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Insights into Editorial: Missing at birth: on sex selective abortion and infanticide




Female foeticide and infanticide are still alive in certain pockets of Tamil Nadu despite officials saying cases have declined considerably.

The State’s sex ratio, which is the number of females born for every 1,000 males, has been improving slowly in the last few years.

TN’s sex ratio is 996 females to every 1,000 males. The State’s child sex ratio is 943 girls to every 1,000 boys. But Tamil Nadu has a long way to go in protecting its girls.

Doctors and officials are coming across suspicious deaths of otherwise healthy baby girls in certain parts of the State.

In Vellore district during death audits, one or two cases of deaths due to milk aspiration involving female babies are reported every month.

In Tiruvannamalai district at least one suspected case of female infanticide is reported every three months.

Indicators to point out the prevalence of female foeticide and infanticide in a particular district are low sex ratio at birth, high newborn mortality within 28 days of birth and high second trimester abortions.

Female foeticide and infanticide:

Years after it was believed that awareness generation and targeted behaviour change communication had led to people giving up the inhuman practice of feeding female infants with the toxic milk of a local herb, the news that a couple had reportedly used the same method to kill their second girl child, just a month old, had child rights activists wringing their hands in frustration.

Data on sex ratio at birth (SRB) culled from the Civil Registration System, show an alarming fall over the years. From 903 girls for every 1,000 boys in 2007, it dropped to 877 in 2016.

Dowries are now often 50% of a family’s disposable income; killing girls has become more common with India’s quickly developing economy.

The treatment of girls varies based on the region; in Kerala, girls are educated and a more liberal mindset is taken- daughters are unharmed; meanwhile in the North and Northwest, many daughters are murdered.

Missing Millions: A National Shame:

  • According to NITI Aayog, the sex ratio at birth in India has worsened from 906 in 2012-2014 to 900 in 2013-2015.
  • Further the Child Sex Ratio (0-6 years) was at an all-time low of 914 girls to 1000 boys as per the 2011 census.
  • This led the Economic Survey of 2017-2018 to identify 63 million ‘Missing girls’ in India until 2014.
  • The main reasons for the prevalence of ‘Missing Girls’ and decline Child Sex Ration are sex selection biased in favour of male child, neglect of girl children, inadequate nutrition and discriminatory practices.
  • Further the son-meta preference has exasperated the national shame of daughter deficits in India.
  • Four States have an SRB equal to or below 840: Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan (806), Bihar (837), Uttarakhand (825) and Tamil Nadu (840).
  • Activists point out that while infanticide may have come down, sex selective abortion at scan centres continues as the preferred vehicle for parents (and grandparents) obsessed with son preference.
  • This despite the fact that the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act was enacted and amended to arm the state to wage a war against this pernicious practice.
  • The Centre’s ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ campaign aimed at saving girl children has a huge unfinished task in front of it.
  • Tamil Nadu, at one stage, effectively employed the Cradle Baby Scheme to counter infanticide, along with effective awareness campaigns.
  • The cradles are still there, and the babies are coming too, but the SRB has been steadily dropping since 2011.

The Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition Of Sex Selection) Act (PCPNDT Act):

Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act, 1994 (PNDT), was amended in 2003 to The Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition Of Sex Selection) Act (PCPNDT Act) to improve the regulation of the technology used in sex selection.

The Act was amended to bring the technique of pre conception sex selection and ultrasound technique within the ambit of the act. T

he amendment also empowered the central supervisory board and state level supervisory board was constituted.

 Main provisions in the act are:

  • The Act provides for the prohibition of sex selection, before or after conception.
  • It regulates the use of pre-natal diagnostic techniques, like ultrasound and amniocentesis by allowing them their use only to detect few cases.
  • No laboratory or centre or clinic will conduct any test including ultrasonography for the purpose of determining the sex of the foetus.
  • No person, including the one who is conducting the procedure as per the law, will communicate the sex of the foetus to the pregnant woman or her relatives by words, signs or any other method.
  • Any person who puts an advertisement for pre-natal and pre-conception sex determination facilities in the form of a notice, circular, label, wrapper or any document, or advertises through interior or other media in electronic or print form or engages in any visible representation made by means of hoarding, wall painting, signal, light, sound, smoke or gas, can be imprisoned for up to three years and fined Rs. 10,000.
  • The Act mandates compulsory registration of all diagnostic laboratories, all genetic counselling centres, genetic laboratories, genetic clinics and ultrasound clinics.

Failure of PCPNDT Act?

In order to arrest the problem of sex-selection and female foeticide, the government in 1994 introduced the Prenatal Diagnostics Techniques Act.

In 2003, PDT act was amended to become the Prenatal Conception and Prenatal Determination Act (PCPNDT) which regulates sex selection before or after conception.

However, the PCPNDT Act is a failure in India with around 2300 cases of infanticide and 2000 cases of abortion registered under the act between 1994 and 2014. Today’s trend is that the number of abortions has outnumbered infanticides.


To choose on the basis of gender and eliminate new life if the gender is not ‘favourable’ can easily be among humanity’s worst moments.

It is time again for the government to ramp up awareness building exercises, and this time use technology to monitor every single pregnant woman right down to taluk levels until at least one year after birth.

While punitive aspects might offer a measure of deterrence, true change can only be brought about by a change in attitude.

As Amartya Sen argued: while at birth boys outnumber girls, ‘after conception, biology seems on the whole to favour women’.

The weapon that the government needs to use now is one that will be powerful enough to eliminate the perversion of son preference from people’s minds.

Way Forward:

What is needed is a radical shift in the approach moving from protection of girl child to promotion of women as a category.

This is done not just by improving the image of the girl child but increasing the value of the girl child.

A rights-based lifecycle approach with focus on nutrition, health, education, equal entitlements in property rights, employment and income generation is the need of the day.

Finally, only an over-arching gender sensitization programme focusing at the individual level through education, at the institutional level, public and private, at societal level through professional behavioural campaign is the only way to not add more to the shameless inventory of ‘Missing Millions’.