Opinion: The Vanishing Girls of India

Seema Sirohi
for The Christian Science Monitor
July 31, 2001

I grew up in northern India in a rather comfortable, middle-class home during the 1960s and '70s. In our extended family, we girls had considerable freedom on the big issues—education, career choice, the right to choose our life partners.

But in the background, discrimination against girls always lurked, especially in our grandparents' home in New Delhi, where we went for summer holidays.

Brothers, male cousins, and uncles were always given pride of place at the dinner table, in decision-making, and in the running of the house.

Girls ate after the boys, they got the second best pick of the fruit, and they got the worst beds when the summer house burst with relatives.

But at least our family had girls. My grandmother, in fact, gave birth nine times, and got it "right"—producing a son—only once.

I shudder to think what my dear grandmother might have gone through, had she been a young woman today, pregnant with all those girls. For technology—ultrasound, amniocentesis, and other techniques that can reveal a fetus's sex while serving other medical purposes—has been turned against the girl babies of India and other South Asian nations.

Bluntly put, our girls are vanishing, many banished by abortion once it's determined they are female.

A centuries-old tradition of devaluing girls has long kept the ratio of females to males low in this part of the world; female infanticide has long been practiced.

But the latest census figures for children under age 6 are especially alarming: In 1991, there were 945 girls in India for every 1,000 boys. In 2001, it's down to 927 girls. And the worst figures are reported by the most prosperous states, showing that poverty is not the only reason for rejecting daughters.

Since the 1980s, the technology that entered the shabby roadside clinics of small-town India has offered parents an easy release from the "curse" of girl babies.

For the first time, they could determine early in pregnancy the sex of the fetus. Pregnancy with a son was almost always allowed to continue.

Over time the "sex-determination tests" became cheaper and more widely available, and female fetuses began disappearing in ever larger numbers. The alliance between tradition and technology has been cemented.

When a daughter is born, a father sees a future financial burden, not a bonny face. A son, on the other hand, is virtually risk-proof, an asset and a preferred provider. He can look after his parents in their old age, and bring in a dowry instead of costing one.

Those who say that Indian women who abort female fetuses are exercising their "freedom of choice" are plain wrong. "Choice" is not the issue, because a typical South Asian woman has little or no freedom in any aspect of her life—in education, employment, or reproduction. Half her life is determined by economic compulsions, the other by patriarchal beliefs. To be truly embraced by her in-laws, she must produce a son.

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