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Female Foeticide: A Cause of Concern for Shrinking Sex Ratio in India.


"No place is safe for the girl not even the mother's womb. They are put to death even before they are born."

- K.R. Narayanan (1)

These are the words of former President K R Narayanan which shows how intense is the problem of female foeticide in India. Female foeticide over the last 20 years has distorted the sex ratio at birth in India, as well as in several other Asian countries especially China. Parents tend to be selective in choosing the sex of the child. Improved reproductive technology in India has resulted in the reinforcement of patriarchal values through female foeticide as majority of doctors here are not hesitant in conducting this ethical misconduct.

So, here the basic question arises that what exactly is female foeticide? Female foeticide is the selective abortion of the girl child in the womb itself, done deliberately by the mother, after the detection of the child's gender through medical means. This can be done under familial pressure from the husband or the in-laws or even the woman's parents. Unplanned pregnancy is generally the reason behind abortion. However, female foeticide is a far more henious sin than the age old practice of killing an unwanted child, because in this a child is killed even before it is born.

Female infanticide and foeticide has occurred in several cultures across history. Several scholars have documented female infanticide in British Colonial rule. The first recorded instance in India dates to 1789 when Jonathan Duncan a British Resident at Banares detected the practice in Rajput clan. In 1870, the British passed the Infanticide Regulation Act. Subsequently, a special census was taken in 1881 in the western provinces and Oudh to detect female infanticide (Negi, 1997: 4). While evidence from British records and other historical sources show that female infanticide was confined to Northern and Western regions of the country including present day Rajasthan and Bihar, in Tamil Nadu it was a post independence phenomenon (Chunkath et al, 1999: 4). In 1978, an anthropologist traced the history of female infanticide and found that it pervaded in every society of mankind and was practiced on every continent and by people on every level of cultural complexity. (2) Amartya Sen (1990) drew the attention of the nation towards the 'missing women phenomena' highlighting that with its present population of 120 crores, India has to account for some 25 million 'missing women'. If Western standards were applied, India too must have about 105 women for every 100 men today. Thus there should have been 512 million women in India.

Although female infanticide has long been committed in India, foeticide is a relatively new practice, emerging concurrently with the advent of technological advancements in prenatal sex determination on a large scale in 1990s. In India, the practice of sex-selective abortion or female foeticide is only the latest manifestation of a long history of gender bias, evident in the historically low and declining population ratio of women to men. Moreover, the medical fraternity in India has been quick to see entrepreneurial opportunities in catering to the insatiable demand for a male child. With the availability of the new technology the bias suffered by females from birth to the grave is being extended from womb to tomb.

The three chief pre-natal diagnostic tests that are being used to determine the sex of a foetus are Amniocentesis; Chronic Villi Biopsy (CVB); and Ultrasonography.

Amniocentesis is meant to be used in high-risk pregnancies, in women over 35 years. CVB is meant to diagnose inherited diseases like thalassaemia, cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy. Ultrasonography is the most commonly used technique. It is non-invasive and can identify up to 50 per cent of abnormalities related to the central nervous system of the foetus. But sexing has become its preferred application.


Preference for the Male Child

One of the simplest and most obvious causes is a preference for the male child. It's simple - couples prefer a male child over a female one. There are plenty of reasons for this. The root lies in our very own traditions, customs, beliefs and above all, our thinking. It is a general perception that the birth of a male child is beneficial and advantageous to the family. A male in the family is traditionally considered to be a source--source of money, source of respect, source of name and fame. A man is expected to work and earn for his family--in the process, repaying all that was cost to bring him up. An abundant literature has documented the empirical evidence for son preference in large parts of Korea, China, India and the near east (Arnold et al, 1998).This literature has suggested an equally abundant array of theories about family, economic and political causes that may sustain son preferences. Women's lack of economic power, male dominance within the family, dependence on sons for old age support, high dowries, patrilineal clans, and marital exogamy have been the principal suggested forces compelling parents, both mothers and fathers, to favour sons over daughters.

Indicators of son preferences have almost universally shown their dependence on the sex composition of living children. It is not girls in general who are at higher mortality. In India son preference over girls risk but generally for girls born into a family of one or more daughters. It is parents with no sons and some daughters who are most likely to continue childbearing or to undergo sex selective abortions.

Concept of Parayah Dhan

Thinking that bringing up a daughter is like 'watering your neighbour's lawn.' A woman is considered as a financial obligation, money spent on bringing her up, educating her, marrying her is not repaid--as she has to go to her husband's house after marriage, and the benefits of all that 'investment' goes to his family. A male is considered to be a producer, whereas a female is considered to be a consumer. Due to these traditional norms there are popular saying in some parts of India 'Chhore Pe Baje Thah, Chhori Pe Thekere Phore' which means announce the birth of a son by beating of brass plate but at the birth of a daughter break earthen pots; and 'Ladka Mare Kambakth Ka; Ladki Mare Bhagwan Ki' which means it's unfortunate who loses his male child and fortunate one who loses a girl child. All this is mainly due to the patriarchal form of the Indian society. One simple assumption that can be made is that this preference is based on the form of society and families, a couple of decades back. Back then, a male was expected to work and earn, whereas a female was supposed to sit at home, cook, and manage the house and children. This made a male child desirable, as he was, then, the only source of income and respect. This system has been abolished--today females work nearly as much as men--but the thinking has remained unchanged.

Dowry System

Another major cause--and arguably the most prominent one--is the age-old dowry system. Dowry is the money, goods and property a woman brings into a marriage. It is basically a payment done by the bride's family to the groom's family during marriage. In most cases, dowry is seen to be payment to the groom's family, for accepting the woman, and for taking responsibility for her there on. Dowry is illegal in India, but this has not stopped families all over the nation from giving and accepting it. Also, in most cases, the bride's family is expected to arrange and sponsor the wedding--and Indian wedding is rightly nicknamed: Big-Fat-Indian-Wedding, pointing to the immense amount of effort, money, and glamour put in. Therefore, the birth of a female child indicates huge amount of expenditure later in her life, when she would be married--which incidentally, is considered to be the most important time of a woman's life. Couples do not wish to have such financial burdens on them--loans and debts, for example: which most dowries force--which is why they do not want a girl, to spare them from such huge monetary requirements. The dowry system is more rigid in the northern states of India which is likely to contribute to the lesser female ratio. Women have little control over economic resources and the best way for a young north Indian bride to gain domestic power mainly comes from her ability to produce children, in particular, sons. Often in south Indian communities, marriages are not exogamous (but often consanguineous), and married daughters usually stay close socially and geographically to their original family. Until recently, dowries were unheard of and benefits of inheritance for the daughters were not ruled out (Nasir and Kalla, 2006). In the Muslim community, paying of high dowry is not a prevalent practice (George, 2006). Also consanguineous marriages are highly prevalent and women are entitled to a portion of parental inheritance. However some sceptics have also argued that parent anxieties over dowries are at most a secondary concern and it is the social, not the economic advantages of sons that better explains son preference.

Safety of the Girl

Another reason for the unwanted status of the female child is the burden on her parents regarding her safety. Incidences of girls subjected to rape, molesting, sexual abuse, domestic violence, trafficking, etc. are growing every day, and parents do not want to risk their girl child's safety with a male child, such things are not much of a worry.


A commonly suggested reason is illiteracy. It is assumed that people are illiterate and not properly educated, and hence they commit this heinous act. However, logical as it may sound, this cannot be safely established. Statistics tell us that, this practice of female foeticide is equally prevalent, if not more, in urban parts of India (which host the educated 'rich' and 'upper' class people) as in rural areas. Clinics are flocked in huge numbers in urban areas, to facilitate illegal sex determination. Illiteracy is not the only determinent.


It is also argued, that some of this has bases in religion too. For example, according to Hindu scriptures, it is a male who will light the funeral pyre of his dead parent(s). As per Hindu belief, lighting the funeral pyre by a son is considered necessary for salvation of the spirit (Bandyopadhyay, 2003). However, this does not fully explain the cause of female foeticide. No Hindu scripture or religious text recommends killing a female child or foetus. On the other hand, Hindu scriptures, Rig Veda, for example, hold women in high esteem. It is unjustified and unfair to hold religion responsible for female foeticide. In fact our (mis)interpretations and misunderstandings are at fault. The strong preference for sons which results in a life-endangering deprivation of daughters, is not considered objectionable culturally and socially (Miller, 1981). Female foeticide is highest among Hindus as compared to other communities.The sex ratio in Hindus is reported to be 931 and that in Muslims to be 936 (Census, 2011).

The Hindu Property Act

The Hindu Property Act, which was meant to elevate the status of women, only made matters worse. As per this act, a daughter has an equal share in the property of her parents, because after marriage she becomes an integral part of her husband's family. In order to ensure that hard earned property is not frittered away to a different family, female foeticide was considered to be the best course available.

Foul Medical Ethics

With the legalisation of abortion in India, illegal sex determination and termination of pregnancies became an everyday reality. The professionals in the medical field were only too glad to help parents realise their dream of a healthy baby boy. Female foeticide is openly discussed amongst many in the medical fraternity and even sign boards outside certain clinics read, 'Pay Rs. 500 today to save the expense of Rs. 50,000 in the future'. The initial meagre sum is the cost of a pregnancy termination, while the bigger amount specified in comparison, is the expense that the family will be burdened with in the form of dowry for the girl. The growing availability of sonograms has broadened the capacity of many parents to realise their latent son preferences. The often dramatically shown recent rise in sex ratio at birth have been largely attributed to these new technologies (Arnold et al, 2002; Guilmoto, 2009).

The Reality Part

Let's have a look at the reality part. In India the child sex ratio is showing the declining trend.

Sex ratio in India is defined as number of females per thousand male. The child sex ratio is calculated as number of girls per 1000 boys in the 0-6 year age group. Given the traditional preference for a male child, it is not surprising that right from the first census of 1871, India has consistently shown an abnormal sex ratio. India's sex ratio was 941 in 1961, 930 in 1971, 934 in 1981, 927 in 1991, 933 in 2001 and 940 in 2011. Kerala has the highest sex ratio with 1084 female per thousand male whereas Daman and Diu has lowest with 618 female per thousand male.

If we look at emerging trend of sex ratio in India, we find that for the first time after 1961, in 2011 sex ratio has reached 940 females per thousand males which ofcourse is a positive trend but if we look at the level of child sex ratio (0-6 yrs) throughout, it shows a declining trend which is a subject of great concern. In 1961 it was 976 females per thousand males, 964 in 1971, 962 in 1981, 945 in 1991, 927 in 2001 and 914 in 2011.

It has long been argued that improvement in literacy rates and socio-economic development amongst women could change the adverse sex ratio for the better. So, it has been tried to compare the sex ratio, child sex ratio (0-6 yrs), and literacy rate of the so called BIMARU states (i.e. Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh) which are considered to be less developed and some of the developed states which has been randomly selected.

If we look at the table 2 we find that so called developed states like Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and Gujarat have higher literacy rate ranging from 76-86 per cent compared to BIMARU States which has literacy rate ranging from 63-71 per cent. But if we look at the sex ratio we find that these so called developed states with better literacy rate are not at a better position so far as sex ratio in concerned. Haryana, Delhi, Punjab has sex ratio 877, 866, 893 respectively which is lower than any of the BIMARU states. Only Gujarat has comparatively better sex ratio of 918 but again it is lower than the sex ratio of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan which have sex ratio of 930 and 926 respectively.

Child sex ratio is at a more alarming position in all these states and has consistently shown a declining trend since independence and it has now become 914 female per thousand male. If we relate it with literacy, findings are not very exciting. Delhi with literacy rate of 86.34 per cent has child sex ratio of 866 female per thousand male. A survey conducted by Centre for Social Research in the posh areas of South Delhi (Vasant Kunj, R.K. Puram, Dwarka, Chattarpur, Sundernagar, Sangam Vihar) revealed that female foeticide is still very much prevalent there despite so much of development and high living standard. (3) If we look at the child sex ratio of Bihar, it is best among these states with 933 female per thousand male with literacy rate of merely 63.82 per cent. In Haryana with literacy rate of 76.64 per cent child sex ratio is 830 female per thousand male which is lowest among these states. In Madhya Pradesh child sex ratio is 912 female per thousand male with literacy rate of 70.6 per cent, in Rajasthan it is 883 with 67 per cent literacy, in Uttar Pradesh it is 899 female per thousand male with 71.7 per cent literacy, in Punjab it is 846 female per thousand male with 76.68 per cent literacy and in Gujarat it is 886 female per thousand male with literacy rate of 79.31 per cent. It has been observed that educated mothers in Punjab are more prone to discriminate against their daughters than the uneducated ones (Dasgupta, 1987). Also, the prevalence of prenatal sex determination is more widespread among the economically well-off because availing of such services is determined by one's ability to pay. Thus, the rich agriculturalists living in the rural areas of Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat and the urban elite living in the metropolis of Delhi tend to avail of sex-selective abortion (Visaria, 2004).

It is clear that literacy rate generally does not have positive impact on traditional mindset towards a girl child. Ashish Bose in his EPW article very correctly called these states DEMARU states i.e. Daughter Eliminating Male Aspiring Rage For Ultrasound (Bose, 2001). However, there are states like Kerala with a very good literacy rate of 94 per cent with a sex ratio of 1084 female per thousand male. Besides literacy rate there are many other factors like socio-cultural aptituted responsible for it.

Rural /Urban Scenario

If we take a glance at the data given in table 3, we find that both in rural and urban areas sex ratio have shown a declining trend. In 1991, sex ratio in rural areas was 948 female per thousand males whereas in urban area it was 935 females per thousand male, in 2001 it was 933 in rural areas whereas 906 in urban areas, in 2011 it was 919 in rural areas whereas 902 in urban areas. Urban areas which are considered to be more developed have been performing poorly in terms of sex ratio as compared to the rural areas. One possible reason for this may be that in urban areas there is better medical facilities and people are comparatively in a better position to pay for these medical facilities. However if we look at the trend, rural areas also show prominent changes. In 2001, sex ratio in rural area was 927 females per thousand males whereas in 2011 it was 914 female per thousand males. One possibility behind this may be that even quacks are performing this inhuman act for their profit and it is considered as a necessity by the parents to abort the female foetus due to their limited resources to avoid future inconvenience.

Long Term Consequences

As Newton's Third Law of Motion states, 'every action, has an equal and opposite reaction', the after effects of this genocide are fatal and far-reaching. Blinded by the need for an assertive gender to rule the house after the parents' demise, the majority are often ignorant of the disaster they unwittingly invite by indulging in female foeticide.

Skewed Sex Ratio

In India, the number of girls per 1000 boys is declining with each passing decade. From 962 and 945 girls for every 1000 boys in the years 1981 and 1991 respectively, the sex ratio had plummeted to an all time low of 927 girls for 1000 boys in 2001. If that statistics is a matter of concern, the current figures are toeing the danger line with only 914 girls for 1000 boys in 2011. In the case of China, the sex ratio is an alarming 118 boys for 100 girls; that means 848 girls for 1000 boys. This is just an example of two nations trapped in the vicious circle. There are many others struggling with a skewed sex ratio.

The scarcity of brides in contemporary Punjab and Haryana is a serious implication of the skewed sex ratio leading to non marriage of young men. Since the girls are already in short supply and better educated, therefore families look for better placed boys, preferably urban, resulting in the squeezing of the marriage cohort (Ahlawat, 2009). To cope with the situation, men across the caste lines are bringing brides from distant states like Uttaranchal, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Maharashtra, North-East and even Kerala. These women are brought from across cultural, regional and language contexts where caste and sometimes even the religion are different (Kaur, 2004).

Women Trafficking

The steep decline in the number of girls makes them scarce for the teaming number of males eligible for marriage. As a solution to this issue, illegal trafficking of women has become commonplace in many regions. Women, often young girls who've just crossed the threshold of puberty, are compelled to marry for a price fixed by the groom-to be. They are usually bought from neighbouring areas, where the number of girls might not be as miniscule as the host region. Child marriages becomes a rage and child pregnancies, a devastating consequence. The moment when a land participates in the trade off of its women population, it is a sure path laid ahead with pitfalls.

Increase in Rape and Assault

Once women become an endangered species, it is only a matter of time that instances of rape, assault and violence become widespread. In the backdrop of fewer available females, the surviving ones will be faced with the reality of handling a society driven by a testosterone high. The legal system may offer protection, but as is the situation today, many cases might not even surface for fear of isolation and humiliation on the girl's part. The recent gang rape of Nirbhaya in Delhi (December, 2012) (4) shows a very cruel face of the society. Figures released by the National Records Bureau indicate that in Delhi alone the number of rapes in the first 10 months of 2013 is almost double than those of 2012. There had been 1,330 rapes in Delhi from January to end of the October 2013 compared with 706 for the whole of 2012. The figures revealed that the number of reported sexual assault increased from 727 in 2012 to 2,844 in the 10 month of 2013. (5)

Population Decline

With no mothers or wombs to bear any child (male or female), there would be fewer births, leading to a decline in the country's population. Though a control in the demographic statistics is currently the goal of many nations like China and India, a total wipe out of one sex is not the way to achieve this target. Science would then have to look up to solutions to do away with the swarming number of men.

Steps taken by Government

The government has already taken initiatives to prevent this menace from growing, by introducing various schemes at the centre and state levels.

It has banned pre-natal sex determination by enacting laws such as 'Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act 2003' and 'Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act 1994' as amended by 'Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Amendment Act, 2002'.

The implementation of the Act rests with the States and Union territories. As a part of the implementation of the Act, appropriate authorities are constituted and each is assisted by eight member advisory committee. The committee consists of doctors, lawyers, social workers and officers dealing with the media. Supervisory boards have also been constituted under the chairmanship of Ministry of Health and Welfare to supervise the implementation of the Act.

The PNDT Act is a law made with good intentions. It bans sex selection before and after conception, and further regulates the use of prenatal diagnostic techniques for strictly medical purposes. In particular, the law restricts the use of diagnostic techniques to registered institutions and operators, which have to maintain detailed records. Violations of the PNDT Act carry a three-year jail term and a fine of about Rs. 10,000 for the first offence and a five-year jail term and a fine of Rs. 50,000 for the second offence (Guilmoto, 2007). So far, there have been only two successful convictions under the law: a fine of Rs. 300 and another fine of Rs. 4000 from over 400 cases lodged under the PNDT Act (Nasir et al., 2006) The reason why the law has proved ineffective is because it is difficult to regulate all clinics that use ultrasound for sex determination as well as for a host of other purposes including detection of genetic abnormalities in the foetus (George, 2006). Its implementation needs to be improved upon.

Prevention and Cure

The issues of female infanticide, female foeticide and selective sex abortion have gained global attention. Many international and national law making bodies have come forward to stop this cruel practice.

Numerous steps should be taken to curb the matter like cancellation or permanent termination of the doctor's license who partakes in fulfilling a client's demand to do away with her girl child. Stricter control over clinics that offer to identify the sex of a foetus. Stronger checks on abortions performed for the wrong reasons and disciplining errant doctors with unpardonable exemplary punishments should be ensured. Medical students should be sensitised regarding the adverse sex ratio while stressing upon the ethical issues involved in female foeticide. Private practitioners should also be encouraged to participate in such programmes. A strong ethical code for doctors should be levied. High fines and judicial action against 'parent' who knowingly try to kill their unborn female foetus should be ensured.

While many medical practitioners have joined campaigns against the misuse of these technologies with the support of professional associations, some have been strong supporters of sex-selective abortion emphasising that it is the family's personal decision to determine the sex of their children. Hence the role of medical colleges and professional bodies such as Indian Medical Association (IMA), Federation of Obstetric and Gynaecological Societies of India (FOGSI) and association of radiologists, in countering this burning issue needs to be given due importance.

Ignorance is one of the major causes for increase in the selective sex abortion cases. Widespread campaign and seminars should be organised for young adults and potential parents to enlighten about the ill effects of female foeticide. Spreading awareness can go a long way in saving our future sisters, mothers, girlfriends and wives. To implement the provisions of the Act, the help of media units like All India Radio, Doordarshan, Song and Drama Division, Directorate of Field Publicity, Press Information Bureau, Films Division should be sought. Workshops and seminars should be organised by voluntary organisations at state, regional, district and block levels to create awareness against this social evil. Co-operation should be sought from religious leaders, as well as the medical fraternity to curb the practice.

Effective and fast redressal machinery regarding female foeticide should be created. Simpler procedures for complaint registrations, particularly for women who are most vulnerable should be available.

Empowerment of women and measures to deal with other discriminatory practices such as dowry, abuses should be undertaken. We should spread and emphasise the need for education regardless of gender, focusing on the humanist, scientific and rational teaching methods which do not talk directly about discrimination. Awareness should be created about gender equality through women role models. Education of women is a powerful tool for improving nutrition levels, rising the age of marriage, acceptance of family planning, improvement in self-image, and their empowerment. NGOs may be encouraged to promote formation of self-help groups, organise non-formal education for adult females and school dropouts, create employment opportunities for women as well as provide counselling and support services to newly married and pregnant women to discourage them from undergoing sex-selective abortion

Above all people will have to change their traditional mindset which ensures privilege to the male either through religion or inheritance. India has yet a long way to go in her fight against pre-birth elimination of females. Time is quickly ticking away. A shortage of girls would lead to a shortage of eligible brides thus making the girl a 'scarce commodity'. According to UNFPA (United Nation Population Fund) projection, by the year 2025 a significant share of men above 30 would still be single, and that many will never be able to marry at all (Guilmoto, 2007). Men in the states of Haryana and Punjab are already experiencing a nearly 20 per cent deficit of marriageable women. (6) A concerted effort by the medical fraternity, the law, political leaders, NGOs, media, teachers and the community itself is the need of the hour. Data shows that high literacy rate does not necessarily have positive impact on curbing female foeticide. Cultural and social factors are responsible for it. People will have to change their traditional mindset to overcome this insensitive act.

End Notes

(1.) President K.R.Narayanan in his address on the eve of 52nd Republic Day of India.

(2.) Study by Laila Williamson, 'A Brief History of Infanticide.'Society for the Prevention of Female Infanticide.

(3.) Survey by Centre for Social Research (CSR) of 900 household of South Delhi (posh areas) from Feb-Dec2012.

(4.) A 23 year old physio therepy intern was gang raped in a moving private bus at night in Delhi on 16th December, 2012.

(5.) What has changed in India after one year from Delhi Rape. (last visited Dec 24, 2013).

(6.) Haryana Boys heading South in search of brides. Hindustan Times, June 25, 2007.


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Renu Choudhary (*)

(*) Assistant Professor (Sociology/Social Anthropology), A.N. Sinha Institute of Social Studies, Patna (Bihar), E-mail:
Table 1
Sex Ratio and Child Sex Ratio of India

Year  Sex Ratio  Child Sex Ratio(0-6yrs)

1961     941             976
1971     930             964
1981     934             962
1991     927             945
2001     933             927
2011     940             914

*Census of India, 2011

Table 2
Sex Ratio of BIMARU States and Some of the Developed States

State           Sex Ratio  Child Sex Ratio (0-6yrs)  Literacy Rate (%)

Bihar               916           933                    63.82
Madhya Pradesh      930           912                    70.6
Rajasthan           926           883                    67
Uttar Pradesh       908           899                    71.7
Haryana             877           830                    76.64
Delhi               866           866                    86.34
Punjab              893           846                    76.68
Gujarat             918           886                    79.31

* Census of India, 2011.

Table 3
Sex Ratio in India

Census  Total  Rural  Urban

1991    945    948    935
2001    927    933    906
2011    914    919    902

* Census of India, 2011
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Author:Choudhary, Renu
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Date:Dec 1, 2014
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