What is the impact of sex-selective abortion and discrimination against girls on sex ratios in India and what are the solutions? The prevalence of ultrasound technology, coupled with long-term problems of discrimination against girls, means that up to 35 million women are now ‘missing’ in India. Further, the number of girls born and surviving compared to boys under the age of six in Northern India is far below normally expected ratios and continues to slide. The Indian government needs to address underlying problems that lead Indian families, regardless of their class or caste standing, to prefer sons to daughters.
The preference for sons in Northern India has led to the number of girls under the age of six hitting an all time low. Discrimination against girls can be attributed to the presence of a complicated caste system, together with an overwhelmingly patriarchal society and traditions such as marriage dowries. Subsequently, girls are seen as a financial burden and mothers who do not give birth to boys are stigmatised by other family members. This results in a pressure on women to produce male heirs that transcends class, caste and state barriers in India.
The number of girls born and surviving compared to boys in the under-six age group in Northern India is far below normally expected ratios. Additionally, in four out of five sites studied, the ratio of girls to boys is even lower than when previously surveyed in 2001. Furthermore:
- Ratios are declining faster in urban areas, despite relative urban prosperity.
- Child survival is skewed against girls in areas with limited access to public health facilities and modern ultrasound technology.
- A trend toward smaller families is deepening the aversion to daughters. This means that although there is some improvement in the survival rates of first-born daughters, the survival chances of second or third-born daughters are plunging.
The Indian government has introduced a number of schemes to address the problem, including financial incentives to encourage families to have daughters, and the monitoring of pregnant women in areas known to have low numbers of girls. However, legislation that outlaws sex determination and sex-selective abortions has not been adequately enforced and is routinely violated. In addition, such measures have not addressed the more complex underlying problem of why having daughters is so unwelcome in many Indian families. Practices such as marriage dowries, which provide a major source of pressure for families with daughters need to be challenged by:
- Improving the quality of and access to health and education so that poor families do not need to choose which child receives these basic services.
- Raising awareness and changing attitudes and behaviour towards women and girls.
- Activities that support women to recognise and claim their rights. This would enable them to challenge the everyday discrimination that they face.