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04 July, 2011

Missing girls cause no alarm

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Studies have revealed that girls are disappearing from India’s population at an increasing rate. However, there is no firm societal or governmental action to check the trend.

First reports based on the 2011 Census, which became available three months ago, showed that the sex ratio in the 0-6 age group had dropped from 927 girls for every 1,000 boys in 2001 to 914, the lowest since the country gained freedom in 1947.

There were about 7.1 million fewer girls than boys in that age group. At the time of the 2001 Census the gap was only 6.0 million.

In 1961 there were 976 girls for every 1,000 boys. Since then the sex ratio has been falling continuously in India although in the world as a whole it has been rising. In the global population there are now 1,050 girls for every 1,000 boys.

Noted economist Amartya Sen, one of the first to notice the trend, attributed it to neglect of the girl child, leading to early mortality and consequent fall in the female population. He noted that this happened in other Asian countries, including China, also.

In a 1990 article, Sen said an estimated 100 million women were missing from the world population tables. He later calculated that India’s missing women might number 37 million. The United Nations, in 2001, suggested a higher figure of 44 million.

Researchers have established a link between the fall in the sex ratio among children and the technological advances that have made it possible to determine the sex of the unborn child and eliminate the ‘unwanted’ female.

Ultrasound equipment that permits determination of the sex of the foetus became available in the 1970s. Within a decade they were in wide use all over the country and laboratories started advertising the facility.

As parents’ marked preference for male progeny resulted in large-scale female foeticide, Amartya Sen observed that there had been a shift from ‘mortality inequality’ to ‘natality inequality’

The overall sex ratio in India is 940 females for every 1,000 males. Thanks to the comparatively better status women enjoyed under the matrilineal system which prevailed until a century ago, Kerala has always recorded a favourable sex ratio. It now stands at 1,084 females against 1,000 males as against 1,038 females in 2001.

However, Kerala, too, is on the slippery path. In the 0-6 age group, the sex ratio in the state was only 962 females for 1,000 males in 2001. Now it has fallen to 959 females for 1,000 males.

A recent study which analysed census data and 250,000 birth histories from national surveys has shown that where the first born is a girl there is an increasing tendency to abort the second child if that too happens to be a girl. Even wealthy and educated families are inclined to do this.

Prabhat Jha of the University of Toronto, who was involved in the study, says most of India’s population live in states where sex selective abortion is common. Gender imbalance, he adds, has travelled from the traditional hotspots in the north to the east and the south.

Many communities consider a girl a liability as a hefty dowry may be needed to marry her off. However, the prevalence of female foeticide even among the affluent sections indicates that preference for son stems primarily from social and religious factors. Most Hindus believe a son has to perform the funeral rites to ensure their smooth passage to heaven.

The central government’s effort to promote gender equality is confined largely to publicity campaigns, whose effects are offset by the regular fare of the media which tends to reinforce traditional beliefs.

The state governments are too timid to challenge the orthodox elements, and non-governmental organisations working in the area of gender justice are too few and too weak to make an impact.

In a rare display of will to act, the Maharashtra government last month cracked down on sex determination clinics and shut down 131 of them. With the help of a decoy customer, the police arrested three doctors who offered to abort female foetus for a small fee.

It is not possible to place much faith in such sporadic campaigns. Over the past three years the state registered cases against more than 150 persons in connection with cases of illegal pregnancy termination but there have been only four convictions so far. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, July 4, 2011