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.
Recently, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has released the State of the World Population 2020 report, titled ‘Against my will: defying the practices that harm women and girls and undermine equality’. It highlights at least 19 human rights violations against women and focuses on the three most prevalent ones, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), extreme bias against daughters, in favour of sons and child marriage.
- One in three girls missing globally due to sex selection, both pre- and post-natal, is from India, i.e. 46 million out of the total 142 million.
- India has the highest rate of excess female deaths at 13.5 per 1,000 female births or one in nine deaths of females below the age of 5 due to postnatal sex selection.
- In India, around 460,000 girls went missing at birth, which means they were not born due to sex-selection biases, each year between 2013 and 2017.
- India (40%) along with China (50%) account for around 90% of the estimated 1.2 million girls lost annually to female foeticide.
- One in nine females below the age of 5 die due to postnatal sex selection.
- It tends to be higher among wealthy families, but percolates down to lower-income families over time, as sex selection technologies become more accessible and affordable.
- The skewed ratio causes the number of prospective grooms to outnumber prospective brides, which further results in human trafficking for marriage as well as child marriages.
- However, the positive news is according to the report, advances in India have contributed to a decline in child marriages in South Asia. This corroborates the NFHS data which had said that child marriage in India fell from 47% in 2005-’06 to 26.8% in 2015-’16.
- The major concern is that, while progress has been made in ending some harmful practices worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to reverse gains.
- A recent analysis revealed that if services and programmes remain shuttered for six months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, an additional 13 million girls may be forced into marriage and 2 million more girls may be subjected to female genital mutilation between now and 2030.
- 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.
- There are many loopholes in the implementation of the PCPNDT 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.
- Countries that have ratified international treaties such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, have a duty to end the harm, whether it’s inflicted on girls by family members, religious communities, health-care providers, commercial enterprises or State institutions themselves.
- Governments must fulfil their obligations under human rights treaties that require the elimination of these practices and rituals.
- 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.
- A radical shift in the approach moving from protection of girl child to promotion of women as a category is the need of the hour.
- 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’.
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.