Among the many manifestations of gender discrimination in India, arguably the most premeditated action involves the so-called boy-preference — the systematic elimination of female foetuses. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) report, Laws and Son Preference in India: A Reality Check, could not be more timely. It says the 1994 ban on sex-selective abortions, in order to be more effective, must be backed by comprehensive legal, judicial and police reforms targeting violence against girls and women. That the prohibition has failed is borne out by data from successive population census. The child-sex ratios in the 2011 enumeration stood at 919 girls for every 1,000 boys (in the 0-6 age-group). Between 1981 and 2001, the numbers were 962, 945 and 927 respectively. Clearly, the historical practice of female foeticide is no longer limited to mere acts of individual criminality. Thanks to access to ultrasound technologies, it has now risen to proportions that distort the nation’s demographic profile. Disturbingly, the UNFPA report cites the Goa law that permits polygamous marriages when a man’s first wife has not borne him a male heir. Meanwhile, the law that forbids sex-selections suffers from a lack of mandatory bodies to regulate the use of ultrasound technologies and monitor prenatal diagnostic clinics that offer clandestine services.
China’s recent decision to loosen the single-child norm could strengthen opinion in India that has been consistently critical of the deployment of coercive means to control population. The prevailing restriction in some states that disallows members of families with more than two children the right to contest to local representative bodies is a highly arbitrary and undemocratic provision. South Korea has recently witnessed improvements in child-sex ratios, influenced by the waning appeal of sex-selection techniques. The country’s experience should lead to a more discriminating and humane use of scientific knowledge and strengthen a positive attitude on gender in the region. The prevalence of child marriages among as much as 30 per cent of girls aged between 15 and 19 years, compared to 5 per cent among boys, is a matter of some concern. The proportion among rural girls is 56 per cent compared to 29 per cent in urban areas, according to the UNFPA report. The brutal murders of young women who dared to break loose from narrow caste and community ties are chilling reminders of an outright suppression of consensual relationships. This is another area where domestic laws do not reflect the spirit of global conventions on the rights of the child and the elimination of discrimination against women.