Wednesday, 31 August 2016

India confronts epidemic of missing girl children

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

But if we want to empower women, we need men to be allies.

Co-founder of
the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

No doubt, in many ways, today is the best time in modern history of India to be a girl. Opportunities for a girl's successes are as unlimited as her dreams. Girls are defying all odds and showing killer Instincts. PV Sindhu, Sakshi Malik and Dipa Karmakar became the unlikely heroines and saved the country's pride from returning empty-handed from the Rio Olympics for the first time since Barcelona 1992. The trio notched a few firsts for India; Sindhu, at 21, became the youngest to win an Olympic medal, a silver which was never achieved in badminton; and Sakshi's bronze was also a first for women's wrestling. India's first female gymnast Dipa went on to miss a bronze by 0.15 points but her clean finish in the high-risk Produnova Vault won the hearts of the nation. Yet an alarm is sounding, revealing a disturbing portrait of millions of girls missing and others struggling.

It is difficult to determine how many girl children are missing due to female infanticide, selective abortion or contraceptive uses. Table 1, however, clearly indicates that in the last three censuses, India has witnessed an alarming increase in the missing girls. It is estimated that around 3 million girls in age group 0-6 have gone missing in 2011 Census. In other words, during 2001-11, on an average, the number of girls that were missing in India was 300,000 per year or 820 per day. The number of missing girls for consecutive census periods 1981-91 and 1991-2001 were 0.5 million and 2 million, respectively.

As a result India is among the countries with the worst child sex ratios in the world. The 2011 census showed that the child sex ratio, number of girls per 1,000 boys between the ages 0-6, has dipped from 945 girls in 1991 to 919 girls in 2011 (Table 1).

Table 1: Trends in population in 0-6 age group, Child Sex Ratio and estimates of missing girls (0-6 years) in India, 1991-2011.

Census Year
India : Population in age group  0-6
(in ‘000)
Child sex ratio
(girls/1000 boys)

Source: Kothari, Devendra. 2014. “Empowering women in India: Need for a Feminist Agenda”, Journal of Health Management, 16 (2), pp 233-43.

Latest Census numbers also cast a shadow on the adequacy of measures which are helping in educating people to not prefer sons over daughters. As per my estimates, there are fair chances that CSR will decline further and it may be less than even 900 girls per 1000 boys in the Census 2021.1 And this poses new set of challenges to the policy makers, programme managers and civil society organizations.

Now question arises: How to arrest the epidemic of missing girl children? Recently, India's Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi suggested registering the sex of every child in the womb to ensure the girl child is not killed. In other words, she suggested that child sex determination during pregnancy be made compulsory, the gender of the child registered right from that moment, and the birth be tracked. 2 It appears that she probably did not understand the complex calculus that Indian would-be parents go through - when to have a child, how many, and boy or girl. A glimpse into this intriguing decision-making process undertaken by about 25 million parents every year is provided by the Census 2011 data.

Table 2 reveals that among women who had only one child, the sex ratio was just 782 girls to every 1,000 boys born. This is much lower than the overall sex ratio of the population (943 females for every 1,000 males), and even lower than the sex ratio for children aged up to six years (919). But it is not yet the rock bottom. For women who have two children, the sex ratio plummets to 720 girls for every 1,000 boys. However, with women who have three children, it improves to 814. For women with four children, it improves further to 944 and by five children, it reaches 1,005 girls for 1,000 boys, and the gap has increased between 2001 and 2011.

Table 2: Calculus of choice – lesser the number of children in a family, worse the sex ratio.

Sex ratio 2001
Children in family
Sex ratio 2011
Source: Census of India 2001 and 2011. Also refer news article by Subodh Varma at:

Table 2 indicates that the sex ratio is poor when women have one or two children, but gets better as they have more children. Two factors are at play here, according to population expert, Prof. PM Kulkarni. One is sex-selective abortions and the other is sex-selective "stopping practices", which is stopping having children based on sex of those born. "Those women who stop childbearing if the first one or two births are sons remain in the category of 1-2 children and those who go on for another child because the first two or three births are daughters get into the category of 3 or more children (that is, there is selectivity). As a result, the sex ratio of children of women with one or two children becomes highly masculine and, for the children of women with 3 or more children, less masculine. 3

A survey, conducted by the Forum for Population Action in a community inhabited by the middle and lower classes in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India in 2010, also revealed a similar pattern (Table 3). The main objective of the survey was to understand the fertility preferences and contraceptive uses. 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 as well as of the small family norms. The survey findings clearly indicate that Indian women with son (s) are more likely to stop having children than those with any daughters; also indicate a strong relationship between family size and the proportion of female children in a family.

Table 3: Distribution of couples by number of children, Jaipur, India 2010.

Couples with:
Number of couples
Percent of total couples
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. 2010. Fertility preferences in an urban locality, Rajasthan: An analysis of survey data. Forum for Population action, Jaipur, India. FPA Occasional Paper 8.

The foregoing analysis, based on the census and survey findings, clearly indicates that once couples in modern India have desired number of son(s), they do not go for another child. And that is an important intermediate factor contributing in lowering the CSR in India. In other words, the daughter aversion is essentially an outcome of desire of small family coupled with son preference. To achieve the objective, couples adopt various measures including infanticide, selective abortion and contraceptive use. An analysis of National Family Health Survey-3 data indicate that sex ratios of all last births and last births of sterilized women show clearly that couples typically stop having children once they have the desired number of sons. The role of ultrasound, which was widely used for sex selection earlier, has gone down significantly in recent times. According to NFHS-3 data it is more evident among the the wealthiest women than for women in the other wealth quintiles.

So declining child sex ratio is not only the the result of “sex-selective abortions” or “infanticide” but also due to “sex-selective "stopping practices" like sterilizaton. And later could be most important reason b why India is confronting with epidemic of missing girls.

How to gorge ahead?:
Now question arises why couples avoid a birth of a girl child? It is widely observed hat growing up as a girl in India is a challenge in itself. Girl/woman is made to feel like it is all her fault. It is just like that when investigating crimes of passion, the French police are said to use the mantra – 'cherchez la femme' (find the woman) in establishing a motive. This preconceived notion that whatever the ills afflicting us, from crime to unemployment, girls/women must be at the root of them is gaining ground in India's male-oriented society, as noted in the TOI editorial. 4

Much of the discrimination is to do with cultural beliefs and social norms which have become more pronounced in the  deteriorating governance and low and order. There has been a continuous rise in the incidence of crimes committed against women over the years. Girls are raped, beaten, dumped even in the metros like New Dehli. 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 in the womb or avoiding them. 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, and a secular humanist in her thought provoking article entitled: ”It’s a girl!” ”Kill her”. 5  “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. Further, in India irrespective of the caste, creed, religion and social status, the overall status of a woman is lower than men and therefore a male child is preferred over a female child. In such an environment why one should like to have a girl?

What do one does then? Avani Bansal, a crusading women's-rights lawyer, suggests a radical prescription: “You (girl) should get up, where ever you are, to show in your own way that society is concerned about the wrong things. The people around you are focusing on the wrong things. ...Tell them to be concerned not about the length of your skirt, but the quality of education that they are providing you. Tell them to be concerned not with how much you mingle with boys, but the equality of opportunity that they can secure for you.” 6

What Avani is suggesting that girls ( or women), you raise your voice against injustice to promote gender equality. Whether this prescription will work in present India where most of the power is primary wielded by men? India ranks 130 out of 155 countries in the Gender Inequality Index (GII) for 2014, way behind Bangladesh and Pakistan that rank 111 and 121 respectively, according to data in the United National Development Programme's latest Human Development Report 2015.

It appears that gender inequality (and discrimination) remains a major barrier to women empowerment. What do we do then? No doubt, expanding education and employment opportunities will help in achieving gender equality but that may take more time. To expedite the process, “we need men to be allies”, as argued by the Co-Chairman of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Melinda Gates, in her recent article, Women Transform Societies, based on Indian experiences. 7 The Foundation works with partner organizations in India to tackle critical problems in four areas including issues related with women and girls in crisis. Expanding her argument, she writes: “women's empowerment can't be just about women; it also has to be about men - the fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons – with whom they live their lives.” it is because in many cases “'s men who upholds harmful social norms that stand in women's way”.

So do not exclude men – fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons, they have to be positively engaged to be part of the women empowerment campaign. And such campaign “should drive home the point that girls are to be celebrated.”, noted by Jayashree Dengl, Executive Director of Plan India, a community development NGO focusing on the girl child.

Fortunately, there are many successful examples of public awareness campaigns in India that use male role models to promote gender equality, and such efforts have to be expanded especially in rural areas of north India.

On top of these grassroots strategies, we have to create conducive environment for women empowerment at a larger scale and across economic strata. In my recent paper, Empowering Women in India: Need for a Feminist Agenda, it is argued that there is an urgent need to formulating a feminist agenda to empower women living in highly patriarchal and traditional surroundings with several obstacles.8 The ‘agenda’ must based on the premises that no doubt efficient policing, stringent punishments and legal measures would reduce the incidences of crime against women but these cannot eliminate growing gender inequality in India unless and until the mindset of the society is changed. The article suggests that women-centred reproductive health care along-with enlarged education and employment opportunities for females may alter patriarchal constructs despite strong structural resistance. And this feminist agenda will contribute significantly towards women’s empowerment and reduce gender gap significantly .

India is very lucky that present government under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, recognizes that gender equality is part and parcel of the country's future; and campaigns like “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (Save the girl child, educate the girl child) will help to arrest the epidemic of missing girls by removing the gender inequality. This campaign has to deal with issues at the larger scale and across the economic strata by involving men.

1 Kothari, Devendra. 2011. Implications of Emerging Demographic Scenario: Based on the Provisional Results of Census of India 2011, A Brief, a publication of Management Institute of Population and Development. Parivar Seva Sanstha, New Delhi.

2 Refer:

7Refer article by Melinda Gates at:

8 Kothari, Devendra. 2014. “Empowering women in India: Need for a Feminist Agenda”, Journal of Health Management, 16 (2), pp 233-43. Also refer articles by the author entitles “Explaining India’s missing girls” (Part I, II and III) at; and