India's missing girls: gendercide and a few glimmers of optimism

April 13, 2011

     By Duncan Green     

Indian census, which put the population at 1.2 billion, has revealed an alarming trend. Rising incomes only seem to accelerate gendercide – the evocative term for the selective abortion of girl foetuses. This from this week’s Economist: “Early data from February’s national census, published on March 31st, show India’s already skewed infant sex ratio is sex ratiosgetting worse. There were 945 girls per 1,000 boys in the 1991 census, 927 in 2001 and now 914. Fast growth, urbanisation and surging literacy seem not to have affected the trend. The ratio is most distorted in the states of the northern Gangetic Plain, such as Punjab. Places that used not to discriminate in favour of sons, such as the poorer central and north-eastern states, have begun to do so. Economic success, argues Alaka Basu, a demographer, “seems to spread son preference to places that were once more neutral about the sex composition of their children.” The new census showed a worsening sex ratio in all but eight of India’s 35 states and territories (though those eight include some of the most extreme examples, for instance, Punjab). You might have thought that scarcity would lead to girls being valued more highly, but this is not happening. One measure is the practice of giving dowries. Almost no one, rich or poor, urban or rural, dreams of dispensing with these. Rather, as Indians grow wealthier, dowries are getting more lavish and are spreading to places where they were once rare, such as in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, in the south. A skewed sex ratio may instead be making the lot of women worse. Sociologists say it encourages abuse, notably in the trafficking. Men, especially if poor and from a low caste, suffer too. Women in India are sometimes permitted, even encouraged, to “marry up” into a higher income bracket or caste, so richer men find it easier to get a bride. The poor are forced into a long or permanent bachelorhood, a status widely frowned upon in India.” The Economist does however, find causes for some glimmers of optimism: “Bad as things are, sex selection may slowly be turning around. Though the sex ratio has been worsening for decades, it is doing so more slowly. Moreover, the sex ratio at birth is improving, not worsening. In 2003-05 the figure was 880 girls born per 1,000 boys. In 2004-06, that had risen to 892 and in 2006-08, to 904. It is not clear why this should be. The samples could be misleading. But perhaps they reveal a recent change in Indian attitudes towards the 220px-Matrubhoomi_postervalue of daughters.” Swati Narayan also chips in this success story fom the Punjab, the epicentre of India’s gendercide. The phenomenon illustrates just how weak the law is when it comes up against deeply entrenched attitudes and prejudice. An anti-dowry law has been in place since 1961. The use of technology to detect the sex of a foetus was banned in 1994. But it also shows the power of girls’ schooling: the only state to completely buck the trend is Kerala, famed for its success in providing universal education. When it comes to women’s empowerment, schools can matter more than income, it seems. For a truly grim vision of what the future could hold if the optimism proves unfounded, check out the film  ‘Matrubhoomi: A Nation Without Women’ . I’ve been giving the Economist a bit of stick recently, but its work in highlighting gendercide is outstanding. Respect.]]>