Friday, 21 December 2012

Explaining India’s missing girls (Part III)

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

The preference for sons coupled with desire for small family, however, is not the only reason for the practice of female infanticide and selective abortion. There are actual disincentives and costs associated with raising girl children in the prevailing situation in India especially in the North India. In general, girls still have lower economic earning potential than boys. “Compared with men, women have fewer opportunities for paid employment and less access to skill training that would make such employment possible”[1]. Work force participation rate especially in the organized sector (paid employment) is a good indicator of status of women in a country. In the organized sector, only 19% were women employees in 2008. Further, out of 3.11 million regular employees of the Central Government as on 31st March, 2008 only 0.31 million were women. The proportion of women employees out of the total central government employees in 1971, 1981, 1991, 2001 and 2008 were 2.5, 3.6, 7.6, 7.5 and 10.0 only. No doubt, the proportion of women in the public sector employment shows an increasing trend but at extremely slow pace[2].

The females have often been a victim to the worst forms of discrimination and it has increased significantly in recent years. The Global Gender Gap Report 2011, released by the World Economic Forum, reveals a stark and deep rooted gender gap in India. It is pathetically ranked 113 amongst the 135 countries considered. The country has fallen from 96th rank in 2006 to 113th in the last 6 years according to the Report. This is a rather   shameful reflection of the conditions in a country that is said to be on a growth song. It appears that the impact of the economic reform program in enhancing the quality of human life in India has been limited. The reform program concentrated more on the fiscal, structural and trade adjustment rather than improving the social sector development including quality of life and reducing gender gap[3]

In addition, there has been a continuous rise in the incidence of crimes committed against women over the years. According to the latest crime statistics, released by National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) - the statistical arm of Indian Police under ministry of home affairs, Government of India on 3 July 2012, rape with 24206 cases in 2011, emerged as the biggest crime in India against women. Kidnapping and abduction was the other major crime in the country followed by murder. Among the IPC crimes, an increase of 43% was registered in kidnapping and abduction of females in 2011 as compared to 2010, while rape cases were increased by 30%, trafficking of minor girls recorded an increase of 27%.  What is most disturbing is the fact that about 11% of the rape victims in 2007 were under 14 years of age, while 28% were teenaged girls (14-18 years).  Girls raped, beaten, dumped even in the metros[4]. 23-year-old girl was raped in a moving bus in heart of New Delhi by four people for about 25 minutes on December 16, 2012 and doctors who attended her at the Safdurjung Hospital claimed they had never seen a victim of sexual assault subjected to “such brutality”. This is another grim reminder of how unsafe are girls/women even in the capital of India.

It is very shameful for us that we are doing nothing good for the girls in India, but what we are doing is telling them that they should not wear jeans, they should not carry mobile phones, and they should cover their faces. Further, the horrific cycle of honor killings to protect the honor of family or a caste has now spread its tentacles to entire India.  According to National Commission for Women, honor killings take place when young boys and girls challenge accepted norms of marriage. It arises from the fear of feudal village lords that women in their villages or community would challenge them. Honor killings to ‘guard’ honor are shaking India in a dreadful manner. 

For example, the Manoj-Babli honor killing case was an honor killing took place in June 2007. The killing was ordered by a khap panchayat, a clan or caste-based council in Karora village in Haryana. The khap passed a degree prohibiting marriage against societal norms. Nevertheless the couple went ahead with their marriage, following which they were abducted and killed by Babli's relatives. Similarly, Monika and Rinku were done in by their kin in 2010. The murder forced the Supreme Court of India to interfere in the issue. On June 21, 2010, the Court issued notices to the Government of India and several State Governments to take action against the killing of young couples.  But such crimes are not only on the rise, but traditional leaders have gone much further than they ever did in the past, and now even questioning  the Hindu Marriage Act or age at marriage.

Was there no prejudice against girl child earlier? Sure, there was. It was only when they began to demand their rights as “equal citizens”, that lynching began. “Why has our world suddenly become so intolerant? Have we turned the clock back?” Ask renowned social scientist, Prof. Dipankar Gupta.  He thinks: “Not exactly! Women are being attacked not because of a backward movement, but because there is a forward thrust. Women, today, end up offending patriarchal norms simply because they are exercising choice in a way that was unavailable to them in the past. If grandfathers are killing their granddaughters in the name of culture, it is because they feel the old world slipping away. As long as everybody lived by established mores, nobody got hurt. Do things differently and the heavy hand of tradition lands on you”[5].

There is considerable merit in Prof. Gupta’s explaination. It's true that women are getting their position in public/private sector, jobs, politics, and education. They are moving by attaching shoulder to shoulder with men. This seems a big change and irritates offenders. They raise violence & try to make it worst. Despite the dedicated efforts in last 10 years, girl children in India are at risk of unsafe childhoods and lots of restrictions. As such rising numbers are not even allowed the right to be born, but those who survive birth are not socially valued, and endure fear, risk and mistreatment.  Open the newspapers and the reports of violence and discrimination against women are so brutal that they curdle your morning tea. It appears that it was as if the medieval world had suddenly returned.

Much of the discrimination is to do with cultural beliefs and social norms which have become more pronounced in the absence of deteriorating governance and low and order. Raising a girl child in such situation is very difficult. Women who live in such environment where they are made miserable through injustice and inequality may not want to raise daughters who will live lives as unhappy as their own. Women have used this excuse as a rationale for killing their girl children. Many women in several parts of India don’t want to have a daughter who would go through the same misery, humiliation and dependence that seemed to define their own lives.  That may be the main reason why many parents want to avoid a girl child that is why the child sex ratio declined in 27 out of 35 States and Union Territories of Indian Union in 2011 as compared to 2001.  Frankly and truthfully speaking, in the changed situation, a sizable number of Indians especially females do not want a female child since female children in India continue to get a raw deal in most cases.  One can ask questions: Save girl child for what? Eve-teasing? Dowry? Rapes? Domestic violence? This what we have in store for them. This is why we want to save them?

This prevailing view is being supported by Taslima Nasreen - a writer, a feminist, a human rights activist, a physician, and a secular humanist in her thought provoking article entitled:”It’s a girl!” ”Kill her”.  “The women who support female feticide say: ‘It is better that an insufferable life ends before it can begin. It is better to go straight to heaven than stay alive and endure the kicks and blows of the world.’ Are they wrong in saying this? This society is not a fit place for girls, so it is better not to allow them to be born”, argues Nasreen. She writes further: “How helpless she must be not to have the slightest control over the fetus growing inside her womb! Women are compelled to yield to societal as well as many kinds of family pressure and opt for abort a female fetus. An undesired pregnancy is not as terrible as this forsaken, helpless, undignified, disgraceful condition of women”.

It appears that violence and discrimination against girl child has become a significant social phenomenon in several parts of India leading to the high rate of female feticide and infanticide. This trend has been helped further with the progress in science and technology. Now, modern techniques are easily available to select the sex of fetus. Killing your own baby has serious psychological effects on the parents. I would say most do not wish to kill their baby but it is the poor socio-economic circumstances and weak enforcement of law and order they are in that this happens.

To deal with a problem that has roots in social behavior and prejudice, mere legislation is not enough. But one can not ignore the fact that the justice in India takes too long. We really need to reassess our laws so that justice happens faster. Also, we have to empower law-enforcing-mechanism, which will send out the unmistakable message that the law is willing and able to crack down hard on criminals. To achieve the long-term vision, however extra efforts, which are most important, should be made to create an environment where sons and daughters are equally valued. To create enabling environment, women must have access to education and training along with economic empowerment through property rights, favorable credit and entrepreneurial support as well as opportunity in paid employment.

Higher women employment not only empowers women but generates the economic benefits of empowering women - and the numbers are big. An international report entitled: "Empowering the Third Billion: Women and the World of Work in 2012” by Booz & Company, which finds different countries' GDP growing exponentially if female employment rates match those of men[6]. Accordingly, India's GDP would skyrocket by approximately 27%, if an equal number of Indian women joined the workforce. Quantitative evidence in the report reveals for the first time that empowering women actually improves the prosperity of nations and the overall quality of life, including increasing per capita GDP, literacy rates, and access to education, and lowering infant mortality rates. The report also ranked 128 countries based on the social and economic status of women and India occupies an abysmal 115th spot. Women's employment thus offers dual benefits - it reduces gender gap and strengthens a nation's economy. According to the report countries like Malaysia, Vietnam,   Venezuela, Tunisia and even Bangladesh, which instituted strong measures helping women join jobs, are starting to enjoy predicted gains.

It is high time that we realistically enable women taking jobs. Instead of asking a man to pay his wife for her domestic work, the State must create jobs for women outside the home in order to truly empower them. If the government is proposing to correct gender inequality by making husbands pay their wives the wages that maids might be paid for domestic labor, that could equally plausibly disempower as empower women within the family. The sheer absurdity of such initiative boggles the mind[7]. The government can do far more for women by ensuring total female literacy, and enforcing existing laws against rape and domestic violence. Also, granting women employment raises their status and autonomy. Having a gainful employment can raise the perceived worth of females. This can lead to a decrease in the gender inequality and a decrease in the number of female feticide and infanticide.

Since infanticide, especially neonaticide (the murder of an infant during the first day of life), is often a response to an unwanted birth, preventing unwanted pregnancies through improved sex education and increased contraceptives access are advocated as ways of preventing infanticide. Increased use of contraceptives and access to safe legal abortions has greatly reduced neonaticide in many developed nations[8]. It is estimated that more than 26 million children are born in India every year and out of this about 6 million births have been classified as unplanned. Approximately two-thirds of the unintended pregnancies resulted from non-use of contraceptives; clearly indicating the need for easy availability of quality reproductive health services. In addition, around one-third of unintended pregnancies resulted from the ineffective use of contraceptives, which suggests the need for improved counseling and follow-up of couples that adopt a method. Therefore, addressing inequalities in access to and use of reproductive health services including contraceptive services will be a powerful tool in empowering the women thus reducing the gender gap. In addition, measures like post-delivery tracking and mandatory reporting of newborns may help to reduce the incidence of female infanticide.

 Along with this, long-term measures of sensitizing the society to change their mind-set which is negatively disposed towards the girl child – as un-wanted, neglected and discriminated both within and outside her home, will also be put into action throughout the country with a special focus on the problem districts and problem communities.  The campaign like “Hamari Beti Expresses” a van, for creating awareness against female feticide was launched by the government of Rajasthan on 2012 is the need of the hour.  Further, despite significant improvement in living standards over the last few decades, Census of India 2011 reveals a picture that is far from respectable looking to the high economic growth. About half of total households in India still defecate in open. This situation is particularly piquant for women and girls.  Based on the Census data, it is estimated that around 290 million women in India (270 in rural India and 20 million in urban India), the worst sufferers of open defecation, continue with the age-old practice even after 20 years of economic reforms. One has to recognize that poor availability of certain household amenities including   safe drinking water; sanitation facilities; smokeless cooking fuel and electricity create obstacles in improving the status of women. Absence of these facilities increases women’s workload as well as their physical and mental fatigue[9].

There is no denying that both our society and our governments have done little to inspire confidence among women especially those belonging to middle and lower strata. The government must take the lead to save girl child.

No doubt that in the future the child sex ratio will improve in favor of girls, once situation settled down.  The experience of China, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam suggests that the country is passing through a transitional phase. However, concerted efforts, as argued above, are urgently needed to create equal regard and affection for the girl child.  Otherwise the population will become skewed leading to a host of societal problems like increased crime against women. The greater efforts have to be made to improve the dignity of girl child by improving educational facilities as well as paid employment opportunities to reduce the period of transition phase.  If we do not take required steps immediately, Census of India 2021 will repeat the old story and the child sex ratio may decline below 900 girls per 1000 boys. The day is not very far when people in India either stop bringing Girl  child to life or they will stop sending their girl child to schools or anywhere out of the their home! 


[1] See article on net. : Preventing measures for elimination of female foeticide by B Siwal, NIPCCD, New Delhi

[2] For details, see: Census of Central Government Employees, Ministry of Labor and Employment, Government of India, 2011. 

[3]  Srinivasa Rao Gangadharan and CA  Yoonus. 2012. Impact of the Economic Reform Programme on the quality of human life in India, Journal of Health Management, 14 (20), 182-199.

[4] A look at the National Crime Records Bureau data confirms the worst fears about metros. 572 women were raped in Delhi in 2011 as compared to 239 in Mumbai. Other metropolitan cities reported fewer instances: 96 in Bangalore, 76 in Chennai, 47 in Kolkata.

[5] For details:  see newspaper article- The backlash against equality - by Dipankar Gupta, Times of India,  dated December 8, 2012. Also see: Kothari, Devendra. 2012. “Empowering Women in India through better Reproductive Healthcare”, in Sheel Sharma and Angella Atwaru Ateri (eds.) Empowering Women through Better HealthCare and Nutrition in Developing Countries, New Delhi: Regency Publications, 2012, pp 68-86.
[6] For a copy of the “Empowering the Third Billion: Women and the World of Work in 2012”, by the Booz & Company visit:

[7] Government of India is seriously mulling a proposal to make it mandatory for men to share a certain percentage of their income with their wives, if the latter should stay at home and do household chores. Women and Child Development Minister Krishna Tirath wants to quantify and calculate the value of work that housebound wives do for their families, and ensure they are paid this amount by their husbands. For details, see Newspaper article: “Government considering salary for housewives from husbands: TIMES VIEW”, Times of India, September 11, 2012.

[8]For details see: Friedman SH and, Resnick PJ. 2009. "Neonaticide: Phenomenology and considerations for prevention". Int J Law Psychiatry 32 (1): 43–47.

[9] See post on: “Quality of life and living environment in India” dated September 30, 2012 by the author at the link: Also see  article  by the author “West Bengal: Household amenities with special reference to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and their implications”, UNICEF West Bengal, Kolkata, 2012