India is moving fast in the 21st century towards an economically progressive nation. But has anyone spared a thought for thousands and lakhs of women who are still mercilessly killed in order to fulfil the Indian desire for a male issue? Consumerist culture oriented economic development, commercialisation of medical profession and gender biases in our society, combined together have created a sad scenario of ‘missing girls’.
Sex ratio (the number of females per 1000 males) is a sensitive indicator that displays the status of women. Global comparisons of sex ratios show that sex ratios in Europe, North America, Caribbean, Central Asia, the poorest regions of sub Saharan Africa are favourable to women as these countries neither kill, nor neglect girls. The lowest sex ratio in the world is found in some parts of India. Sex ratio for India fell from 973 in 1901 to 933 females per 1000 males in 2001, whereas in most parts of the world it is above 1000 as females have a higher survival rate than males. The figures in the report of the National Family Health Survey NHFS -3, conducted in 2005-2006 were even more alarming. Approximately five years after the census, NFHS-3 found the sex ratio of the population age 0-6 years (girls per 1,000 boys) to be 918 for India as a whole. The under-seven sex ratio in urban areas is the same in NFHS-3 as in the 2001 census; however, in rural areas, NFHS-3 finds a sex ratio for this population of 921, lower than the 934 found in the census.
The situation in some states of India like Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Delhi, Uttarakhand, Maharashtra and Chandigarh where this trend is especially prevalent were alarming. In fact, five districts of Punjab and Haryana which are among the richest states of India had the lowest sex ratios (between 766 and 782) according to the 2001 census with Fatehgarh Sahib in Punjab ranked at lowest with a sex ratio of 766.
This skewed sex ratio has finally started showing results. There are just not enough girls in some places when the marriageable age of the boy is reached. There are cases where brides are being bartered in exchange i.e. if a brother is marrying, his sister however young she may be is being married of to a male of the bride’s family. In other cases poor girls from other states are being bought as brides for men in the states of the dwindling sex ratios. But still the evil of female foeticide continues. It is not only prevalent among the poor for whom a male issue is an extra working hand and even after decades of freedom the message of contraception has not reached, but alarmingly also in the urban elite where a male issue is a matter of social pride and the presence of a daughter still considered a burden.
The practice of female feticide has been a century-old one in rural India, so much so that it has become more predominant in the rural parts of India. However, the practice of feticide, in which an unborn baby is aborted or killed at birth simply because it is not a boy, is increasingly spreading from India’s poor and rural classes to affluent urban families. Selection of the sex of the foetus is a combination of personal choices, family issues, social, ethical, medical and even legal reasons.
This has something to do with the inability of our society to do away with evils such as illiteracy, early marriages and the dowry system. Parents consider the birth of a girl as a burden. The parents of a girl are not only expected to bear the expenses of her wedding but also give the girl a hefty dowry to support her. Bride burning and suicides and also physical and mental harassment of the girl still continues. We read of isolated cases where girls refuse to marry a person asking for dowry but apart from a few newspaper headlines nothing else is done to encourage other girls to take this brave step too. Society needs to change its attitude towards this and equally disturbing practices like child marriages, Sati and other such practices to improve the condition of women in our society and to decrease the crime against them. Something urgently needs to be done by society to improve the situation. Otherwise the population will become skewed leading to a host of societal problems like increased crime against women.
There is a need not for laws and enticements but a need to change an entire mindset. The traditional view still continues to be that the family or kul progresses with a male issue. Even in a so-called educated family the birth of a girl child brings forth various comments about how the family line will be finished if the male heir is not produced. But how many of these male heir are actually fulfilling their traditional responsibilities? In increasingly nuclear families often old parents are left to their own resources while the son goes off to a far off city or country and he gets so involved in his day to day expenses that he has neither the time or money to spare for his old parents. Whereas increasingly daughters come forward to take on the responsibility of parents as by nature she shares a closer bond with them.
The situation is not all bad. In states like Kerala, Arunachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir and even Chhattisgarh some districts have shown a positive sex ratio of upto 1035/1000. In a recent survey, Gujarat and now even Delhi have shown improvement in the Sex Ratio-reportedly due to girl child friendly policies adopted by these governments. Others will have to study the reasons for this improvement and follow their example if we want to save our daughters for a better future.
Concerted efforts are needed to create equal regard and affection for the girl child. Educating the girl and making her financially self-sufficient will be one way of decreasing the feeling that she is a burden. For this we need to bring together the leaders of society that is people like educationists, religious leaders, jurists, doctors, lawyers, social workers etc and for a large part the media to carry forward this message of hope for thousands of girls likely to go missing in the next few years unless something is urgently done to stop it.
(The writer is a specialist in maternal and child health, nutrition and fitness.)