>> Tuesday, 13 December 2011
In the world's largest democracy a massive crisis of missing girls is unfolding, according to India's 2011 census. The latest census shows that the gap between the number of girls per 1,000 boys up to the age of six has widened to 914, a decrease from 927 a decade ago, at the 2001 census. In a country where a large part of the population finds it hard to get access to toilets and clean drinking water, access to illegal foetal sex-selection procedures seems easier.
The girl child in India is falling prey to the profit-driven ultrasound industry and doctors who commit foeticide without compunction. The child sex ratio is emblematic of the status of women in the country.
More than a dozen female foetuses were found dumped in a city in eastern Bihar state recently, days before the damning child sex ratio was revealed. Although there has been a fall in the rate of population growth (pdf), awareness of family size is accompanied by a greater preference for boys – a trend seen across class and rural-urban divides.
Mumbai, India's commercial capital, boasts a ratio of 874 girls, one of the lowest in the country. Jhajjar district in the northern state of Haryana, could well be the capital of female foeticide, with a ratio of 774 girls to 1,000 boys – the state's ratio is 830, down from 861 recorded in the 2001 census. Regions that had more balanced sex ratios, such as the southern and eastern states, are now also registering this trend and research shows that even Indians overseas demonstrate similar sex ratios.
Sabu M George, an activist with 25 years' experience in the field, said: "There are highly organised vested interests, a powerful lobby of doctors and companies selling ultrasound machines that cater to the sex-determination market." Doctors in India make at least $200m a year by conducting illegal sex-selection procedures, he said.
During 1991, in the prosperous states of Gujarat, Punjab and Haryana, 5% of girls were eliminated. Ten years on, in 2001, this climbed to 10%-15%; and 7,000 fewer girls are born every day than ought to be, according to Unicef.
Legislation was enacted in 1994 – the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act (Prohibition of Sex Selection Act or PNDT) – but that failed to act as a deterrent to potential parents and doctors. A public interest case was filed in 2000 by George and two NGOs, MASUM and CEHAT, citing the government's failure to the implement the law. In 2001, seven years after legislation was enacted, the supreme court directed state governments to enforce it, making special reference to Punjab, Delhi, Bihar, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and West Bengal. But in the past three years the relevant government committee has not met even once to take stock of the situation, George said.
While an estimated 15 million girls were wiped out – simply not born – in India over the last decade, the figure is 25 million in China, where the state's one-child policy has become a one-son policy.
Chinese ultrasound manufacturers also see India as their big market. Machines that were meant to be sold only to registered clinics are probably being sold to unauthorised entities. Activists have also criticised companies from the west, such as GE. The company points out that ultrasound is essential for many medical procedures, adding that, while buyers require valid certificates and must produce "affidavits stating that the equipment shall not be used for sex determination … GE's observation is that these laws are not routinely enforced."
And it is not just the makers of medical devices who are taking advantage of the situation. Microsoft, Yahoo and Google, for example, have all contributed to the problem. The 1994 law prohibits advertising sex-selection services, often for genetic determination of sex, but those corporations carried online advertising, sponsored links, for sex-selection services. Another public interest case was filed to challenge the online ads.
These are signs of the stunted evolution in the status of Indian women. Not surprisingly, India ranks a lowly 112 out of 134 countries in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index for 2010 (pdf).
The economic impact of women not contributing to society is clearly lost on many Indians, and the great Indian economic growth story has bypassed women's emancipation.
Natural selection would have yielded an additional 600,000 girls every year. This translates into 10 million potential brides after two decades. The horror of how this could unfold is best captured by a chilling, if slightly exaggerated, film called Mathrubhoomi: A Nation Without Women.