Insights into Editorial: India’s missing girl children
The demographic transition in India has brought along an ugly unintended consequence – a historically strong preference for sons over daughters in these societies has strengthened with the decline in fertility, thus worsening the female-male sex ratio at birth. New data from the Civil Registration System of the Registrar General of India point to the hardening of the pattern, with a fall in sex ratio at birth from 898 girls to 1,000 boys in 2013, to 887 a year 2014. This depressing trend is consistent with evidence from the Census figures of 2001 and 2011.
The low child sex ratio in India arises from two distinct but inter-related phenomena:
Sex-selective abortions and excess female infant mortality, both of which are the result of a strong cultural preference for sons over daughters. Some estimates have put the number of ‘missing females’ (unborn girls) in India as high as 37 million.
Why worry about this trend?
The low and falling child sex ratio in the country is a matter of policy concern, not only because it violates the human rights of unborn and infant girls but also because it deprives the country of the potential economic and social contribution of these ‘missing women’.
In addition, there may be longer-run adverse impacts from a marriage market squeeze caused by an excess supply of male relative to female youth. Already, states like Haryana and Punjab, where the sex ratio has been extremely distorted for several decades, have been experiencing bride trafficking.
What has the government done to arrest this trend?
After abortion was legalised in India in 1971, and technologies to diagnose the sex of the fetus became widely available, the practice of sex-selective abortions became widespread. As the prices for sex-selection diagnostic tests fell during the 1980s and 1990s, the practice became even more rampant.
- The Indian government finally responded to this problem by passing the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostics Techniques (PNDT) (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act in 1994.
- The Act prohibited the use of diagnostic methods to diagnose the sex of an unborn child. However, there is a general perception that the Act has not been effective, as the child sex ratio has continued to fall.
What needs to be taken care of?
There are many loopholes in the implementation of the PCNDT Act, namely, under-utilization of funds, non-renewal of registration leading to automatic renewal of registration, non-maintenance of patients’ details and diagnostic records, non-maintenance of records by the authorities, absence of regular inspection of ultrasonography (USG) centres, lack of documentation of inspection report, lack of mapping and regulation of USG equipment, and so on. They need to be addressed at the earliest.
India’s efforts to combat sex selection also suffer from the lack of a central supervisory mechanism. Currently, the PC&PNDT Act is under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare which by definition is conscious of the interests of the medical lobby. Yet, all schemes for the girl child fall under the Ministry of Women and Child Development. Further, birth registration comes under the Ministry of Home Affairs. There is no synergy between the three ministries.
Also, a wider assessment needs to be made on why States such as Tamil Nadu with a strong social development foundation have slipped on sex ratio at birth (834), going by the CRS data for 2014. The cradle baby scheme was started in 1992 in Tamil Nadu to raise the survival chances of girl children by encouraging mothers to give them anonymously for adoption. Yet, the latest numbers, together with the persistence of the programme after 24 years, and 260 babies being abandoned in just one centre over a six-year period, make it clear that national policy has achieved little in real terms.
What needs to be done now?
- Dowry is also one of the main causes of low sex ratio. The trend of taking and giving of dowry which takes place mostly in educated and upper class homes can be discouraged by laws and awareness among the peoples.
- Children should be taught to uphold morals and refrain from practices of dowry, female foeticide, and gender bias. The vulnerable minds of the children should be so influenced that they grow up as adults who consider practicing dowry and female foeticide as immoral.
- Women should also be socialized from early childhood to consider themselves as equal to men. This would be a positive influence on the coming generations as today’s girl child would be tomorrow’s mother as well as mother in-law.
- The major barrier in the way towards the balanced gender structure is gender inequality based on the socio-cultural issues. The systematic discrimination of the females needs to be tackled from our society.
- In order to marshal support of various groups and channelizing the efforts in a focused manner, government must take a lead in establishing a mission for balancing the sex ratio by the next census operation through a coordinated mix of reinforcement programmes and support mechanism.
This trend has, in some cases, prompted the Supreme Court to take note of the situation, and the National Human Rights Commission to ask for an explanation from State governments.
- The government has also responded to the silent crisis with the ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ campaign, which focusses on the prevention of sex-selective abortions, creation of opportunities for education and protection of girl children. Now that the scheme is set to enter its third year in January, there should be a speedy assessment of its working, particularly in districts with a poor sex ratio where it has been intensively implemented.
- However, the overall challenge can only be met by all on round realisation that even in the patriarchal set up, it is essential to maintain a natural balance between the sexes failing which not only the social system, but also entire economic system would get damaged beyond repair.
Declining sex ratio is a silent emergency. But the crisis is real, and its persistence has profound and frightening implications for society and the future of humankind. Clearly, there is a need to go beyond slogans and institute tangible schemes. Enforcement of the law that prohibits determination of the sex of the foetus must go hand in hand with massive social investments to protect both immediate and long-term prospects of girls — in the form of cash incentives through registration of births, a continuum of health care, early educational opportunities and social protection. Half-measures cannot produce a dramatic reversal of the shameful national record.