The Census of 2011 revealed that the sex ratio in the 0-6 age group is worse now than in any decade since Independence. It is indisputable that this distressing trend is the result of more people having easier access to medical technologies that reveal the sex of the foetus, and opting for sex-selective abortions. New research published by The Lancet provides further insights into the phenomenon of ‘missing women': as family size in India declines over time, there is a bias against having a second female child when the first is a girl. Based on data drawn from the National Family Health Survey between 1990 and 2005 and the Census of 1991, 2001, and 2011, the paper estimates that for second-order births where the first is a female, the conditional sex ratio fell to an abysmal 836 girls per 1,000 boys in 2005. It is equally a matter of concern that most of India's population now lives in States where selective abortion of girls is common. What stands out in the findings is the positive correlation that education and affluence seem to have with a decline in the sex ratio; the decline was higher in the case of women with ten years or more of education than for mothers with no education. Such a trend calls for closer study of the factors that reinforce the son preference, especially in States and districts with a worsening ratio.

What is fundamentally underscored by the research is the failure of the Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act even in its amended form, and the need for a multi-pronged strategy to remove the prejudice against the girl child. Any serious review of the law in the States with the worst child sex ratios should begin with the quarterly reports they are required to file on diagnostic centres, laboratories, and clinics, the action taken against unregistered bodies, search and seizure, and the outcomes of awareness campaigns. Not all States have been filing such reports regularly. The level of involvement of laggard States in implementing the PNDT Act can be gauged from the fact that in Haryana, a crucial notification on setting up Appropriate Authorities was not published in the gazette for 12 years from 1997, and it had to be reissued as an ordinance with retrospective effect. But then, while enforcement measures may have a salutary effect, the more challenging task is to make India a less male-dominated society. The place to start for that mission would be Parliament and the State Legislative Assemblies. Political parties must lead by enabling 33 per cent representation for women in legislatures and raise their visibility. Liberal scholarships for all levels of study and improved economic security may tilt the balance for the less affluent sections.

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