abortion seekers, demographics, india, reproduction, sex ratio
R Deonandan. Implications of India’s Skewed Sex Ratio. The Internet Journal of Public Health. 2012 Volume 2 Number 1.
Recent studies have confirmed that India’s millions of missing girls are the result of selective abortion, resulting in a skewed sex ratio. This paper explores some of the possible consequences of the unbalanced sex ratio, and discusses the barriers to addressing the issue.
In their widely cited 2011 paper (1), Dr Prabhat Jha and colleagues used publicly available demographic data (the national census and household health survey data) to show that there were likely 4.2-12.1 million selectively aborted girls in India from 1980 to 2010. The authors convincingly suggested that selective abortion was the primary explanation for a steadily declining female-to-male sex ratio in India, which in turn is driven by cultural factors associated with a preference for boy children.
Their paper was not the first to point to a crisis in India’s sex ratio. In 2001, the UN estimated that there were 44 million “missing women” in India (2). And in 2008, Sahni
Similar trends have been famously seen in other countries, especially in China, where the “one child policy” is thought to have resulted firstly in an epidemic of female infanticide, and secondly, after the arrival of antenatal sex determination technologies, in an increase in selective abortions of female foetuses (5).
Beyond the moral objections to female foeticide is the demographic crisis represented by a severely unequal sex ratio. However, the likely impacts of such imbalance are not well known, nor have they been well considered in the wider health literature. They include:
In India, the social drivers for sex selection are both deeply cultural and shallowly economic. Amongst orthodox Hindus, the care for elderly parents is traditionally the domain of the eldest son and his wife. Thus, the economic disincentive for having a girl is reflected in the local saying that raising a daughter is akin to “watering someone else’s garden”. A preference for sons manifests in many agrarian societies in which a male work force is valued for their wage-earning capacity (6). And the tradition of dowry, originally intended as a vehicle for assuring that a new bride had personal wealth, often in the form of jewellery, in the event that she was widowed or abandoned, has mutated into a form a “bride price”, in which families often go into debt to marry off their daughters. These are all economic disincentives for having girl children.
Interestingly, the Jha
With drivers and incentives for sex selection being social, cultural and economic, policies for addressing the crisis cannot be limited to the medical realm. In Jha’s paper (1), it is noted that India’s Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act of 1996, which seeks to penalize the misuse of prenatal sex determination technologies, is largely unenforced. The authors suggest that India’s traditional inability or unwillingness to police private medical practice is the greatest hindrance. The paper’s accompanying commentary (15) recommended better enforcement of existing policies as the appropriate solution. But it is possible that the desire to penalize sex selection, while evident at the policy-making level, has yet to penetrate to the street level, due to the depth and pervasiveness of cultural and economic drivers.
In the words of Sahni
Given the status of India and China as both the world’s fastest growing economies and our most populous lands, the demographic situation faced by both countries is relevant to all of us. To refer to those nations’ skewed sex ratio as a mere crisis is an understatement. Such profound demographic change may prove to be the basis for a host of pervasive social, economic and medical woes manifesting as the present generation of newborns reaches reproductive age.