India’s unwanted girls

According to the latest Economic Survey, due to sex selective abortions alone, there are an estimated 63 million missing women from India’s population and two million more are missing from every age group every year due to abortions, neglect, disease and malnutrition of girls.

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One Billion Rising campaign in New Delhi, 11 February

Photo: Ravi Choudhary/PTI

An interesting fact has come to light in the latest Economic Survey about India’s ‘son meta preference’. The thesis behind it is that Indian parents do not adopt fertility stopping rules until the desired number of sons is born. This son meta preference, according to the Survey, leads naturally to the ‘notional category of unwanted girls which is estimated at over 21 million’. This is reflected in the fact that the sex ratio of the last child (SRLC) born to Indian families is extremely skewed as compared to other countries with similar levels of development. In India the SRLC is around 9.5 per cent worse than other countries showing a clear bias against females and more so in Gujarat, Punjab and Rajasthan where the SRLC is 2,100 boys to every 1,000 girls. The worst is the case of Haryana where it is 2,300 boys to 1,000 girls.

This phenomenon is unrelated to development of the country. Even when India is experiencing high GDP growth, the quest for sons remains the same. It cuts across religious and class barriers and it seems that all want sons. Sex selective abortions and differential survival of girls has led to skewed sex ratio of 943 females per 1,000 males. According to the Survey, due to sex selective abortions alone there are an estimated 63 million missing women from India’s population and two million more are missing from every age group every year due to abortions, neglect, disease and malnutrition of girls. In Punjab and Haryana, two of the richest states, sex ratio among infants to 6 year olds is 1,200 boys to 1,000 girls.


Sex selective abortions and differential survival of girls has led to skewed sex ratio of 943 females per 1,000 males.


Of course preference for sons is universal and especially in China where until recently only one child was allowed and parents often opted to abort girls and have sons. In India, even when more women are educated and are employed than 10 years ago, they still do not have control over their earnings and child birth. More women tend to quit their jobs after marriage and child birth which is one of the reasons why the participation of women in labour force has fallen from 36 per cent ten years ago to 24 per cent in 2015-16. It is also our society which is responsible for the low status of women because parents feel they cannot expect much from girls once they are married and go off to live in the husband’s house. Hence the investment on girls is minimised which means lower quality of education and nutrition. On the other hand clandestine dowry giving is still a common practice and parents have to satisfy the greed of the in laws.

Surprisingly patriarchy is perpetuated by the older women of the joint family household in order to maintain ‘tradition’ and preserve the male lineage. The mother-in-law usually shows her discontent when the daughter-in-law produces a daughter who acquiesces to the demand and has more children till a son is born. Only 47 per cent women use any contraception out of which only 32.8 per cent use reverse contraception and because not many women use such methods they have little control over when they start having children but only seem to have control over when they stop having children. Women themselves may choose to have more children till a son is born in order to have more power in decision making in the household because unless she is the mother of a son, she remains meek and ignored.

India’s law of inheritance by which a girl has an equal share is circumvented by various means by parents and it also acts against their wanting girls whereby the family property gets divided. Sons are supposed to be an insurance against old age and illness and they are required to perform the last rites among Hindus.

Bringing up a girl child to a marriageable age is also an onerous task for parents even in the 21st century because she has to be protected from molestation and rape. The dropout rate for girls is much higher in schools than for boys. Travelling to schools that are far from home and which have no separate toilets for girls are causes for withdrawal of girls from schools. Girls are made to help in the household and look after the siblings.

Even when the girl is an adult, she is not entirely safe when there is growing crime against women in cities and parents have to be responsible for her protection. In all, parents view girls as a burden and are often openly partial to boys giving them better healthcare, education and freedom.


The Economic Survey 2017-18 has for the first time got a pink cover because it includes the chapter on women’s issues and #MeToo has been emblazoned at the top of the Chapter (7) which takes note of the ongoing sexual harassment movement.


Can education help? Education does create awareness of women’s rights and methods of contraception and increases women’s income earning capacity which indeed makes a difference. They are able to assert themselves more when they bring home money. Working women shed many taboos and are not so much under the control of the husband and family. She can often make decision in important matters. This is what happened in the Western world also. Work liberated women and made them independent and have fewer children. Crèche facilities and day care centres are important for enabling women to work. In India where patriarchy continues to rule, it is very difficult to change the mindset of people and many men still proclaim proudly that they do not allow women in their family to work.

Better healthcare and health insurance should also lessen the desire for sons and the elderly should be looked after by society and not by children alone. Many elderly are finding good care in private retirement homes today but they are still expensive. In UK, Canada and EU the state sends social workers to the homes of the elderly to help them with their medical or routine problems.

The Economic Survey 2017-18 has for the first time got a pink cover because it includes the chapter on women’s issues and #MeToo has been emblazoned at the top of the Chapter (7) which takes note of the ongoing sexual harassment movement. But whether the NDA government’s two women empowerment programmes — Beti Bachao Beti Padhao and Sukanya Samridhi Yojana — will help in changing India’s son meta preference and save two million women’s lives a year remains to be seen.


This commentary originally appeared in The Tribune.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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Jayshree Sengupta

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