Missing Daughters in Modern India

A doctor in a north Indian town flashed “V” sign after ultrasonography of a pregnant woman, meaning that it was a son. The other sign language devised by the son-obsessed Indians, Gargi Parsai writes, is “laddu” for a son and “barfi” for a daughter.

Preference for a male child is on the rise in India, particularly in North India, resulting in declining child sex ratio. According to census 2011 the child sex ratio in the age group 0-6 is 914.23 girls for every 1000 boys. This trend has been continuing for several decades.

Child Sex Ratio (0-6 yr) 1961–2011

(Girls per 1000 boys)

1961    1971    1981    1991    2001    2011

976      964      962      945      927      914

The 2011 child sex ratio is the worst in the history of India since independence. Most of the north Indian states have low child sex ratio according to census 2011: Haryana (830/1000), Punjab (846/1000), Jammu & Kashmir (859/1000), Delhi (866/1000), Chandigarh (867/1000), Rajastan (883/1000), Maharashtra (883/1000) and Gujarat (886/1000).

The appalling child sex ratio is due to sex-selective abortion or female foeticide (it means killing female foetus in the mother’s womb). Female infanticide is also to blame for this ratio. A study on female foeticide conducted by Dr. Ashish Bose in Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Haryana categorically states that female foeticide was the result of an unholy alliance between the traditional preference for a son and modern medical technology, and increasing greed of doctors and rising demand for dowry that makes daughters a financial burden. To have a daughter is acceptable if the couple has already a son, but a daughter’s arrival is unwelcome if the couple has a daughter already. With more money and material demanded in dowry, a girl has become a potential financial drain on parents. So girl is no longer desired.

 Prabhuji mein teri binti karoon

Paiyan Paroon bar bar

Agle Janam Mohe Bitiya Na Dije

Narak Dije Chahe Dar…

 (Oh God, I beg of you,

I touch your feet time and again,

Next birth don’t give me a daughter,

Give me Hell instead…  – An old Folk Song from Uttar Pradesh)

In Asouti, a village in Haryana, Lakshmi Devi had five abortions, each because the child was a girl. She already has four daughters. Even then her husband and his family wanted to have a son and when it was found that the child was a girl, he got it aborted. “It is better for a mother to die than to kill her daughters,” Devi says. “I was under immense pressure from my husband’s family to provide him with a son. My mother-in-law even demanded I get another woman to sleep with my husband to give him a son.” Finally, she gave birth to a son and her agony was over.[i] Sons are traditionally viewed as the main breadwinners who will take care of the family, continue the family name and perform the last rites of the parents – an important ritual in many faiths.

The declining child sex ratio also shows the lack of determination on the part of the Indian government to implement the law which bans sex determination of unborn child under the Pre-natal Diagnostic Tests (PNDT) Act and the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act. The report, titled “Progress of the World’s Women”, released by the UN Women – a United Nations organization dedicated to gender equality and empowerment of women – says that the effective implementation of the Pre-conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, 2004, which prohibits test selection, is a major challenge owing to the low conviction rate under the law.

According to the Indian government, ten million girls have been killed, either before or after birth, by their parents over the past two decades. The United Nations estimates that about 2000 unborn girls are illegally aborted every day in India.

Ironically, the districts, which have a high tribal population, record sex ratios which are more egalitarian. Gender bias is far stronger in urban rather than rural areas, and among literate rather than illiterate men and women, thus exploding the myth that growing affluence and spread of basic education alone will result in the erosion of gender bias.

The consequences of less number of females are practices such as polyandry – where several men, often brothers, share the same wife – which is already emerging in areas where there are fewer women, and brides being sold and trafficked. According to the UN Report Human Trafficking and HIV: Exploring Vulnerabilities and Responses in South Asia 2007, “(There is an) emerging pattern of trafficking in girls from West Bengal and Assam to the more prosperous states of Punjab and Haryana, where ‘gender gaps’ are most acute. The trafficked women and girls are sexually exploited and forced to give birth to a male child. The woman is either abandoned or passed on to another man after the birth of the child.” The desire for a son has resulted in not only severe shortage of marriageable young women, but also in making girls and women mere commodities that can be bought, sold and resold. The price of a girl or a woman depends on her age, beauty, skin colour and virginity.

The Independent, a British newspaper, ran the story of a girl who was sold by her poor parents from the state of Jharkhand to a man from a village near Delhi: “Tripla’s parents sold her for £170 (about Rs. 11900) to a man who had come looking for a wife. He took her away with him, hundreds of miles across India, to the village outside Delhi. It was the last time she would see her home. For six months, she lived with him in the village, although there was never any formal marriage. Then two weeks ago, her husband, Ajmer Singh, ordered her to sleep with his brother, who could not find a wife. When Tripla refused, he took her into the fields and beheaded her with a sickle. When Rishi Kant, an Indian human rights campaigner, tracked down Tripla’s parents in the state of Jharkhand and told them the news, her mother broke down in tears. “But what could we do?” she asked him. “We are facing so much poverty we had no choice but to sell her.”…When the police arrested Tripla’s husband, he could not provide a marriage certificate. Generally there is no real marriage. The women are sexual “brides” only. Sometimes, brothers, who cannot afford more, share one woman between them.”[ii]

In the case of Munnia, a 17 year old girl from Jharkhand, she was sold three times in the space of a few weeks. “My father sold me to a man called Dharma,” she says. “I don’t know if he paid for me or not. I came to Delhi with my mother on the train, and then Dharma took me to his village. He used to beat me very badly. He used to hit me until I allowed him to sleep with me. Usually it went on for half an hour.” After 20 days Dharma sold her to another man in Haryana for Rs. 30000, because Munnia was a beautiful girl. When this man wanted to sell her to another man, she ran away. Luckily she found a social worker, who helped her escape.[iii]

The demographic crisis will also lead to increasing sexual violence and abuse such as molestation and rape against women and female children, increasing number of child marriages, and increasing maternal deaths and psychological trauma due to abortions.

In the modern, “civilized” and increasingly urbanised India the female child in her mother’s womb is as vulnerable as girls and women in the society. The only difference is that the very people who would have brought her into the world – her parents – exterminate her when she is in the place considered to be safest – her mother’s womb. Her crime – not being a male.

Gender discrimination is, probably, seen only among human beings. Animals never display discrimination in the kids on the basis of gender. Have you ever seen a dog feeding only its male puppies? Have you ever seen a lion or lioness killing its female cubs? It is only among human beings that such crude preference for male child is visible to the extent that parents on not conceiving the right gender can go to an extent of exterminating the baby.

In the process what is forgotten is that both male and female are equally required to carry forward the human species. And both are equally important for the wellbeing, growth and development of family, society and world. Equal opportunities for girls and women to education, income and political power, and a change in the mindset of both men and women regarding female child will contribute to that end. As Thoraya Obaid, UNFPA executive director, remarked, “Equality benefits everyone. Where girls have equal opportunity to education, societies become more prosperous. Where women have equal access to income, assets and services, families become healthier. When both men and women are able to participate equally and exercise their full human rights, the world benefits.”

[i] Justin Huggler, “The Price of Being a Woman: Slavery in Modern India,” in The Independent, 4 April 2006.

[ii] Justin Huggler, “The Price of Being a Woman: Slavery in Modern India,” in The Independent, 4 April 2006.

[iii] Justin Huggler, “The Price of Being a Woman: Slavery in Modern India,” in The Independent, 4 April 2006.




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