India’s Skewed Sex Ratio: Seven Brothers

Written on April 8, 2011 by Ángeles Figueroa-Alcorta in Asia, Culture & Society, International Development

An aversion to having daughters is leading to millions of missing girls

“We’re going for a trip”, Sakina remembers her older sister saying. Orphaned and poor, the girls were happy to leave their home in Kolkata. Taken 1,300km to Kotla, a village on the wheat plains south of Delhi, the 12-year-old Sakina was dumped in the arms of an older man while her sister fled. The man, a wage labourer, had paid over 5,000 rupees ($100, today) to a dalal, or broker, who arranged to ship unwanted girls to places short of them.

Sakina, now taking a break from the first harvest of the year, recalls the early misery of her new home. A Bengali forced into marriage, she was jeered at as a paro, a term for female outsider in Haryana, and shunned. We are treated as goats, mutters another woman, imported from Hyderabad. “It was when I started having children that I realised I had no time to be upset,” Sakina says. She has produced nine offspring, eight of them boys. Now she worries about getting brides for them—and says she is even ready to repeat her own sad history by contacting a dalal.

She may have to. Early data from February’s national census, published on March 31st, show India’s already skewed infant sex ratio is getting worse. Nature provides that slightly more boys are born than girls: the normal sex ratio for children aged 0-6 is about 952 girls per 1,000 boys. Since 1981, the ratio has steadily fallen below that point: there were 945 girls per 1,000 boys in the 1991 census, 927 in 2001 and now 914. Fast growth, urbanisation and surging literacy seem not to have affected the trend.

The ratio is most distorted in the states of the northern Gangetic Plain, such as Punjab. Haryana, Sakina’s home, remains the direst of all, with only 830 girls per 1,000 boys. More worrying, places that used not to discriminate in favour of sons, such as the poorer central and north-eastern states, have begun to do so. Economic success, argues Alaka Basu, a demographer, “seems to spread son preference to places that were once more neutral about the sex composition of their children.” The new census showed a worsening sex ratio in all but eight of India’s 35 states and territories (though those eight include some of the most extreme examples, for instance, Punjab).

The “missing girls” are usually aborted, shortly after the parents learn of their sex. A short drive from Kotla to Nuh, a typical trading town, shows how. The main road is dotted with clinics that boast of ultrasound services. Requests for a scan to check the sex of a fetus are turned down at “Bharat Ultrasound” and “City Care Hospital”, but a nervous medic at one does recommend a place that would do it. Read more…

As published in The Economist on April 7, 2011 (Print Edition)


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