The Disappearing Girl Child in India

India’s discrimination against the girl child might get worse before it gets better argues Manika Premsingh

After birthing one daughter, Renu decided to get a sex-determination test done when she was pregnant the second time. Despite the fact that sex determination tests are illegal in India, she went ahead with one and on discovering that the foetus was a girl, she had it aborted. Renu belongs to an affluent family living in Haryana, and her husband actually fought with her over wanting to get an abortion, reports international NGO, Action Aid. But she argues that the society does not value girls, treats them like a burden, they have to face violence and the mother has to face the taunts of people around her.

A study of women in India is a study of sharp contradictions.

It is not uncommon to see women in positions of power in various walks of life in India today. From business to politics, there are multiple women achievers who have not just managed to get to the top, but stay in positions of strength. Going just by this urban metric it almost appears that there are opportunities abound for women.

Opportunities, there are, yes.

But apparently only for those, who by either destiny or will, have passed some severe tests. And as is evident from Renu’s case, there are tests that start even before birth. Sex determination tests continue to be rampant, as does sex selective abortion.

Girl children continue to disappear in India

Given the culture of male dominance and son preference, there is little surprise over the fact that the Census of 2011 revealed yet another decade of continued decline in child sex ratio (CSR). The ratio, defined as the number of females per 1000 males in the 0-6 age group, has fallen by a whole 7% from 1951, the first post-Independence census of India to 2011. It now stands at 914, down from 983 then. There has been a 1.4% decline in the last one decade alone. In 2001, the child sex ratio was at 927.

This is in sharp contrast with the fact that overall sex ratio i.e. the number of women of all age groups per 1000 men of all age groups, has actually improved by 0.8% from 933 in 2001 to 940 in 2011.The overall sex ratio has actually improved for the second consecutive decade.

The import: Females’ chances of staying alive are much more improved once they cross the age of 6, but danger to their life when they are less than 6 years old is only increasing.


PC-Debdatta Chakraborty for Girlscount

Gender bias is a long standing problem

Why is this happening?

Clearly, loss of female life before or at birth is a well- known explanation for the falling child sex ratio. However, the female biology inherently allows them to live longer than men. As per the WHO, the average life expectancy for an average male was 64.7 years in 2013, while for an average female it was 68.2 years. Therefore, it would appear that once females have crossed the early years unscathed, they survive for longer. With advances in health care, rising awareness about nutrition and overall development, there is thus improvement in the overall sex ratio even as the CSR falls.

That said, however, the fact remains that despite improvements, the sex ratio is still skewed in favor of men compared with women. This, ties in with the initial impulse for son preference. Detailing further on the falling CSR issue, in what it has called a problem of ‘epidemic proportions’, the UN Women published a report ‘Sex ratios and gender biased sex selection: History, Debates and Future Directions’; according to which:

 “Unequal inheritance rights, dowry, unequal socio-religious status, unpaid work, unequal pay, lack of economic opportunities for women, focus on male lineage, a culture of honor that places a greater burden of safety and protection on the parents of girls – all contribute to building a society that favors sons and men, and neglects daughters and women.”

Furthermore, in a very well-known article, titled ‘More than 100 million women are missing’, that was published over 25 years ago in 1990 in the New York Review of Books, economist Amartya Sen had argued the problem of weak sex ratios in the broader context of developing versus developed countries. He surmised:

“The numbers of “missing women” in relation to the numbers that could be expected if men and women received similar care in health, medicine, and nutrition, are remarkably large. A great many more than a hundred million women are simply not there because women are neglected compared with men.” 

Both the arguments underline the fact that sons receive higher preference compared with daughters, which either leads to foeticides/infanticides of females as well as inferior care once they are born, which in turn reduces their chance of survival. There is a smaller argument, which says that it is possible that male mortality at birth has reduced as well, which statistically accentuates the challenge of a falling child sex ratio as well.

Some silver linings are present

Irrespective of the arguments for a falling CSR, however, there are some silver linings. Policy makers and civil society activists are actively engaged in creating awareness about sex selection practices. One instance of this would be the current government’s ‘Beti bachao, beti padhao’ scheme, which translates into ‘Save the daughter, educate the daughter’. The scheme aims to tackle the very problem of a falling child sex ratio in 100 districts with low child sex ratios.

There is also on the ground improvement in some of the states, as of census 2011. The northern states/union territories of Punjab, Chandigarh and Haryana have made maximum improvement in the child sex ratio. This is heartening, since these states/UTs along with Jammu and Kashmir and Delhi have the lowest absolute CSRs in the country today. An improvement in some of these very states, suggests a sorely required reversal in trend. It appears that the bottom of CSR has been seen in other states like Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh as well.

The problem is far from over, though

However, while some of the states lowest in CSR levels are improving, the problem seems to be growing in traditionally more gender equal states. A case in point is that of North East India, which has shown a largely secular decline in CSR as per the 2011 census compared to the 2001 census. Even though their CSR remains high in absolute terms, the decline is worth watching out for. A number of other states have also reported a decline in CSR, which has contributed to the overall decline. How the trend plays out remains to be seen, but for now, it would appear that things would get worse before they get better.

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