10 million missing girls (updated)

10 million missing girls (updated) by Rohin on 9th January, 2006 at 12:23 pm

Asian women have a long, long way to go in the fight for equality. What’s more upsetting is that the perpetrators of crimes against females are often female themselves. Society has managed to convince men and women that females are inferior.

Just yesterday, a PP thread drifted onto the topic of female abortion in Asia. Today The Lancet published an Indian-Canadian study into the horrific practice in India. The Lancet requires a paid subscription for full access to articles, so I thought I’d add to the BBC summary. The study and an accompanying article by Dr Shirish Sheth will go to print next week.

The study, led by Dr Prabhat Jha and Dr Rajesh Kumar (Toronto and Chandigarh respectively), sought to ascertain the reasons for the unequal balance of females to males with specific reference to pre-natal sex determination and abortion. Across India the ratio stands at 933:1000, but is markedly more pronounced in certain areas such as Punjab, Haryana and Tamil Nadu. The study estimates that 500,000 female babies are aborted every year, for no other reason than their gender. However the study discovered that gender screening was most likely to be utilised when the family already had a daughter.

The stats break down like this:

If the first child is a boy, the ratio for the second and third child normalises, to about 1:1.

If the first child was a girl, the ratio of girls to boys rose sharply to 759:1000.

If the first two children were girls, the ratio fell further to 719:1000.

In households with a more educated mother, the chances of a girl following a female first-born were halved. A correlation to religion was not found – it seems uniform across the main religious groups. It is apparent that as long as a family has at least one son, they seem happy. This is somewhat surprising as one of the main proposed reasons for female foeticide is to avoid paying dowry. Dowry payments, made by a girl’s family to the family of her husband upon marriage, are illegal in India but remain common practice. A poor family is unable to raise a sufficient dowry and a girl remains unmarried – and as far as society is concerned, worthless. It is, undoubtedly a cause of female abortion, but the reason it has not been identified as a major influence is because the abortion of female babies is not most prevalent amongst the poorest members of society.

On the contrary, those with no money are sometimes unable to access the ultrasound screening tests. The study showed that the practice is most common amongst more educated Indians. The study specifically identified the mothers as the variable factor. In a cruel twist of irony, the more educated a mother, the more likely she is to abort her female child – if she already has a daughter.

However, I can only presume that the poorest of the poor still kill off female children – but instead of aborting them in utero, they kill newborns when they discover they are girls. I’m not basing this on fact, just speculation. Reliable figures for female infanticide in India are not available and it is thought that babies are often recorded as ‘stillborn’ when killed soon after birth. Jha estimates half a million female children are lost every year and wanted to put pay to excuses that the ratio is due to natural disaster or disease:

“If this practice has been common for most of the past two decades since access to ultrasound became widespread, then a figure of 10m missing female births would not be unreasonable.”

Jha himself attributed the main motivation as a legacy of when India was an agrarian society where boys were considered an extra pair of hands in the fields but a girl was a liability, a burden.

Sex selection and female feticide remains “rampant” in India, says Dr Shirish Sheth, of Breach Candy Hospital in Mumbai. The use of ultrasound to determine sex has been outlawed in India. However, illegal ‘back-alley ultrasound clinics’ operate widely, even in rural areas. Aborting a foetus based on its gender has been illegal since 1994 and is a crime punishable by a fine, imprisonment and suspension of the doctor’s licence. However many operating the machines are not medically-trained doctors but people out to make a quick buck. I can only guess at their accuracy – it’s not an easy thing to do.

It’s worth noting that many hospitals in the UK, America and Canada (amongst others) have opted to deny prospective parents information about the sex of their baby. Of course, living in the West it isn’t hard to find someone who will carry out a test. Several of the UK and Canadian centres have specifically mentioned Asian communities as the reason for their decisions to stop screening for sex.

In the 90s a controversy erupted in Canada when two Indian Canadian-run newspapers refused to pull ads for ‘sex-determination clinics’ operating in British Columbia. During off-the-record discussions with obstetricians in London, they make no bones about saying “it’s because of the Asians”. A few of these doctors are Asian themselves. Where I am, it’s the Tamil community who take the blame. “In a country bedeviled in many parts by cultural taboos, a boy is preferred because he will continue the family name and bloodline, earn money, look after the family and take care of parents in their old age,” A woman might be considered a “culprit” for not giving birth to a boy, Dr Sheth says, even though it’s the male’s sperm that determines the sex of a child.

What’s more, the cost of a dowry for a daughter can be “phenomenal,” forcing many families to borrow to pay for them.” Is anything being done? Thankfully, lots. But India’s a big country and it’s an uphill struggle to change views held by millions. Some states have offerred free education to families who have only female children. A soap opera has been made by Plan and the government. There are also many religious and charitable organisations working to eradicate a practice of which social activist Swami Agnivesh says:

“There’s no other form of violence that’s more painful, more abhorrent, more shameful”

China is also notorious for its skewed female:male ratio, although with quite different causality. China’s one child policy has created a similar absence of girls across the country. The BBC recently showed a charming film entitled Looking for China Girl which presented the human angle to this shameful trend. The Chinese government estimates that within 15 years, 40 million Chinese men will be lifelong bachelors. The Chinese government has also tried to stem the flow of boys by offering free schooling to girls, but it has not stopped the abduction of girls to be sold as brides. In India abduction has not been widely reported, but paying poor families for their daughters as brides has become more common in Haryana. A perverse reverse-dowry.

The BBC has stacks on this issue. You can start with the BBC Best Link or hit any of the links above.

UPDATE: Indianwriting has also written about this (via DesiPundit) and links to figures showing how Indian states compare with the 1990s European ratio of 94.8 girls:100 boys (Germany). The areas faring worst are Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat and Delhi (between 79.3 and 87.8 girls per 100 boys). States in the east and the south of India tend to have female:male ratios that equal or exceed the benchmark line of 94.8, with Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, and Assam leading the pack with 96.3 to 96.6 girls per 100 boys. The study: A 1998 survey of fertility and mortality which used almost 7000 units selected to represent the vast country as a whole. The units, in total, comprised 1.1 million households and followed 133,738 births. Based on the natural sex ratio from other countries, the team estimated that around 13.6 to 13.8 million girls should have been born in 1997 in India. However, the actual number was 13.1 million – a deficit of 0.59 – 0.74 million female births


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