“She was thrown in the garbage dump outside the village for dogs that ate her. Her only fault — she was the fourth girl born in a poor family,” said Harshinder Kaur, paediatric doctor here, recalling the first time she witnessed discrimination against female infants in Punjab's rural side.

“Over a decade ago, I couldn't save that infant and ever since I try to speak for the girls who never lived,” said Dr. Kaur, who has been awarded by numerous governments across the globe for her work in eradicating the evil.

Rampant female foeticide, the shameful act of selectively aborting the female foetus due to non-preference, continues to push the sex ratio of Punjab against females; unfortunately, the evil is more prevalent among the educated, the rich and the urban bred.

The 2006 National Family Health Survey shows that prosperity does little to curb the evil as Punjab's overall sex ratio at birth (considered a more accurate indicator of female foeticide) was 776 against 793 in 2001. In urban areas, it goes further down to 761:1,000. “The data clearly contradicts the belief that people don't want daughters only due to the expense of dowry and marriage, the practice is more popular amongst the prosperous urban population who commit the crime to avoid perceived social disgrace of not having a son and escaping property division,” said Parveen Singhal, retired professor, who continues to work on the issue.

Education too has failed in curbing the practice as children born to mothers having Class 10 or higher education had a significantly lower sex ratio at 683:1,000 than illiterate mothers at 869:1,000. “My study on girl students of higher secondary schools in urban areas revealed that 78.8 per cent did not want to give birth to a girl child. I was shocked to find that educated girls from urban areas can discriminate against their own kind. They cited the deplorable condition of their mothers and restriction imposed on girls from family as the main reason,” said Dr. Kaur, adding that until the social status of women changed, the mindset would continue.

Chandigarh, the city with the highest standards of living in the country, has a sex ratio of 777:1,000 and Fatehgarh Sahib district has the lowest ratio of 754:1,000.

Examining the sex ratios at birth of second child makes it evident that son preference is affecting family-building strategies. The sex ratio of last births (number of females born per 1,000 males when the first child is a female ) ranges from a low of 504 in Punjab, to 540 in Haryana, and 572 in Himachal Pradesh indicating a regional spread. However, Punjab's sex ratio of the second child when the first child is a male, goes up to a healthy 1,003:1,000, in other words, after one son, families are less inclined to go in for sex determination tests and foeticide.

Kamaljeet Gill, Professor of Economics at Punjabi University, said: “Even today, birth of a girl child is viewed as a bad investment for future but the poor still find the cost of raising a child to be nominal with respect to the income that the child might generate and also they cannot afford the cost of tests and abortion. The reform needs to begin with the prosperous, educated class which abort a female child due to their narrow patriarchal view, where sons are considered to be the only hope of old age and even after life.”

“Sanitary option”

“Unchecked technology combined with affordability has made the practice a norm, and high and middle-income groups have completely shifted to female foeticide as a more ‘sanitary option' and female infanticide too is practised more in the form of abandoning few-days-old infants in bushes, public toilets, parks or garbage bins but the aim has not changed, no one wants to be son-less,” said Dr. Kaur.

“Statutory laws such as the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act and The Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act are not enforced strictly and the few doctors that are convicted soon open their clinics. With such ineffective implementation of laws government agencies, religious leaders, politicians or non-governmental organisations, no one can sway people to abandon the practice,” she said.