Friday, 30 November 2012

Explaining India’s missing girls (Part II)

Dr. Devendra Kothari
Population and Development Analyst
Forum for Population Action

It is difficult to determine how many girl children have been lost to female infanticide and selective abortion or feticide. Data from the last three censuses, with appropriate assumptions, permit estimates of the numbers of missing girls in age group 0-6 for the period 1981–2011. The biologically normal sex ratio for humans at birth is approximately 105 males per 100 females or 952 females per 1000 males. When a SRB is significantly higher or lower than the biological norm, sex selection can usually be inferred. The calculation of missing girls is based on the difference between normal SRB and CSR (Child Sex Ratio) in age group 0-6 in a population, and this indicates that for every 1000 girls in age group 0-6, X number of girls are missing.  The CSR reflects mortality as well as   incidence of feticide (act of destroying a fetus) and infanticide (act of murdering an infant). By using the methodology, it is estimated, that around 2.9 million children in age group 0-6 have gone missing in 2011 compared to 2001. In other words, during 2001-11, on an average, the number of girls that were missing in India on account of feticide and infanticide was 0.24 million or 241,000 per year or 660 per day. The number of missing girls for 1981-91 and 1991-01 were 0.5 million and 2 million, respectively, as shown in Table 1. The procedure used is crude one but estimates arrived   could be compared with others[1].

Table 1: Trends in population in 0-6 age group, Child Sex Ratio and   estimates of missing girls (0-6 tears) in India, 1991-2011.
Census Year
India : Population in age group  0-6
(in ‘000)
Child sex ratio
(girls/1000 boys)
Missing girls (in million)

Source: Census of India 1991, 2001 and  2011

Table 1 clearly indicates that in the last three decades, India has witnessed an alarming increase in the missing girls mainly due to an extremely distressing increase in sex selective abortions. It transcends all castes, class and communities and even the North-South demographic dichotomy. According to the 2011 census  results, except for Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and some other small States that have recoded an some improvement in CSR,  all other States including Kerala  (21 out of total 28 States), the sex ratio shows a decline over 2001 census. This indicates that the phenomena of discrimination is no longer limited to a few States but is almost assuming epidemic proportion.  Further, 7 States could be identified as critical States with abnormally low CSR of less than 900 girls per 1000 boys. These are:  Haryana (830), Punjab (846), J&K (859), Maharashtra (883), Rajasthan (883), Gujarat (886), Uttaranchal 886), Uttar Pradesh (889).  The findings of Census 2011 also indicate that discrimination against girl child was wide spread both in poor and progressive States.  For example, Maharashtra recorded a fall of 30 points from 913 to 883 between 2001 and 2011 in CSR, whereas it declined from 909 in 2001 to 883 in 2011, a decline of 26 points in Rajasthan in   the last decade alone. This poses new set of challenges to the policy makers, programme managers and civil society organizations.

Numerous social activists have observed that the latest advances in prenatal technology – the tests like Amniocentesis and Ultrasonography - which were originally designed for detection of congenital abnormalities of the fetus, are being increasingly misused for knowing the sex of the fetus with the intention of aborting it if it turns out to be a female. As a result, many female are missing.  According to a recent report by the UNICEF ( up to 50 million girls and women are missing  in India’s population as a result of systematic sex discrimination. The problem is getting worse as scientific methods of detecting the sex of a baby and of performing abortions is improving, and these methods are becoming increasing available in rural areas of India, fuelling fears that the trend towards the abortion of female fetuses is on the increase. Diagnostic teams with ultrasound scanners which detect the sex of a child advertise with catch lines such as spend 500 rupees now and save 500,000 rupees later. However, one has to recognize that the prenatal technology is not a cause of declining female population.  It means there are other intermediate factors responsible for declining child sex ratio in India.

We need to go deep into the facts before making comments in haste.  It is widely believed that son preference coupled with desire for small family in India has produced a consistently male-biased sex ratio at birth. Son preference is exhibited in many cultures and is not unique to India, although it is stronger because of prevalence of patriarchy. The Total Fertility Rate (TFR) is a more direct measure of the level of fertility than the crude birth rate, since it refers to births per woman. India's TFR - the average number of children expected to be born per woman during her reproductive years - has fallen from 3.6 to 2.5 or by 30% over the past two decades, as shown in Table 2. The rate of declining was more in the last decade (2001-2011) than the earlier one. The table also indicates that the size of child population in age group 0-6 has declined sharply from about 18% in 1991 to 13% in 2011 - a decline of 5 parentage points in last 20 years. This clearly indicates that in the changed situation most Indians do not want large family.  The table also indicates that while the size of child population in the age group is declining, the share of girls in 0-6 age bracket is declining faster than that of boys in the same age group. The decline in last two decades was more for female children (5.1%) than male kids (4.3%) in the 0-6 age group.  It means couples wants smaller family but prefer to have son(s).

A strong preference for sons is also evident from the findings of the NFHS-3, conducted in 2005-06. For example, among women with two living children, 90% want to stop childbearing if both their living children are sons and 87 want to stop childbearing if they have one son and one daughter. The proportion of women who do not want any more children decreases to 61% for women with two daughters and no sons. It is interesting to note that the proportion of women with two daughters and no sons who want no additional children increased rapidly from 37% in 1992-93 (NFHS-1) to 47% in 1998-99 (NFHS-2) and 61% in 2005-06 (NFHS-3).  Thus, many Indians show a strong preference for son(s) with small family. And for this it is not necessary that they are opting for selective abortion to achieve their goal. Over the 16 years there has been a steady increase in use of modern contraceptives (like sterilization, pill, IUD, etc.) from 36% in 1992-93 (NFHS-1) to 49% in 2005-06 (NFHS-3).
Table 2: Trends in total fertility and proportion of population in 0-6 age group in India, 1991-2011.
No of children/ woman
(Total Fertility Rate)
Percent of total population  in age group 0-6
% change  1991-2001
% change  2001-2010
% change  1991-2011
Source: Calculations are based on data obtained from Census of India

The son preference is   common in a patriarchal and traditional society like India where cultural norms value male children over female children. As a result, once they get son(s), a sizable number of couples are not going for another child and that is also having impact on CSR.  Recently, the Forum for Population Action, Jaipur, a national NGO working in the area of population and development initiatives since 2000, conducted a rapid survey in a mixed community of Jawahar   Nagar, Jaipur where both middle class and slum people reside.  The main objective of the survey was to understand the fertility preference.  Around 200 couples were selected randomly with the help of local telephone directory who married between 1990 and 1995.  Though the sample size is small, findings indicate a strong preference for sons and at the same time the small family. Table 3, based on the survey results, clearly indicates that once couples have desired number of son(s) they do not go for another child irrespective their socio-economic class. And that may be an important intermediate factor contributing in lowering the CSR in India. In other words, the daughter aversion is essentially an outcome of small family and son preference. Wherever fertility has gone down, the child sex ratio has also gone down.

Table 3:  Jawahar Nagar, Jaipur: Distribution of couples who married between 1990 and 1995 by number of children born, 2010
Couples with:
Number  of couples
Per cent
No children
One son
Two sons
One  daughter
Two daughters
One son and one daughter
One daughter and one son
More than two children
Did not answer
Source: Devendra Kothari, Fertility preferences in Rajasthan: An analysis of survey data, Jaipur: Forum for Population Action, 2010.

To be concluded

[1] By Government of India’s own admission, the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, in its latest report on State of Children, says three million girl children have gone missing in 2011 compared to 2001. For the full report, log on to or times of India, dated October 12, 2012.