NEW DELHI, India (BP)–The ratio of young girls to boys in India continues a precipitous, century-old decline, despite legislation in the last decade to ban abortions on the basis of sex-selection only. That is part of a grim portrait of what it means to be female in India emerging from the release of preliminary data from the nation’s first census in the new millennium, according to a report by Newsroom-online.com.
“Demographic surveys, done at regular intervals, consistently drive home the prevalence of female feticide in almost all states of the country,” said Vibha Parthasarathi, who chairs India’s National Commission for Women. “Inhumane practices in which a girl’s right to be born is taken away have increased multifold in the last 10 years.”
Two facts are clear in the release of the first census data in late March: India joins China in the exclusive club of nations with populations exceeding 1 billion people, with a total at 1,027,015,247. And while the ratio of females to males overall has improved in the last 10 years, from 927 females per 1,000 males to 933, the ratio of girls age 6 and younger per 1,000 boys has declined from 945 in 1991 to 927 in 2001.
India’s gender ratio has been deteriorating for a century. In 1901, the ratio was 972 females for every 1,000 men, and by 1951 had dropped to 946, then to 927 in 1991. Elsewhere in the world, women outnumber men by 3 to 5 percent. For example, there are 95 to 97 males to 100 females in Europe, the United States and Japan. In Russia, the ratio is 88 males to 100 females, primarily due to war casualties. India and China, however, both have societies that place greater value on men than women, with the result that men outnumber women by 6 to 8 percent.
But it is the decline in population among young girls that troubles some experts. Census Commissioner J.K. Banthia noted that the northern state of Haryana reported the lowest gender ratio among the largest states of 861 females for 1,000 males, while some less-populated areas fared even worse: Daman and Diu, in the Union territories, recorded the lowest sex ratio, 709 females for 1,000 males. The sharpest decline in sex ratios among the child population were recorded in the northern states of Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat, Uttrarachal, Maharashtra and the Union territory of Chandigarh.
Experts contend that the female population has decreased in many of those states because of the high rate of aborting female fetuses and killing girl babies. Every year, 12 million girls are born in India, and 1.5 million die before their first birthday. Another 850,000 die before age 5, and by age 15 only 9 million will survive. It is estimated that up to the age of 35, more females die in India than males at every age level.
New Delhi author Satish Agnihotri, an expert on India’s sex ratios, calls the northern states of Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh the “Bermuda Triangle,” where girls go missing. According to census 2001, the ratio in Uttar Pradesh is 898 females for 1,000 males, an improvement from 876 a decade ago. The ratio is worse, however, in Haryana, now at 861, where 10 years ago it was 865 females to every 1,000 males, and in Punjab, where it dropped from 882 to 874 this year. Sex ratios, however, favor females in the southern state of Kerala, where women are more literate, may own land and figure more prominently in the labor force. In Kerala, there are 1,036 females to 1,000 males.
“Chhore pe baje Thali, Chhori Pe Thekere Phoren” is an old saying in Haryana, which means “Announce the birth of a son by beating of brass plates but at the birth of a daughter break earthen pots.” The traditional blessing given to newly married couples is “Ashta Putra Sowbhagyavati Bhave” — “May you be blessed with eight sons.” Upon conception, mantras from the Atharva Veda, one of four most sacred books of Hinduism, are chanted so that if the fetus is female it will be transformed into a male. If prayer and ritual do not produce the desired result, families that crave boys overwhelmingly abort the fetus if it is determined to be a girl.
Several studies have shown that out of every 1,000 fetuses aborted in India, 995 are female. The southern state of Tamil Nadu made news two years ago for killing infant girls by choking them with salt or sand, tearing their intestines with a meal of coarse grain, or by rubbing poison on the mother’s breasts. According to statistics compiled by the Dharmapuri office of the Directorate of Health Services and reported by the U.S. State Department, 1,260 female infants were killed in the district in 1997. Police did not investigate, prompting the Tamil Nadu Human Rights Commission to suggest the creation of a separate mandatory police investigation into the death of every female infant.
Though abortion is legal as a tool to control the population, aborting a fetus only on the basis of its sex is prohibited. But the introduction 30 years ago of prenatal tests, such as amniocentesis to identify genetic deformities, also enabled doctors to determine the baby’s sex. The first sex-determination clinic opened in Amritsar, Punjab, in 1979. Soon thousands of such clinics sprang up all over the country.
Even though female feticide is illegal under the Indian Penal Code and carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison, the deaths of so many thousands of unborn girls prompted the government in 1994 to enact the Prenatal Diagnostic (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act, which became law on Jan. 1, 1996. It prohibits the misuse of prenatal diagnostic techniques for determining the sex of a fetus which leads to infanticide and even the advertisements of such methods. Despite the ban, there are numerous clinics throughout the country overlooked by authorities.
Eminent sociologist D.L. Sheth of Delhi’s Centre for the Study of Developing Societies contends there should be “stringent restrictions” against the misuse of amniocentesis. “It could be used only for the sake of [a] mother’s health,” he said.
Despite tremendous social, political and economic advantages enjoyed by Hindu upper castes, their record of prejudices against women remains the worst, Sheth insists, while the least gender discrimination occurs among the marginalized and impoverished scheduled tribes.
In many parts of India, girls are considered an unwelcome drain on family finances. “Women’s rights groups point out that the burden of providing girls with an adequate dowry is one factor that makes daughters less desirable,” the U.S. State Department noted in a 1999 report on India. “Although abetting or taking dowry is theoretically illegal under the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961, it still is practiced widely.”
As one Punjabi woman explained: “It is better to spend Rs. 500 ($11.10) for aborting the female fetus instead of spending Rs. 500,000 ($11,111) in [the] future,” a reference to the expense of marriage and a dowry.
“As long as the patriarchal system continues, the girls will remain unwanted,” Sheth pointed out. Only literacy and education will change the society. “However, sometimes literacy also creates trouble. The literate women come to know about the latest facilities available to get rid of their female infants. Even the women prefer sons as it will bring honor to them. Hindus believe that the rituals done by sons at their funeral take them to heaven.” “The society must take steps to remove the deep-rooted preference for the male child, Parthasarathi said. “Medical practitioners should look for laws that make medical termination of [a] fetus illegal, except under certain conditions.”
Used by permission of Newsroom-online.com.