Opinion » Columns » Kalpana Sharma

Updated: July 11, 2011 16:19 IST

The Other Half - Where have all the girls gone?

Kalpana Sharma
Comment (15)   ·   print   ·   T  T  
Will laws alone help? Photo: V. Sudershan
The Hindu Will laws alone help? Photo: V. Sudershan

Does economic development only reinforce regressive values? How else can one explain the phenomenon of disappearing girls in modern India?

India's Cricket World Cup victory followed by Anna Hazare's indefinite fast on the Lokpal Bill virtually knocked out of the news arena some really bad news. Just days before all these media-grabbing events, the Census office released preliminary figures for 2011. The most shocking of them is that in the 0-6 year age group, the number of girls to every 1,000 boys is just 914, even lower than the 927 of the 2001 census.

How has this happened even as the adult sex ratio has gradually crept up from 933 women to 1000 men in 2001 to 940 women to 1000 men today? Why has this happened even as women's literacy rate has gone up and the gap between male and female literacy rates has shrunk? Why has this happened even when there are laws in place to ensure that sex-selection does not lead to the elimination of girls?

Perhaps a coincidence, but just a few days after the disturbing census results were made public, a group of activists met in Mumbai to mark 25 years since they launched a campaign against the use of medical technology for sex detection and selection. Their campaign had culminated in the first law against sex-selective abortions being passed by the Maharashtra government on January 1, 1987.

Misuse of technology

In those days, the popular method of sex detection was amniocentesis. It was an invasive procedure involving amniotic fluid being extracted from the womb for testing. The technology had been devised to detect foetal abnormality. Instead, in India it began to be used to detect the sex of the foetus. Women risked an abortion if the test confirmed a female foetus even if they got to know at a later stage of pregnancy.

In the absence of a law or any restraining regulation, those conducting these tests were openly advertising them. Advertisements like “Better 500 now than 50,000 later” were common, suggesting that Rs. 500 on a test to confirm the foetus today was better than spending many times more for a dowry later.

There are several aspects of how this first legislation came about that are pertinent in the context of the recently-concluded agitation by Anna Hazare and his supporters for a Jan Lokpal Bill to check corruption. The Maharashtra law banning sex selection came about through a push from below by the activists and a response from above. The activists tried to gather together as much evidence and data that they could about something that was just below the surface. It was virtually impossible to prove as neither the mother, nor the doctor, would admit that the test had been used for such a purpose. Ironically, they had stumbled upon this issue when a multinational company, concerned about the mounting medical claims from its women employees who had sought abortion, asked women activists to speak to them.

Through a variety of techniques, including sending in decoys to doctors suspected of conducting such tests, the activists assembled some proof. They were lucky to find at least one sympathetic senior bureaucrat, the Maharashtra Health Secretary. Without any dharnas or fasts and little media coverage – there were no private TV channels those days – the government and activists spoke to each other, argued over the provisions in the Bill and ensured that it was finally passed. That law was the precursor to the central law banning sex-determination tests passed in 1994 and amended in 2003 – the Pre-conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex-selection) Act 2003.


Even after the 1994 Central Act was passed, the activists were not happy. They pointed out that not a single doctor had been convicted under the Act. Also the law made women who undertook the test culpable for the crime. Furthermore, sex pre-selection techniques did not come under the ambit of the Act. After advocacy and dialogue had failed to get the law amended, the activists turned to the courts and presented their case. It was at the intervention of the Supreme Court that the government was compelled to amend the law to make it more watertight.

But given the latest Census figures, it is evident that the law even today is not strong enough. So the question that must be asked is whether making it any stronger will make a difference if the mindset of families remains firmly set against girls. Can laws really deal with what is essentially a social problem in India?

The other question that needs to be raised and discussed is whether high economic growth and women's status in society are necessarily linked. As India becomes economically stronger, will the value and worth of its women also become higher? In 2001, this was disproved as the lowest sex ratios existed in districts that were the most prosperous.

Today, there is an additional and more worrying phenomenon. Like a virus, the declining child sex ratio is spreading to districts that till now had not been affected. More research will reveal why this has happened but could this be one of the negative fallouts of economic growth?

For, has increased prosperity actually resulted in easier access to technology that assists sex selection? Sonography, the technology currently most popular in sex selection, does not come free although it is far cheaper today than when first introduced. Portable sonography machines can be loaded in the back of a car and taken to even smaller towns or larger villages. But even this would not have made a difference had there been no demand for the technology. That a growing demand exists is evident from the census figures.

Getting more conservative?

Also, is the availability of more money actually having the opposite effect? Is it reinforcing regressive attitudes? Instead of bringing in more enlightened and liberal attitudes, is it making people more conservative, getting them to hold on to beliefs that should find no place in a modern India? How else can one explain the story of India's disappearing girls?

Apart from the law, a great deal of work has been done to create awareness about the value of the girl child. There have been campaigns; state governments offer incentives for girls' education, and even the media and the advertising fraternity has been sensitised to the issue.

But all this seems to be of no avail. So while India shines on the cricket field and in other arenas, the darker, uglier side of our society continues to stare us in the face.

Dealing with this is at least as challenging as rooting out corruption. But will people come out and demonstrate for what someone called this ‘invisible constituency'?

Email the writer:


Sex ratio, patriarchy, and ethicsApril 29, 2011

if this process continue then male dont get any girl for marriage

from:  Sagar Patil
Posted on: Aug 14, 2011 at 17:57 IST

This a really alarming and potentially very explosive and vicious for India's future. Just imagine what would happen in hundred years if it goes on like this. The sex ratio may fall 1:2. In that dangerous scenario, India may go on to become from the most populated country to a country where Grooms will have to search for brides as a treasure hunter searches for the prized treasure of Tutankhamen or Maya Empire. It is really sad to know that in a country where Devis are worshipped as Goddesses like Laxmi and Durga, hypocrisy has touched the horizon in form of female girl foeticide.

from:  Rakesh Roshan
Posted on: May 1, 2011 at 01:41 IST

Apart from the parental selection which is definitely the major factor in this case, can we be sure that natural selection does not favor more male babies in the present climatic and environmental conditions? If the nature (climatic and environmental factors) favors more female babies, it will all the more imply that female foeticide is at an more alarming level than is considered now.

from:  Sri Raghava Kiran Mukku
Posted on: Apr 29, 2011 at 19:36 IST

Isn't there some way that the negative sex ratio be used to turn the situation around? I am not suggesting a system of Bride Price in the place of Dowry. We have to explore the possibility of the society paying for its sins, rather than focussing only on enacting laws and trying to implement these scrupulously. The Civil Society should work to give the Women their deserved place both in the Social and Economic spheres.

from:  Sundar
Posted on: Apr 27, 2011 at 13:18 IST

Enforcement of laws can do nothing untill mentality of people is changed.They will find another way for this.Matter is how to give girls right place and position in society.At one time, people worship goddess in navratras and go for kanjak pooja and at the same time, they are killing female child even before birth.All this is out of my understanding.In India,people showoff more but reality is totally different.

from:  Chandni Khyalia
Posted on: Apr 24, 2011 at 12:30 IST

This drop in Child Sex ratio clearly shows that though we are living in 21st century our mentality does not changed. Still it is believed that boy child is the only family legacy holder. For decreasing Child Sex ration, tradition or some epics are not solely responsible for this. Modern life style is also responsible for this. Today in urban areas, working parents don't have too much time for family. They decide to have only one child. Certainly they want their child to be boy as the old belief is still occupying our mind. In Rural area, the preconceived notion and dowry are strong factors to demotivate the people to have girl child. Lot of schemes are there for women empowerment which are making women self-reliant. But results of these schemes are not effectively conveyed to people. Illiterate still believe that girl is liability to them.

from:  Mayur Chaudhari
Posted on: Apr 23, 2011 at 12:30 IST

It is undoubtedly true that low economic independence of women lead to them being more suppressed in households. So higher economic growth ca not be a reason in itself for the low child sex ratio. The regions of prosperity (specially in north India I believe)are showing low ratio as written in this article but this could be because whenever a household improves economically, first its men grab the opportunities.Their thinking doesnt change with prosperity. It is in the next generation, that the girls of these prosperous people are also educated. With literacy entering the household with both father and mother educated and working, the thinking slowly changes.So any effects of economic growth will only be seen 2 generations down the line. Its first effect would most probably be the availibility of sex-selection to more people.
Next, i would also like to argue that a stronger law prohibiting sex- selection is the first step towards changing the minds.It might not be an initiator of change in itself but a support to all those who wish and work for the change. Thirdly i can't express the sadness that fills my heart to know that there used to be ads that said'Better 500 than 50,000'.How disheartening it is to hear that women can be so easily valued in terms of money by those who dont understand their real value.

from:  Bhavya Mittal
Posted on: Apr 22, 2011 at 17:34 IST

Are people becoming more conservative? Not at all. Infanticide has gone on for centuries, but due to its heinous nature it was rare. Now it is possible to determine the gender at an early stage, giving those who don't want a daughter an opportunity to terminate the pregnancy. At the moment, we don't need more laws. Instead, what we need is better enforcement of laws. Unfortunately, those who complain about lawlessness are often the ones who criticize the police and willingly manipulate the legal system. As a people, we are obsessed with wrong-doing at high levels; we tolerate law breaking by ordinary people on a massive scale.

from:  Gopal Vaidya
Posted on: Apr 22, 2011 at 01:13 IST

Well argued article which tries to present law awareness and education as causes for depleted sex ratio, but the causal loop should extend to culture and the presence of programmes which limit the family size. There is no doubt about the perspective presented, we should start talking about who is benefiting from the misuse of technology/law directly and indirectly! and also what drives the misuse.

from:  Deepak Kumaraswamy
Posted on: Apr 20, 2011 at 05:56 IST

We are getting more literate by the day, and less educated. It's a huge concern that while the literacy has increased in every census, the child sex ratio has gone down every single time. What is needed here is not just law, but a social change, as we are getting more and more means to achieve whatever we want everyday. In such a scenario, we'll have to change the thinking as to what we want, just stopping people will not be enough.

from:  Harshit Gupta
Posted on: Apr 19, 2011 at 11:19 IST

I don't think you need a rocket science to find the reason for this shameful and callous activity of Indian society. It's all to be blamed on the so called valuable tradition fostered by vested interests in the name of God and other superstitious belief. If you look at Indian Mythology including the first law book written by Manu (He has a statue in one of the state ruled by right wings), girls are very much undervalued and a totally wrong belief has been instilled among the people that if you don't have a son your afterlife will be in misery. But the scientific truth is that there is no after life. God is one of the man's deadliest invention since mankind evolved,is to be partly blamed for the evil tradition in India to kill the girl child. Most of the rituals performed in our society still highly valued(Even though there is ample of evidence that they have no value) by Indians are male dominant. I will never agree it as a phenomena of poverty or illiteracy. It is the rich and more literate with backward belief are the worst offender in these kind of social crimes.
That said, what is the solution? Imparting value based education based on the scientific truth rather than superstitious belief is the prime need of the highly corrupted and narrow minded Indian society. Can we expect the politicians to do that,who are living at the mercy of these corrupt Indians, certainly not. If you form a group of CBI officers and with the help of undercover bogus patients and catch these doctors(the most corrupted profession in India)and punish them very severely and give widespread publicity on their punishment,99% of these evil crime will stop. Is that the right way to do in 21st century, probably not.
So right minded(not right wing persons) persons like Kalpana and few more Indians whose heart is always weeping about these evil activities should try to impart the true value of life to the Indians. It may take 100 years or even 1000 years (Because manu dharma has been in practice for more than 2000 years), our country will blossom with Human beings who is devoid of all the superstitious belief and work for the truth. Meanwhile my sincere and strong support for all the people who fight for these noble causes.

from:  R.Manivarmane
Posted on: Apr 19, 2011 at 01:06 IST

The steep adverse decline in sex ratio could have come about only if corruption and abuse of medical knowledge is massive among the health care workers. It is difficult to imagine that it could be so pervasive and endemic in our society. Is it possible there are other factors at play apart from deliberate parental choice in this distressing phenomenon of vanishing girl children?

from:  Mohansingh
Posted on: Apr 18, 2011 at 14:52 IST

This is highly upsetting and deplorable. I agree the change has to be at social level and no amount of reinforcing of laws can help. The whole idea that it's only the boy child who can take the family legacy forward is an illusion that we need to get rid of. No amount of money or education is changing our narrow minds as rightly pointed out. I am glad Miss Sharma brought this to light and feel ashamed just knowing this as an Indian that we aren't doing enough to stop this. Peace

from:  Mohammad Nisar
Posted on: Apr 18, 2011 at 05:23 IST

In my opinion a regressive value system is more likely due to lack of awareness than due to economic conditions. Lack of awareness may be due to several reasons, the main cause, I feel, is illiteracy.

from:  Sumukh Ghodke
Posted on: Apr 17, 2011 at 19:24 IST

I agree that no matter the corruption is rooted out or any strict law is implemented in the Govt, if the family members have set their mind on certain decision then we cannot stop the 'murder' of a girl child. However the massive awareness in the 'murder' prone society and the instilling of the 'wrong doings' in the doctors mind with some media group, will definitely help to let them know the importance of the balance sex-ratio in any community. As there is a high chance of following a gay relation(as Minister Farooq Abdullah, once in his speech said) in the coming future ... Hope the orthodox family have the knowledge of the problems soon and 'try' saving the girl child.

from:  Jaba Debbarma
Posted on: Apr 17, 2011 at 10:43 IST
Show all comments
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Columnists Listing



Recent Article in Kalpana Sharma

Absence of sanitation facilities for women during disasters enhances their vulnerability. Photo: AP

The other half: Out in the open

The absence of sanitation facilities for women during disasters enhances their vulnerability. »