Lives at Risk: Where have the baby girls gone?

By: Dr Saraswati Raju
The 2011 provisional figure for the sex ratio in the age group 0-6 (CSR) is a mixed bag of hope and despair. While on one hand the tempo with which CSRs were becoming skewed in favour of boys over the last two decades has slowed down and the worst areas have shown some improvement, on the other, there is rapid spread of low CSRs to regions well beyond the traditional strongholds known for discriminatory practices towards girls. A combination of factors responsible for such spread demand contextualised short and long term interventions.
Gender Justice

The declining number of girl child vis-à-vis boys in the age-group 0-6 in India, commonly known as child sex ratio (CSR), has caught the attention of a wide ranging group of scholars, activists and policy makers in India. The declining sex ratio is a proxy variable for societal apathy towards girls – they are either not allowed to be born or face discriminatory treatment soon after being born to the extent that they perish.

https://www.geographyandyou.com/life/women-studies/child-sex-ratio/

More boys are conceived and are born naturally, but more boys die within first few months – this is the nature’s way to keep the balance provided there is no external interventions. The earlier explanations for skewed CSR drew from this observation. That is, it was argued that with the improvement in reproductive health and pre-natal and post-natal child care, fewer boys now die and therefore the initial advantage that the baby boys have continue to remain. Other reasons cited were selective under enumeration of girls and differential mortality between boys and girls. It was soon clear that these explanations were only partially true in accounting for the rapidly falling number of girl child.

https://www.geographyandyou.com/media/expert-column/tale-missing-daughters/

The temporal data for the sex ratios at birth (SRB), however, showed that over the decades the number of boys born per 100 girl child was crossing the normally accepted ratio of 105 boys per 100 girls to touch SRB of 111 baby boys to 100 baby girls at the national level albeit with a wide ranging regional differences – from 104.4 in Kerala to 119.5 in Punjab.

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Such skewed SRB clearly indicates that the very birth of a girl child is being manipulated. This has become possible through amniocentesis, a process of taking a sample of amniotic fluid from mother’s womb – a technology which was to diagnose babies’ chromosomal and other abnormalities including the lungs’ condition.  Unfortunately, its ability to detect the sex of the unborn baby is what has made a milestone technology an eyesore, particularly in north-western parts of India, to begin with, which have been traditionally characterised by ‘son preference’. However, it will be subsequently seen that areas of skewed CSRs are expanding much beyond the ‘traditional’ strongholds.

Sex selective abortions distort the natural process of balancing of CSRs. Prior to availability and access to the technology, families would still desire sons and would bear several daughters till that desired son arrives. Existing rituals such as the virtue of kanyadān and Raksha Bandhan would mean that at least daughters were not unwelcome even if not too many. Now that technology makes it possible to select the sex of unborn babies, desirable sex composition of children can be achieved without going into multiple pregnancies.

There are enough evidences to endorse the increasing practice of sex selective elimination of girls through abortions. A recent study in Lancet (May 24th, 2011, available online), which draws upon annual birth histories and child mortality rates for 1990-2005 from three rounds of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) – a large-scale, nationally representative survey of rural and urban Indian households, found that the sex ratio for the second-order births when the firstborn was a girl, fell from 906 per 1000 boys in 1990 to 836 in 2005. This decline amounts to an annual decline of 0.52 per cent. As opposed to this, the second-order births did not show any significant decline in the sex ratio if the first born was a boy. The researchers adjusted for excess mortality rates in girls. Even then the estimated number of selective abortions of girls rose from 0 to 2 million in the 1980s, to 1.2 to 4.1 million in the 1990s, and to 3.1 to 6.0 million in the 2000s.

The study’s worst and counter-intuitive observation is that the declines were much greater where mothers had 10 or more years of education as compared to mothers with no education and in wealthier households compared with poorer households. Other studies also suggest the association between worst CSRs and the developmental parameters, not only in terms of conventional indicators of women’s enhanced status such as female literacy, higher age at marriage, lower fertility rates, but also in terms of overall development such as urbanisation, poverty levels and per capita income. It is known for example that the district of South Delhi – the most affluent and rich part of Delhi is characterised by the worst CSRs in the State. This trend continues. Moreover, as the following discussion shows, areas which were earlier not in this league are showing increasingly worsening of the CSRs, obliterating the well known regional differences between the north and the south in India, for example.

Fig 1. Children under six: How many girls for every 1,000 boys?
Fig 1. Children under six: How many girls for every 1,000 boys?

There is consensus now that the skewed SRB in favour of baby boys is what has contributed to the alarmingly worsening of CSRs. This realisation has resulted in several agencies including members of civil society, activists, researchers as well as central and state apparatus becoming concerned about the issue with several corrective measures in place. The Prenatal Diagnostics Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) (PNDT) Act and its relatively more stringent implementation is a case in point. Some were hopeful of seeing a turnaround, some were apprehensive, but everybody eagerly waited for the 2011 Census.

The provisional figures for 2011 Census do bring some relief in the sense that the tempo with which the numbers of baby girls were declining has now slowed down – in 1991, there were 945 girls to 1000 boys for India as a whole – five points short of generally accepted CSR of 950 girls per 1000 boys. The 2001 Census had witnessed a sharp decline of 18 points with CSR of 927; the CSR in 2011 is 914 – a decline of 13 points. In addition, some of the worst hit states in 2001 such as Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat have now gained. However, this ‘gain’ has its underbelly for even with the improvement, Haryana and Punjab continue to have the dubious status of CSRs below 850 (short by 100 points from a CSR of 950) with the 2011 CSR of 830 and 846 respectively (Graph 1).

More importantly, the 2011 Census shows rapid spread of districts/states with low CSRs – Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir are new entrants (See maps 1 and 2). It is known that in general tribal communities are not discriminatory towards women. 2011 CSR figures seem to defy this. Some of the districts with high tribal population (in the neighbourhood of 30 per cent as per the 2001 Census) such as Rajouri in Jammu and Kashmir, Karauli in Himachal Pradesh and Surat in Gujarat do have low CSRs in 2011. Jalgaon and Ahmadnagar in Maharashtra are no exceptions. According to the Lancet study referred above, between the 2001 and 2011 Censuses more than twice the number of Indian districts has shown declines in the child sex ratio as districts with no change or increases (Table 1).

Fig 2. Comparison of Child Sex Ratio (major states) between 1991, 2001 and 2011*
Fig 2. Comparison of Child Sex Ratio (major states) between 1991, 2001 and 2011*

Not letting a life take full form is inhuman and yet families are deciding to do so – the answer to ‘why’ is complex and multi-layered. Easily available technology, awareness and access have often been held squarely responsible for the declining CSRs. And yet it has to be admitted that a technology cannot function is contextual isolation. For example, the southern parts of India are more advanced in terms of medical technologies and yet, with few exceptions, they do not have low CSRs. Even relatively poorer states in northern parts, i.e. Jammu and Kashmir, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh offer contrasting scenes. It does not need much imagination to see the reason. These states, with a possible exception of Jammu and Kashmir, are located in a social space known for undervaluation of women and a strong son preference. The more recent spread beyond has to be located in the contemporary discourse of development whereby more progressive processes such as educational aspirations for girls, rising age at marriage, improved medical facilities and ‘small family norm’ juxtapose uncomfortably with near universal norm of marriage and moving of daughters in patrivirilocal (parents-in-laws) sites which has meant that investment in daughters has increasingly been seen as an avoidable burden by the families. Further, in the absence of institutional support for old age security, sons are still looked upon as a support system. Placing sex selective abortion as a ‘choice’ that educated families are making leaves a gaping hole in the argument – the possibility that it is not a choice – it is the age old social conditioning and socialisation process which sees privileging of mothers having male offspring that women and other family members internalise.

The challenges thus do not lie within the four walls of homes. Any serious attempt at curbing the further deterioration in the situation demands a multi-pronged strategy which include affordable and easily accessible old age care and survival support, social sanction for daughters shouldering responsibilities towards their parents, overall secure environment on one hand to a much stricter monitoring of and prosecution of erring medical fraternity and use of sex selective techniques on the other (see, Report on Planning Families, Planning Gender by Mary John, Ravinder Kaur, Rajni Palriwala, Saraswati Raju and Alpana Sagar published in 2008 which is downloadable from the Web). Region Abstract

The 2011 provisional figure for the sex ratio in the age-group 0-6 (CSR) is a mix bag of hope and despair. On one hand the tempo with which CSRs were becoming skewed in favour of boys over the last two decades has slowed down and the worst areas have shown some improvement. On the other hand, however, there is rapid spread of low CSRs to regions well beyond the traditional strongholds known for discriminatory practices towards girls. A combination of factors responsible for such spread demand contextualised short and long term interventions. Specific processes and outcomes require contextualised interventions rather than ‘one glove fits all’ approach.

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