THE ratio of female to male infants continues to decline in India and a recent report by the United Nations warned that urgent action is needed to reverse the trend.
The report, Sex Ratios and Gender Biased Sex Selection: History, Debates and Future Directions, was published by the organisation UN Women.
The ratio has gone from 976 girls to 1000 boys in 1961, to 927 girls in 2001, and to 918 girls in 2011.
Estimates of how many deaths attributable to sex-selective abortion and neglect of new-born girls varied widely, the report explained.
One estimate for the period of 1981-2005 is 10 million.
More recent data, from the 2011 census, shows that in some of the states in the north and the west of India, who have the worst sex ratios, the problem has eased.
Other areas of India, however, showed a decline in the ratio of girls to boys, revealing that the increased mortality of girls has spread more widely across the country.
In the history section of the report it explained how in the early 1980s amniocentesis testing began in some cities to discover the sex of a foetus. Then, some of those discovered to be female would be aborted.
The modern technology that allows girls to be aborted before birth has only made worse a situation that has long existed.
The report described how English colonial authorities were shocked at the lack of care for infant girls and there are records of female infanticide going back to 1789.
Even with the use of abortion there is evidence of female infanticide up to very recent times.
“There appears to be no more poignant image of what is wrong with Indian society than the millions of little girls that are not being allowed to be born,” the report commented.
The report was critical of the continuing discrimination against women, even at a time when in many other areas India has made notable social and economic progress.
One of the factors behind the aversion to having girls in a family is the need to pay a substantial dowry at the time of marriage.
Yet, the report warned against an overly simplistic interpretation of the causes behind the preference for sons. It is a mistake to simply invoke sex discrimination or patriarchy, as some have done.
There are disparities between daughters and daughters-in-law and among men, especially for those who are poor or unemployed as they face difficulties given that families with daughters seek to marry them to men of higher socio-economic status.
The bias against baby girls is not limited to sex-selective abortion. Normally girls have a lower mortality rate than boys, but India is among the very few countries in the world where the infant mortality rate for girls is higher than it is for boys.
A section on the various legal measures taken by the government to prohibit the use of ultrasound machines to determine the sex of foetuses said the measures had had only limited success.
Government policy in a number of states penalises families who have more than two children.
Among other measures the offending families are excluded from a number of government programs.
The report admitted this constitutes a violation of human rights.
It furthermore stated that this limitation was an incentive for female sex-selective abortion.
“Indeed, among the more common rationalisations offered by doctors who agree to perform sex determination and sex-selective abortions is precisely their belief that they are helping to bring down population growth,” the report said.
It also detailed how some of the programs meant to help baby girls have contributed to the violation of human rights.
For example one program promoted in several states offered financial incentives for baby girls, with ongoing payments according to the completion of the various states of schooling.
The conditions of the program included a requirement the family have no sons and that after the birth of a girl the mother be sterilised.
The imbalance between the number of boys and girls being born was not limited to India, the report noted.
It gave a brief overview of the situation in other countries, particularly China.
It did seem, the report said, that the preference for sons was on the rise in some other Asian countries.
It is also a phenomenon in some of the countries of the Caucuses in Europe.
In a concluding section the report called for more research into this problem.
In particular there is a need for more research into the role of education, the part played by clinics and doctors pushing new technologies, and the access of women to the job market.
The report draws attention to a grave problem, but leaves unanswered the question as to how much responsibility the United Nations itself has in terms of the role it has played in the push for family planning and fewer children.