By Patrick B. Craine

September 14, 2009 ( – India's feminists and population control-pushing government are “stumped” by the dramatic drop of female births among the wealthier classes due to sex-selective abortions, reports the Globe and Mail's Indian correspondent Stephanie Nolen.

Due to a 'son preference' in Indian culture, the use of new technologies to detect and abort baby girls has become widespread.

Technically it has been illegal in India to tell couples the sex of their unborn child or to abort based on sex since 1994.  This law, however, is rarely enforced.  Consequently, sex-selective abortion practices are rampant and the ratio of girls to boys is continuing to fall.  India's 2001 census revealed that there were only 927 girls aged 0-6 per 1,000 boys, a marked drop from the 1991 census, which found 945 per 1000.  This means that in that decade there were 35 million fewer females registered in the country than males, according to Canada's International Development Research Centre.

The statistics in certain areas are shocking.  The IDRC revealed last year that the wealthier urban families of the Indian Punjab have merely 300 girls for every 1,000 boys.  In South Delhi, the ratio is 832:1000, and in the state of Haryana it's 822:1000.

“Conventional wisdom has long held that as India develops – as more families struggle their way into the middle class, more girls go to school and more women join the work force – traditional ideas about the lesser value of girls will erode,” writes Nolen.  “The incentive to abort them would fall away.”

“Instead, the opposite has happened,” she continues, “and the reasons – and solutions – have government and activists stumped.”

Abortion proponents operate based on a purported concern for women, and so, as Nolen points out, they are faced with a dilemma when confronted by the targeting of women in abortion.  “The campaign to protect female fetuses presents complicated moral questions for defenders of reproductive rights,” she says.  “[The campaign] uses language such as 'defending the rights of the girl child,' but Indian feminists debate the issue uncomfortably: Is the implication that male fetuses do not have rights? Or have different ones?”

The Indian government has been pushing abortion as part of its population-control agenda since it became legal in 1971. Recently, however, the government has spoken out against the use of abortion for sex-selection.

In her July 2007 inaugural speech, Indian President Pratibha Patil, the first female president, condemned female foeticide.  “Empowerment of women is particularly important to me as I believe this leads to the empowerment of the nation,” she said.  “We must banish malnutrition, social evils, infant mortality and female foeticide.”

Further, in April 2008 the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, joined his cabinet in decrying this “national shame.”  “No nation, no society, no community can hold its head high and claim to be part of the civilized world if it condones the practice of discriminating against one half of humanity represented by women,” he said.

Navsharan Singh, who heads the gender research at IDRC's India office, indicated to Nolen that there was an “incoherence” between the state allowing the woman a right to abortion and, at the same time, restricting her use of it in sex-selection.  “We've been struggling with these questions. Choice is individual but the consequences are societal, when the rights of those who survive are also compromised – I'm rendered less wanted and my claims as a citizen are less valid.”

“It's a devaluation of women manifest in such violent form: Your very sex is so worthless it's being eliminated,” says Singh.

The increasing dearth of women has contributed to gross atrocities, including the trafficking of women as wives for wealthy men.  In some cases, as Nolen says, a woman is made the sex slave of an entire family of men, with the sole purpose of bearing them sons.

There is a growing movement in India to “save the girl child,” to fight against sex-selective abortion.  In June, thousands of women marched for this cause in Coimbatore, southern India, carrying signs such as “Do not kill us,” and “Adoption against abortion.”

See related coverage:

Trafficking of Women Rampant In Northern India: 8 Women for Every 10 Men 

Indian “Genocide” of Girls by Abortion Exposed in New Book “Disappearing Daughters” 

Abortion Group Ipas Defends Abortion Targeting Unborn Girls 


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