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Female feticide in India — a paradox of development?

Manasi Gopalakrishnan
August 1, 2019

Over the past three months, all of the children born in a region in northern India were boys, a survey found, raising suspicions of rampant female feticide. Patriarchal mindset and technology are to blame, say experts.

India suffers from a skewed sex ratio
Image: DW/K.Keppner

Uttarakhand is a Himalayan state located in northern India. Its unpredictable weather and tough terrain ensure a difficult life for the region's inhabitants, numbering over 10 million.    

Women in the state have traditionally been the economic backbone of their families, earning money, managing households, gathering firewood and transporting water over dozens of kilometers every day.

Read more: India's 'witches' victims of superstition and poverty

Historically, they have participated in several social movements, including the famous tree-hugging or "chipko" movement in the 1970s, when women in the Chamoli district tied themselves to trees to protest large-scale deforestation, which destabilized the area's delicate ecological balance. 

In later years, women were involved in a mass movement against the construction of the Tehri dam and hydroelectric power project, among others. However, like in most parts of India, women in Uttarakhand suffer from the low status accorded to them in Indian society and culture.

India's last census, conducted in 2011, showed that Uttarakhand's child sex ratio (the number of girls per 1,000 boys) fell from 908 in 2001 to 890 ten years later. Recent figures have been even more shocking. A government survey conducted recently in 132 villages in the state's Uttarkashi district revealed that none of the 216 children born in those villages over three months were girls.

In a statement to DW, the chairwoman of the Uttarakhand State Women's Commission, Vijay Barthwal, said that initial reviews revealed that some girls were also born, but the figures still needed to be verified. Still, activists and experts believe that the skewed sex ratio points toward rising female feticides — the selective abortion of female fetuses — which are banned in India.

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'Property of another family'

The problem is not limited to Uttarakhand alone, but transcends state borders. In Indian society, a son is considered the upholder of the family name, which he passes on to his son and so on. Many Hindu families believe that a person is guaranteed a place in heaven only if his or her son lights the funeral pyre and spreads the ashes in the river Ganges. 

The prevalence of this mindset in India means that women are seen as the subordinate gender and must abide by the rules society has set for them, sociologist Pramil Kumar Panda, who teaches at the Xavier Institute of Social Sciences in the eastern city of Ranchi, told DW.

"Daughters are always seen as the property of another family. So they are never viewed as one contributing to the expansion of household property, either in the short or the long run," he explained.

Read more: Why many Indians prefer sons over daughters

Economic advancement and better physical infrastructure have not been able to bring about a change in people's mindsets, he said.

"Data from the 2011 census reveal that relatively prosperous states like Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat and Maharashtra have a very bad child sex ratio, whereas some of the lesser developed regions like Chhattisgarh and northeastern states have a much better child sex ratio."

The Indian government has passed laws banning sex-selective abortions
The Indian government has passed laws banning the usage of ultrasound tests for determining a fetus' sex and sex-selective abortionsImage: Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images

Access to illegal tests

Jaisingh Rawat, a journalist and author of several books on the language and culture of Uttarakhand, says that economic development has even aggravated the problem.

Earlier, males in the state used to pay a "bride price" to women they married, he told DW. But now the scales have tipped in favor of men, who demand huge sums of money from prospective female partners. 

This has increased the financial pressure on women's families, prompting many of them to opt for sex-selective abortions rather than bear the financial and cultural burden of a female child, the expert said.

Read more: Doctor fights female feticide by delivering baby girls for free

Rawat noted that the development of infrastructure, including better roads, has improved people's access to illegal sex-determination tests and abortions. "Ultrasound machines are sent on a temporary basis — for two or three days — from cities like Dehradun to villages in the mountains. The [medical] agents who transport these machines announce in advance that they are coming and that patients wanting to undergo prenatal tests should get in touch."

Local agents who operate these machines also participate in the business and get their share of the profits, the expert said, adding that officials are usually clueless about such practices because medical workers say they are using these machines to set up temporary health camps for pregnant women.

Once a family decides it wants to get rid of a female fetus, it can simply go to a bigger city and get the job done, he said. Poor families sometimes also take loans at high rates of interest to undergo prenatal sex-determination tests and sex-selective abortions, local media reports suggest.

In this way, prenatal tests, which are supposed to be used only to check genetic abnormalities, are illegally being used to determine the sex of the fetus, which is then aborted. In many cases, the mother of the child has no say in the matter.

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Too few women

And the results are clear to see. India ranks fourth in the world, after Liechtenstein, China and Armenia, in terms of skewed sex ratios at birth, according to data published by the Asian Center for Human Rights, an NGO based in New Delhi. There are 112 boys for every 100 girls in the world's second most populous nation.

In an official report in 2013, India's health ministry pointed out that "son preference, neglect of the girl child resulting in higher mortality at younger age, female infanticide, female feticide..." were the primary reasons for the warped sex ratio.

According to the Population Research Institute (PRI), around 15.8 million girls went missing in India due to prenatal sex selection between 1990 and 2018. Approximately 550,000 girls went missing in 2018 alone, PRI said.

The government has passed laws banning the usage of ultrasound tests for determining a fetus' sex and sex-selective abortions. However, they have failed to put an end to the problem.

Sociologist Pramil Kumar Panda says that changes in social attitudes toward women and girls take a long time. That's why, he argues, laws against female feticide haven't been very effective.

The skewed sex ratio means that men in some Indian states, like Haryana, already have a difficult time finding wives. Out of desperation, men increasingly approach human smugglers, who supply them with women trafficked from poor families from countries like Bangladesh.

These women, in turn, face several problems in their new homes, starting from an inability to communicate and adjust to a new culture to being treated as sexual slaves.

Sociologists warn that skewed sex ratios may, over a period of time, lead to a worsening of women's rights in these communities and make women more vulnerable to sexual violence.

Manasi Gopalakrishnan
Manasi Gopalakrishnan Journalist and editor from India, compulsive reader of books.