Gender balance in India becoming skewed

By Andrew Buncombe, Jeremy Laurence

In the states of Punjab and Haryana, famed as the home of the big fat Indian wedding, there is something of a marriage crisis.

Such is the extent of the skewed gender ratio - the result, to a large extent, of female feticide - there are not enough women to go round.

To ensure the young men of these largely agricultural states have a bride to wed when they reach the age of betrothal, a trafficking network has developed with young women brought in from other parts of the country.

"In these situations, marriage is not seen as being a relationship between two people. Women are seen just as sexual and reproductive resources," said Rita Banerjee, an activist from New Delhi.

A study shows that in the past three decades up to 12 million unborn girls have been aborted by Indian parents determined to ensure they have a male heir.

The research, published in the Lancet, shows selective abortion is concentrated in families where the first child has been a girl. Parents welcome a first daughter but want their second child to be a son.

In these families the gender ratio for second births fell from 906 girls per 1000 boys in 1990 to 836 in 2005, implying between 3.1 million and 6 million female fetuses have been aborted in the past decade.

The systematic elimination of female fetuses in the world's biggest democracy is widening the gap between girls and boys and storing up social problems for the future.

In some towns there is already a shortage of brides and there are fears the growing gender imbalance will worsen attitudes to women.

The 2011 census revealed 7.1 million fewer girls than boys aged under 7, up from 6 million in 2001 and from 4.2 million in 1991. The sex ratio in the age group is now 915 girls to 1000 boys, the lowest since records began in 1961.

Many communities globally have a preference for sons rather than daughters. In India, the issue is complicated by inheritance practice and the cost of dowry payments when girls marry.

Importantly, a girl will marry out of her family, taking her dowry with her, while a boy will bring a dowry into the family, a significant economic advantage.

Wealthier, better-educated couples are the worst offenders, the findings show, putting paid to hopes that socio-economic progress would lead to a change in attitude. Although all strata of Indian society share a preference for sons, better-off families have access to and can afford the ultrasound tests to reveal the sex of a fetus.

Publishing his findings in the Lancet, Professor Prabhat Jha of the Centre for Global Health Research at the University of Toronto, and colleagues from India, call for closer monitoring to help curb the "remarkable growth of selective abortion of girls".

Termination of pregnancy on the basis of sex was made illegal in India under the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act in 1996, but the law is routinely flouted.

The market for sex determination is said to be worth at least US$100 million ($125 million) a year, with 40,000 registered ultrasound clinics.

- Independent

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