Answering for India’s “Missing Girls”: Sex-selective abortion in India

On March 8, 2007, International Women’s Day, the United Nations released a report estimating that 200 million women and girls were “demographically missing.”

According to the report, half of that number came from Asian countries, especially China and India. Some experts believe that this demographic anomaly can be attributed to gendercide, or the systematic killing of members of a specific sex.

While the sex ratios in both India and China deviate from the naturally occurring rate of 1.05 boys per girl, establishing the true number of sex-selective abortions and, more importantly, preventing future sex-selective abortions will require a culturally-sensitive and incremental approach.

Though “missing girls” may not seem as pressing an issue as violent conflict or state politics, sex-selective abortion in India has the potential to both exacerbate and create health and political crises.

It is estimated that in India a female fetus is aborted every minute, resulting in skewed sex ratios like 1,000 men for every 618 women in India’s Daman and Diu region. Lopsided sex ratios like these create serious economic and criminal crises for their respective communities.

Though female participation in the Indian economy is relatively low, around 22 percent nationwide, and just 9 percent in urban settings, women account for between 55 and 60 percent of the country’s farm production, making them a vital part of food security, poverty prevention and the success of the Indian economy.

Without a sufficient number of women to contribute to both agricultural and household production, future generations will face many obstacles either avoiding or rising above poverty.

A lack of eligible brides in Indian communities as a result of sex-selective abortion may also heighten the frequency of sex trafficking into India, a phenomenon that has already occurred in some regions of China with gender imbalances.

Furthermore, the correlation between violence and an artificially skewed sex ratio is becoming increasingly evident. In the Economic and Political Weekly, Ravinder Kaur argues that though a scarcity of women would seem to elevate women in societal status, gender imbalances has, in fact, the opposite effect and “Indian women in districts with high sex ratios experience more physical abuse and a higher degree of control than those in areas with better sex ratios.”

What Causes Sex-selective Abortion?

To avoid such consequences, both the Indian government and those affected by similar problems, have begun to study and track demographic patterns in certain regions. However, studying incidences of sex-selective abortion across the world has revealed that no single indicator adequately predicts the prevalence of sex-selective abortion.

The high frequency of sex-selective abortion, and the resulting 1.2 male per female sex ratio in China, is attributed in large part to the country’s strict one child policy. And while this recently discontinued law does much to explain China’s surplus of boys and men, it does not account for gendercide in India, as no such policy has ever been implemented by the Indian government.

Financial and economic factors would seem to provide possible incentives to commit sex-selective abortion. Perhaps, if families had more money, they would be able to afford children of either gender, and consequently would be less likely to commit gendercide.

But, comparatively wealthy countries like Taiwan and Singapore, as well as the richest regions of India still report relatively high incidences of sex-selective abortion. In fact, gender imbalance tends to rise with higher income and education.

It is said that as well-educated families tend to restrict family size more than their less-educated counterparts, the importance of a male heir becomes greater, incentivizing sex-selective abortion.

Further disproving the notion that sex-selective abortion is a function of economic prosperity, mortality rates among girls ages one to five years old in India show that a mother’s education may not be the best indicator of a child’s mortality. The patterns in early child mortality suggest that gains in a mother’s education and wealth are not necessarily used to benefit her female children.

A recent analysis of suspiciously unbalanced sex ratios among children born to Asian immigrants in the United Kingdom demonstrates that sex-selective abortion is not caused by location-specific factors like government policy, or economic factors. Sex-selective abortion is determined instead by cultural preferences, explaining gendercide’s ability to transcend political barriers and social status.

The revelation that sex-selective abortions stems from cultural practices rather than economic or political situation provides answers as to both why previously enacted measures against sex-selective abortion have failed and what measures may work in the future.

Knowing the root of these discriminatory abortions may lead the Indian government away from its current practice of restricting reproductive rights and toward expansion and protection of women’s rights.

Previous Attempts at Eliminating Sex-Selective Abortion

In 1994 the Indian government passed the Pre-conception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act that prohibits medical professionals from informing expectant mothers of the sex of their fetus.

In addition to inciting riots outside clinics, this “top down assault on fetal sex information,” as Brendan O’Neill of refers to this legislation, resulted in many women being denied abortion services entirely.

While this act does provide a means of preventing families from pursuing sex-selective abortion through the denial of information, its efficacy in solving gender imbalances leaves much to be desired. Though an estimated five to fifteen percent of second trimester abortions are carried out for sex selection, it is important to note that denying women access to reproductive health procedures does not necessarily stop abortions from occurring.

When safe, legal abortions become impossible to access, women are more likely to turn to unsafe abortions or infanticide. The Pre-conception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques Act is particularly ill-advised measure against reducing sex-selective abortion given that eight percent of maternal deaths in India, or 4,600 deaths per year, are the result of unsafe abortion.

And while it is impossible to know if these unsafe abortions were pursued with the goal of sex-selection, infringements on reproductive rights will do little to decrease incidents of gendercide. In India’s rural districts, lack of access to abortion does not prevent gendercide, but rather delays it. Families that have girls they do not want to raise deny their daughters food, medical care and attention, ultimately resulting in death and yet another “missing” girl.

Taking Action for the Future

So, if restrictions on reproductive rights produce negative effects on public health, and economic development alone cannot guarantee a decrease in sex-selective abortion, many nongovernmental organizations, community organizers, and the Indian government itself are left wondering what initiatives are worth pursuing.

The United Nations Population Fund’s efforts to combat sex-selective abortion in India asserts “legal action by itself is not enough to eliminate harmful traditional practices,” like sex-selective abortion. This program further argues “to be effective, legislation should be part of a broad and integrated campaign that involves opinion makers and custodians of culture.”

To achieve the ultimate goal of rectifying India’s sex ratio, focus must be turned to the status India’s women, both present and future. Respecting Indian women’s rights to reproductive health and treating them as individuals, rather than “tools of demography” as Suchitra Dalvie, one of India’s most outspoken pro-choice campaigners, accuses some supposedly feminist organizations of doing, will lead to longer-lasting, and sustainable change in both women’s rights and sex-selective abortion.

While the statistics of India’s missing girls reveal the urgency of the situation, these statistics also ignore the personal, individual decisions that create these numbers. If women were celebrated for the assets they contribute rather than feared for the burdens they bring, perhaps sex-selective abortion would be less common.

Because cultural changes cannot be legislated into effect, these methods will undoubtedly take some time to implement. A good starting point would be to address education gaps between girls and boys. As of 2011, literacy in India was measured at 74.04%. However, there was a seventeen-percentage point between men (82.14%) and women (65.46%).

Girls make up two-thirds of the illiterate population between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four, clearly inhibiting their options in the workforce and their futures as productive members of society.

By expanding and equalizing access to education, a women’s role in society will eventually shift away from antiquated ideas of womanhood that focus on dowries, division of family property, and helplessness. With a more empowered vision of a daughter’s potential, families will be dissuaded from sex-selective abortion and will assign less importance to raising sons.

In the meantime, while these cultural changes take hold, there are more immediate measures the Indian government can undertake that would help eradicate sex-selective abortion. Firstly, implementation of a nation-wide birth certificate program will help track demographic trends, and may help even “find” some missing girls that were simply never documented.

With birth and death records, communities would be able to better substantiate cases of infanticide against young girls, call attention to willful neglect and someday prosecute gendercide.

Secondly, reforming laws that institutionalize a gender hierarchy will also weaken the preference for boys rather than girls among parents. The Hindu Secession Act of 2005 amendment to allow daughters to have equal claim to their parents’ property as any male heirs has major implications for family planning and removes one incentive to select a pregnancy based on the fetus’ sex.

Amending other laws that similarly codify sexism in Indian society will likewise help today’s women and tomorrow’s girls achieve equality.

Thirdly, as the South Korea’s shift away from gender imbalances illustrates, anti-discrimination lawsuits and rulings in favor of gender equality made son-preference obsolete.

If the Indian legal system can afford girls and boys the same access to education, the same civil, political, and economic rights, then there is no need to select for boys and perhaps Indian girls will grow in numbers in future generations. Enacting these changes now, as well as pushing for cultural shifts towards equal rights will ensure a more stable, prosperous Indian society in the future.

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