Where have all the girls gone?

It sounds counter-intuitive but do you know that the overall child sex ratio in the 0-6 years group in India is actually pulled down by the alarming ratio in cities? That this ratio is actually lower among mothers with more than 10 years of education? A look at the reasons behind the gender imbalance in urban India.

The news on gender ratios in urban India is not only bad, it is also getting worse. In May 2018, a study published by Lancet disclosed that 239,000 girls below five die in India every year. Census 2011 documents that the worst Child Sex Ratios  are found in the cities. 

The declining graph over the decades shows that urban Indian gender ratios are more skewed than rural Bharat’s, with an average of 902 girls per 1,000 boys between 0-6 years in the cities, compared to 923 girls in rural India. The urban figures have pulled down the national average to 918.

 The worst city in this respect is Gujarat’s Mahesana city, with 762 girls per 1,000 boys. It is followed by Agra (772) and Modinagar (778) in UP. The next worst on the list is English Bazaar (781) in West Bengal. 

The story is quite sordid even in big cities with big dreams and numbers. For every 1,000 boys aged 0-6 years, the ratio is 832 girls in Delhi, 852 girls in Mumbai and 942 girls in Hyderabad. 

But wait, do we not generally associate rising literacy levels and economic progress with accelerated urban development? With greater affluence and education, how can there be greater child female mortality?

Cultural, social and economic factors 

Female child killings seem to be ironically showing a rising graph in cities. Better socio-economic or educational levels, far from improving child sex ratio (CSR) balances, seem to be actually reducing them! 

study  indicates that the female to male ratio is actually lower among mothers with 10 or more years of education or with greater wealth, when compared to illiterate or poorer women.

“Girls are being killed, destroyed and removed only in developed states. So it has nothing to do with development or underdevelopment,” commented Maneka Gandhi, Union Minister for Women & Child Development.

The urban skew towards female foeticide and infanticide is simply a manifestation of the well-known cultural and social preference for boys anywhere, as well as inequitable access to resources and healthcare. With rising affluence and more rigid cultural rules, the preference for sons only grows stronger. Richer business families in cities are often more patriarchal, viewing women as home-makers who do not add anything to the domestic income. They are valued less and asked to pay a dowry price for just survival in homes where  resources are generated by male members alone. In the above milieu, families who view the girl as a burden automatically feel that it would be better to pay Rs 50 to get a sex determination test and abortion conducted for a female child, rather than spend Rs 50 lakh to get her married, points out a doctor in Bengaluru.

Exploring the national capital’s poshest areas reinforces the fact that poverty or low literacy rates cannot really be blamed for child female killings! An AIIMS study on infant deaths in south Delhi recorded that between 1996-2012, 238 foetuses and newborns were actually abandoned in affluent areas. 

Almost 35% of the abandoned cases explored in the study were stillborn, 29% were born alive and 36% were born before the period of viability (premature births). Even among the live-born cases here, almost 77% of the deaths were found to be due to killings, not health issues.

Improved technology has worsened gender ratios!

Agreeing that rising technological progress in the cities plays a major role behind the alarming urban gender ratios, Donna Fernandes from Vimochana, an NGO in Bengaluru, told Citizen Matters that the machine gives the message. “We have to seize the machine and cancel the license,” she avers. “Doctors should be sensitised to fight the scourge of sex determination tests.”

A recent report in British Medical Journal talks of a private doctor who offered a ‘package deal’ to conduct an abortion that included a “midnight home visit with portable ultrasound machine” and “abortion-at-home.”

Ineffective laws

The law banning prenatal sex determination was passed as far back as 1994. It was revised and morphed into the Pre-conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act (PCPNDT Act), 2003. Still, even though the law has been in place for 15 years, it has not been fully implemented. 

It is a law that is difficult to enforce, as the problem is very complex, rues Dr Sharda, Director of Laadli, to Citizen Matters. “Pre-natal sex determination is illegal. However, abortion in India is legal, so how does one know that it was performed due to someone’s preference for a male rather than a female child?” she asks.

Dr Sharda also points out that the network of doctors is huge, so finding a doctor who can help disclose the sex of a child is actually not so difficult. “The issue is one of secrecy and confidentiality,” she explains.

Tier-two cities

Janardhan, a member of Vimochana who works in Ramnagar city near Bengaluru, talked about his attempts to catch culprits. He points out that women who travel to get a sex test done tend to be from nearby big cities, such as Bengaluru. Women come to the more remote areas, because they find that doctors agreeing to carry out such sex determination tests are scarcer in the larger cities. Tracking down offenders in Ramnagar city is also easier than in Bengaluru.

How does he get an inkling that the family may be contemplating foeticide? “I just keep doing sting operations on my own. I found that one family actually undertook four abortions. But it is difficult to identify cases with certainty,” he said. Often, health is the reason cited for abortions, but some close questioning makes it clear that gender, not health, is the root cause.


Catching and convicting defaulters has been difficult, but the health minister, J.P. Nadda said in 2016 that state governments had filed 2,152 cases, completed 306 convictions and seized 1,573 ultrasound machines. 100 medical professionals were convicted under the Act and got their registrations suspended or cancelled by state medical councils.

This is definitely an improvement, as the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) had reported in 2014 that in spite of 38 cases of foeticide registered in Delhi between 2005 to 2014, there was just one conviction from 2009 to September 2014!

Government programmes

With media campaigns and government programmes offering incentives for the birth and empowerment of the girl child, activists hope that solutions to the menace of female infanticide or foeticide would be closer home. Schemes such as the Balika Samriddhi Yojana (1997), Dhan Laxmi Scheme (2008) and the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao Yojana (2015) have been launched with education, income generation, immunization and insurance for the girl child in focus.

There has been no real survey yet to find out how far or how well they have worked. However, a few studies show mixed results. Haryana recorded improvements from 900 girls in 2016 to 914 girls in 2017. But Gujarat showed an alarming dip. In 2007, there were 891 girls for 1000 boys, while in 2014-16, there were 848 girls for 1000 boys.

It is clear that the issue is as much about figures as social indicators, and the solution lies not only in educating women but also empowering them. Studying the reasons behind the rise in CSR and conducting determined campaigns for solutions would help to create a more balanced gender ratio.

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