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In the 21st century, why are we still losing 7 million unborn girls each decade?

As the technology gets better, and the biases remain, our sex ratio actually fell two points between 2011-13 and 2014-16.

columns Updated: Jan 20, 2018 18:13 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times
Children,Girl child,Beti bachao
The natural sex ratio at birth should be about 945 girls per 1,000 boys. But a study in Nagpur found that the sex ratio for a second child is 600 if the older sibling is a girl; 455 for a third child if the earlier two were daughters; and shoots up to 1,000 if the family already has two sons. (Pixabay)

The gender gap for child survival under the age of five declined from a high of 17% in 2014 to 11%, shows data from India’s Sample Registration System (SRS) Statistical Report for 2016 released this earlier week, but the sex ratio (the number of girls born per 1,000 boys) at birth showed no improvement.

In fact, it fell two points to 898 in 2014-16 from 900 in 2011-13, with Delhi registering the sharpest decline of 12 points.

The natural sex ratio at birth favours boys, with 940 to 950 girls born per 1,000 boys. This bias is nature’s way of balancing the gender gap because boys have a slightly raised risk of death from childhood diseases, which ought to even out the overall sex ratio by the age of six.

India’s wider gender gap indicates that illegal sex-selective abortion of unborn girls continues to thrive across the country. Only three states have a child sex ratio higher than 940 — Chattisgarh (963), Kerala (959) and Odisha (948).

About 7 million girls go missing in India every decade, with the fall in sex ratio corresponding to rising affluence and declining family size.

The chances of the second child being a girl drop by 38% in families where the first child is a girl, found a study of physicians who had graduated from a medical college in Nagpur. The sex ratio for a second child was 600 if the older sibling was a girl, 455 for a third child if the family had two daughters, but shot up to 1,000 if the family already had two sons, found the study.

Illegal trade

India’s Pre-Conception & Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act bans sex-selection and sex determination, but the high demand from parents desperate for a son has led to these services reaching even villages where there are no roads, toilets or safe drinking water.

The results are showing, with rural India registering a 7-point decline in sex ratio since 2010-12, as compared to a six-point fall in urban areas, records SRS 2016.

The drop in urban India was the sharpest between 2012-14 and 2013-15, when sex ratio registered a 15-point fall, from 905 to 890.

With improved healthcare increasing child survival after birth, India’s child sex ratio — the number of girls per 1,000 boys at age six — dipped to 919 in 2011, down from 983 in 1951, shows Census data.

India began recording sharp falls in the number of girls being born after prenatal diagnostic techniques such as ultrasounds and amniocentesis became available in the 1980s in urban India. As unscrupulous doctors offered illegal sex determination services, the child sex ratio dropped 17 points between 1981 and 1991, and another 18 points between 1991 and 2001, as the services percolated to smaller cities, and then towns and villages.

India is missing more than 25 million girls since 1991, which is like losing the population of Australia over two decades. The relatively affluent states of Haryana (832), Gujarat (848) and Delhi (857) are among the top five offenders, with Uttarakhand (850) and Rajasthan (857) being the other poor performers when it comes to child sex ratio.

Apart from pre-conception procedures that help parents choose the gender of the baby, tests are now available that help determine the sex of the foetus as early as the seventh week of pregnancy. A blood test that analyses foetal DNA found in a pregnant woman can determine the baby’s gender before eight weeks. The test, available in India, measures DNA fragments from the placenta circulating in the mother’s blood to detect Down’s Syndrome and two other chromosomal abnormalities in the foetus, but it is also being widely misused to determine the gender of the foetus for the purpose of sex-selective abortion.

A strong son preference because of social norms – lineage, inheritance issues, increased family earnings, supporting old parents, need for dowry for girls, etc – continues to drive the bias against girls.

Instead of waiting for people to change, the health ministry must use legislation as a catalyst to change unacceptable social norms by ensuring the laws are implemented firlm and those who break them face stringent penalties.

First Published: Jan 20, 2018 16:51 IST