increasingly impossible model of girlhood/womanhood. The argument could instead be located in the principle of fairness and justice -- two values that the middle class is increasingly standing up for in the country.

Civil society action: Gender activists argue that the very foundation on which we understand gender is flawed. Dr Sharada asserts the need for all civil society interventions to be based on gender equity. The fact that gender inequality structures and frames all aspects of life is something that must be recognised, accepted and worked on consciously by all social activists, no matter what their core area of focus is.

Monitoring mechanisms: Regular and systematic monitoring of doctors and activities in clinics must be undertaken. Reports must be shared in the public domain. There is no excuse for aborting a foetus because it is female.

The argument that a family is incomplete without both a son and a daughter is specious. The claim that only sons continue the family name is arguable, at best. The point of view that women have too hard a life to be born holds no water.

Girls have the right to be born.

(Havovi Wadia is a development professional with experience in the field of child rights and human rights. She is currently a PhD student at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences)

Infochange News & Features, June 2011