Expert Column | Media

The Tale of Missing Daughters

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAn increasingly masculinising population has thus been a continuing historical reality in India. The first censuses by the British administration in colonial India had noted the unusually male-heavy character of the Indian population. However, in the absence of reliable statistics, it took decades for scholars to make sense of this oddity and to establish that the inflated sex ratios observed in many parts of India since the 19th century was more than an artificial artefact.

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One of the contemporary demographic concerns is that of progressively declining number of girls in relation to boys in the age-group of 0-6. This is commonly known as child sex ratio. The last two decades, however, have seen a new era of sex discrimination that differs from the ancient custom of infanticide and neglect of girl children.

The elimination of girls from being born is now driven by prenatal sex-determination tests. It is symptomatic of how the ‘modern’ concept of having fewer children – a smaller family – juxtaposes with ‘traditional’ idea of having sons, the social and geographical spread of which is far wider beyond the traditionally known pockets of adverse child sex ratios.

It was the 1991 decadal census when the disturbing feature of India’s demography,  the declining number of girls vis-à-vis boys in the age-group 0-6, the child sex ratio had once again caught the attention of scholars, activists and policy makers across the country. The Census in that year had published the population figures for the age under 7 for the first time.

The child sex ratio has since been declining even more sharply. In 1991, for the country as a whole, there were 945 girls to 1000 boys, five points short of generally accepted child sex ratio of 950 girls per 1000 boys. The latest 2011 Census (with the child sex ratio of 919) did not bring any relief except that the rate of declining sex ratios had slowed down and the previously dismal sex ratios had ‘improved’ in some parts. For example, some of the worst-hit states in 2001 such as Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat have now gained in terms of number of girls.

However, this ‘gain’ has its underbelly for even with the improvement, Haryana and Punjab continue to have the CSR of 830 and 846 respectively, which are below the critical 850 mark. More importantly, the 2011 Census shows rapid spread of districts/states with the low CSRs – i.e., Maharashtra (883) and Uttar Pradesh (899).

In general tribal communities are known to be more gender-egalitarian. The 2011 CSR figures seem to defy this. Some of the districts with high tribal population such as Rajouri (Jammu and Kashmir), Karauli (Himachal Pradesh) and Surat in Gujarat do have low CSRs in 2011. Jalgaon and Ahmadnagar in Maharashtra are also no exceptions.

In short, there is a stark regional differentiation in CSR whereby the states located in the southern part of India do not share the abysmally skewed CSR (in favour of baby boys) as compared to the north in general and the north-west in particular.

A note of caution is in order here: the overall pattern may exhibit fewer girls than boys in several areas. However, the processes leading to the regional picture are quite different. The intensity of sex-selective abortions amongst the urban affluent classes in the southern neighbourhoods of New Delhi or Mumbai is nowhere to be matched by the long-term neglect and preferential treatment of sons over daughters in the rural settings of Madhya Pradesh or Rajasthan.

In contrast, Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh may resort to sex-selective abortions. Also, not all daughters are unwanted; sex ratios become increasingly skewed in favour of boys with the numbers of birth – although ironically enough more so for educated mothers.

Most countries around the world have a small imbalance in their juvenile sex ratios for natural reasons i.e., there is a biological tendency for more male than female babies to be born to compensate for the slightly higher risk of mortality among newborn boys. Thus, fewer abortions and retention of male foetuses with improved reproductive health-care facilities; selective undercount of girls and mortality differentials have conventionally been cited as the reasons for fewer numbers of girls as compared to boys in the Indian population. Not only these propositions have been questioned, scholars point out that the recent decline in the number of girls as compared to boys is too sharp to be accounted for by these measures. After much negation, debates and discussions, it has now been affirmed that it is the sex-selective abortions that is leading to shortage of baby girls in India.

Opinion by
Expert, Geography and You
Saraswati Raju, Professor
Centre for the Study of Regional Development
Jawaharlal Nehru University
New Delhi 110067, India
Saraswati_raju@hotmail.com

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