Female Infanticide Widely Practiced in India

By Suryamurthy Ramachandran | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

New Delhi (CNSNews.com) - The killing of female babies in India - inside and outside the womb - continues to be practiced widely in several parts of the country despite laws banning such acts.

One study calculated that almost 1.1 million baby girls are murdered each year. Sociologists attribute the phenomenon to the "oppression" of women in a patriarchal society.

"In a 'son-preference' society like ours, the journey of a girl child from the womb to the tomb is riddled with unsavory events," said Anju Gupta, a social worker.

"With deep-rooted social ills such as female feticide or female infanticide still very much in practice, it is difficult to perhaps foresee any immediate remedy for the fair sex."

Female infanticide is the intentional killing of baby girls due to parental preference for boys. Some babies are fed poisonous powdered fertilizer, or dry, un-hulled rice, which punctures the windpipe. Others are smothered, strangled or simply allowed to starve to death.

Narrating an incident, the social worker said Malati, a young woman in her early twenties, did not dare to open her mouth when she delivered her third baby girl in a row.

Her in-laws and family members were angry at her, saying she should be ashamed of herself.

Malati did not ask for her newborn. The hapless young mother of two unwanted girls knew what awaited her.

Another mother, Parvati, already had one daughter, so when she gave birth to a second girl, she refused to nurse her.

"To silence the infant's famished cries, the impoverished village woman squeezed the milky sap from an oleander shrub, mixed it with castor oil, and forced the poisonous potion down the newborn's throat," narrated another social worker, Muniyamma.

V. Athreya, a professor of economics, said "the gap between the aspirations of the people and what they can actually access through their resources" could be the reason for such a horrendous phenomenon.

The bias against female children in India is related to the fact that "sons are called upon to provide the income; they are the ones who do most of the work in the fields. In this way sons are looked to as a type of insurance.

"With this perspective, it becomes clearer that the high value given to males decreases the value given to females."

The problem is also tied to the institution of dowry, in which the family of a prospective bride must pay large sums of money to the family of the in-laws, which the woman will join upon marriage.

Although formally outlawed, the institution is still pervasive.

"[With] the combination of dowry and wedding expenses and the low status of women, it seems not so illogical that the poorer Indian families would want only male children," explained sociologist Veena Singh.

In a 1991 census, the national female to male ratio in India was 929 females to every 1,000 males. In 54 districts in seven states, the female ratio dropped below 900.

The ratio of females has been steadily declining since the first census in 1901, when it stood at 972:1,000. By 1931 it had dropped to 950:1,000 and by 1981 to 934:1,000.

The next census will be taken next year.

A study based on the 1991 census, and based on the national birth rate, population and sex ratio, calculated that an average of 1.072 million girls are being killed each year.

In many other parts of the world, including the U.S. and Europe, females outnumber males byabout 4 percent. In India and China, by contrast, males outnumber females by about 7 percent.

"The reason these sex ratios are so skewed today is not primarily because people are drowning their daughters. It is because they are having ultrasound tests, seeing that it is a girl, and deciding to abort it. This technology allows for a prevalence of female destruction unprecedented in human history," said sociologist A.N. Verma.

Although India outlaws the use of ultrasounds to determine sex, leading to sex-selective abortion, the number of females being killed has risen dramatically since ultrasound devices were introduced.

Rampant misuse of sex determination forced the government to enact legislation permitting pre-natal diagnostic scans solely to detect genetic abnormalities.

It says: "No person shall conduct ... any pre-natal diagnostic techniques ... for the purpose of determining the sex of a fetus ... no person conducting pre-natal diagnostic procedures shall communicate ... the sex of the fetus by words, signs or in any other manner."

But legal experts say there have been no convictions under the law.

"It is virtually impossible to prove that the procedure was used to determine the sex of the fetus, in the absence of written test reports." Doctors invariably give the results orally).

Some medical practitioners have started advising couples on a "natural method," involving the monitoring of the ovulation period and timing sexual intercourse accordingly.

"You cannot legislate against attitudes," observed sociologist Singh. "Only better education and rise in standard of living can force the society to change its attitude towards the girl child."