In 2006, when my wife and I traveled to India to live and work, the one issue that kept grabbing our attention was northern India’s deep cultural preference for sons over daughters. The desire for sons can be so great, that some families, after having a girl or two, will abort female fetuses until they bear a son. The practice is called female feticide or sex selection.
In some ways this is a very old tale. Long before medical abortion became available, unwanted girls were killed after birth or not given enough food and medicine to survive. But modern technology has changed that. Ultrasound machines, which make it possible to determine the gender of a fetus, have spread from big city hospitals to small country clinics. Portable machines are taken to remote villages by motorcycle. As a consequence, infanticide has given way to feticide.
Despite a law banning sex selective abortion in force for a decade, as many as half a million female fetuses are aborted each year in India, according to a 2006 study in the British medical journal, The Lancet. Some believe those numbers are high, but it is clear there is an imbalance in the country’s population. A 2001 government census revealed that there were 795 women for every 1000 men in Punjab, India’s rural heartland. The numbers were no better in the posh neighborhoods of South Delhi.
The statistics are even more surprising for new births. In Punjab, we visited small farming villages where there were five girls for every ten boys between the ages of zero and six. My wife and I wanted to understand this lopsided ratio and why so many Indians prize sons over daughters so much so that they are willing to abort female pregnancies in hopes of having more sons.
Our travels took us across rural Punjab and much of New Delhi. Everywhere we went, we asked the question, why are sons so important? We sat with government officials, country doctors and city specialists. We took tea with rural midwives, health workers and college students. We met one woman rushing to the ultrasound clinic to discover if her five-month-old fetus was a boy or a girl. If it was a girl, she flatly told us, she would abort it.
Almost everyone we met told us that female feticide was rampant, but not in their homes. The reasons given were varied: from needing a son to light a parent’s funeral pyre to hoping a male bread winner will care for his parents as they grow old and infirm. But one reason consistently stood out amongst the rest: dowry, the high price families must pay to marry off their daughters.
Dowry is illegal in India, but that law is almost universally ignored. For poor and middle class families, the resulting expenses can create crushing debts. For the wealthy, smaller families are becoming the norm. And many feel if they are only to have two or three children, they must have at least one son.
None of this is said in the open. In the past, newspapers and billboards advertised sex selective abortions. Today, the laws are tougher and the practice has gone underground. But it is clear from the numbers that it is far from going away and that India’s girls continue to go missing.
Neil Samson Katz