Sex ratio at birth in India: Recent trends and patterns

ByUnited Nations Population Fund
Oct 12, 2021 05:51 PM IST

The study has been authored by Purushottam M. Kulkarni for the United Nations Population Fund

The sex ratio at birth (SRB) in India has become more masculine in the recent decades. The imbalance in sex ratios stems from strong son preference combined with declining fertility, and the availability of and access to sonographic scanning during pregnancy. The practice of gender biased sex selection continues even though India has enacted laws banning the use of pre-natal diagnostic techniques for sex detection. The instances of gender biased sex selection are obviously not recorded but the numbers of cases can be estimated indirectly based on the deviation of the observed SRB from the natural level.

The instances of gender biased sex selection are obviously not recorded but the numbers of cases can be estimated indirectly based on the deviation of the observed SRB from the natural level.(Representative image)
The instances of gender biased sex selection are obviously not recorded but the numbers of cases can be estimated indirectly based on the deviation of the observed SRB from the natural level.(Representative image)

To this end, this study first examined data on India’s SRB from various sources, identified the most plausible estimates, and then used these to estimate the numbers of missing female births. Further, the study estimates the number of missing girls based on the 2011 census enumeration and presents the decomposition of the missing numbers by two factors, pre-natal discrimination (sex selection at birth) and post-natal discrimination (excess female childhood mortality). For the five- year period beyond the 2011 census, the study estimates gender biased sex selection and excess deaths of girls below age five.

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The study goes a step further and presents variations in the SRB by the stage of family building, that is, at different birth orders and by the sex composition of previous births, up to the third order. In its analysis, the study examines, socioeconomic and spatial differentials in the SRB at various stages of family building and assesses the net influences of various factors on the probability of a male birth. Finally, the study looks at recent evidence on reasons for son preference and, in particular, on the value accorded to sons vis-à-vis daughters. The main results are presented below.

The SRB in India is clearly more masculine than the natural level. In the absence of sex selection the SRB is around 105 male births per 100 female births or around 950 female births per 1,000 male births whereas in India the number of female births per 1000 male births ratio has been much below 950 in the recent decades. Estimates of the SRB are available from various sources, and an assessment of these revealed that the census based indirect estimate obtained by reverse survival is the most plausible one.

The sample registration system (SRS) estimate of the SRB for this period is 903 and seems to be an underestimate (when measured in terms of females per 1000 males) by about two percent at the national level and needs to be corrected; the correction factor varies somewhat for states. The SRB has been fluctuating in the range 900 to 930 female births per 1,000 male births since 2000 for India with no clear trend.

The regional pattern in the SRB is well recognised. States in the northern-western region show much more masculine SRB than in the other regions; some states in the central region also show low ratios but not to the levels of the northern-western regions. The eastern, northeastern, and southern regions generally show ratios near natural. In Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, and Himachal Pradesh the SRB seems to have risen but is still lower than the natural level.

It is estimated that close to 400,000 female births are missed in India annually as a result of gender biased sex selection, amounting to about three percent of female births. The degree (number of female births missed as percent of female births occurred) is high in most states in the northern and western regions, moderate in Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, and low or negligible in most states in the eastern and southern regions.

At the 2011 census enumeration, about four million girls of ages 0-6 may be considered to have been missing; 2.5 million on account of sex selection (pre- natal discrimination) and 1.5 million due to excess female mortality (post-natal discrimination). This situation has persisted beyond 2011 as well. Further, while pre-natal discrimination is concentrated in the northern and western regions, post-natal - discrimination is common across the country;

the southern region and a few other states show relatively low levels but the regional differences in post-natal discrimination are not as wide as in pre-natal discrimination.

At higher birth orders and among those who have no son, the SRB is very highly masculine in the northern, western, and central regions. Sex selection at the third birth following two daughters seems to be very widely prevalent. In the northern region, the SRB at the first order is also more masculine than natural implying that there is some sex selection at the first birth itself indicating that some couples desire to avoid the birth of even one daughter.

Some differences in the SRB by socioeconomic background are seen especially at the second and third births. For the second birth after first daughter, the SRB is generally more masculine than average in the highest education and wealth classes. At the third birth following two daughters, the SRB is highly masculine. Further, the SRB is highly masculine at the highest wealth and education levels, in the northern and western regions. Highly masculine SRB is also associated with high media exposure.

Evidence on perceived values of sons vis-à-vis daughters shows that sons are valued for old age support, financial as well as for residence; such reliance is relatively higher in the northern and western regions compared to other regions. Though some changes in attitudes are seen in recent investigations, these are not large enough and parents by and large continue to expect such support primarily from sons rather than from daughters. Besides, in spite of the legal entitlements and provisions, it is not common for daughters to inherit parental property.

The analysis shows that in spite of efforts made by enactment of laws and campaigns by the government and civil society organisations, sex selection has continued. Though some change has been seen in Punjab, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh, the SRB is yet to return to the natural level in these states. Besides, in recent years, the SRB in some states outside the northern-western region has also become more masculine. Given that son preference is widely prevalent in India, there is a possibility of the practice of sex selection spreading to areas which have hitherto not shown it on a large scale, once the availability of sonographic scan facilities and affordability of the services rise.

It must also be recognised that a large number of girls are ‘missing’ due to post-natal discrimination, reflected in higher childhood mortality among females than among males. While the matter of gender biased sex selection has been receiving media and policy attention in India, and rightly so, post-natal discrimination rarely figures in public discussions. It is imperative that civil society and policymakers accord due attention to this concern as well and adopt appropriate measures to address it.


The study has been accessed by clicking here.

(The study has been authored by Purushottam M. Kulkarni for the United Nations Population Fund)

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