India has more laws that protect the rights of women than the shoes in Imelda Marco’s erstwhile closet. But much like Marco’s now termite- and moth-eaten shoes, these laws are more talked about than used. There are civil laws that give equal rights to women (such as amendments in the Hindu Succession Act 2005 to give daughters equal rights in inherited property) and criminal laws, such as the Dowry Prohibition Act 1961, Prohibition of Sex Selection Act 1994, and the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006, to name just a few.
But in the absence of enforcement, people think it’s all right for a man to grope a woman as long as “nothing happens”, to leave their property to sons, to kill daughters who dare to marry a person of her choice, or to abort unborn girls because they’d rather have a son.
“The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has adopted a multi-pronged strategy to check female foeticide, which includes legislative measures, awareness generation as well as programmes for socio-economic empowerment of women,” Union Minister of Health Ghulam Nabi Azad has told Parliament more than once. What he hasn’t said is it hasn’t worked.
Son preference fuelled by the increasing availability of pre-natal sex-determination services made India’s child sex ratio (ratio of girls per 1,000 boys in the 0-6 years age group) crash rapidly from 927 girls in 2001 to 919 in 2011, shows 2011 Census data. India’s sex ratio at birth was 962 in 1981, before sex-selection diagnostic techniques became popular. Globally, the child sex ratio is 986.
While the Census does not provide data on the sex ratio at birth, defined as the number of girls born for every 1,000 boys, data from the Sample Registration System Report 2011 pegs sex ratio at birth at 906. According to the United Nations Population Fund, the natural sex ratio at birth is 940-950 girls per 1,000 boys.
The law has been unable to erase the son preference imprinted in communities across India. People in the affluent district of Jhunjhunu in Rajasthan are impervious to the concept of gender equality. Pregnant women queue up in the hot desert sun for hours waiting for a “mobile” ultrasound machine that unscrupulous operators set up for a few hours in makeshift camps to detect the gender of their unborn child. No announcements are made, or advertisements put up. The word of the illegal operation spreads through informal channels, which sometimes even involve government-paid community health workers, who are usually motivated by misplaced concern than greed. Since the acceptance of foeticide is high in the community – infanticide was an accepted practiced in this district in the last century — health workers actually think they are doing women a service by giving them an option of having a son.
With families getting smaller, the preference for sons is getting more pronounced. Even doctors have fewer daughters than the average person in India, a clear indication that they opt for illegal sex-selective abortions to have more sons, reported a study from Nagpur in the international journal Demography earlier this year. In families where one or both parents are doctors, the overall child sex ratio (number of girls per 1,000 boys under age 6) is 907 as compared to India’s 919, found a study that tracked 946 families of MBBS students admitted to the Government Medical College and Hospital at Nagpur between 1980 and 1985. The child sex ratio was a lower 900 in single-child families. The sex ratio was even more skewed against girls in three-child families. The sex ratio for the third child was 1,000 in families with two sons, but it dropped to 600 if one of the older siblings was a girl, and to 455 if both the earlier children were girls. Overall, there was a 38% reduced likelihood of a girl being born if the family already had a daughter.
China’s learnt this the hard way, sex-selective abortions has led to its population having 22 million more men under 20 years than women. Last week, China surprised the world by allowing couples in which one had no siblings to have two children, but the easing of its one-child-per-couple rule is not likely to redress this gender imbalance anytime soon. Till now, only couples where both partners were a single child were allowed to have two children.
India already has more than 10 million missing girls and sex-selective abortion is a crime that is not getting the attention it deserves. Now that a simple blood test that can highly accurately determine a baby’s sex as early as seven weeks into pregnancy, the PNDT Act has to be enforced, strongly and quickly. Changing the mindset of people will take years. India does not have the luxury of time.