In India, the Preference for Male Babies Has Created a New Problem: Bride Trafficking

Human Rights

Hindu-majority India places its goddesses on very high pedestals. For knowledge you think of Saraswati; for wealth you pray to Lakshmi; for power you bow before Kali. Knowledge, wealth, power…what more can a man dream of?

Sadly, reverence for goddesses does not translate into respect for women. If anything, it’s misogyny of the kind and to the extent that India has gained infamy as a country of “missing women” and “unwanted girls.” And their numbers are counted in millions. Now, with over three decades of neoliberalism and its own brand of atomization, coupled with resurgent medieval supremacism in politics, these archaic, even brutal beliefs have gotten further sanction.

The Times of India ran a headline, "21 million ‘unwanted’ girls, 63 million ‘missing’ women" on January 29, while the Washington Post also reported it with a similar headline.

News reports like these were splashed across the globe the same day all based on estimates provided by none other than the Indian government in its annual economic survey for 2017-'18. “We know that the sex ratio in India is highly skewed,” the government’s chief economic adviser, Arvind Subramanian, said at a press briefing on the eve of the presentation of the Union government’s annual budget.

The “highly skewed” sex ratio results from the fact that some 2 million women go “missing” every year across age groups because of abortion of female fetuses, disease, neglect and inadequate nutrition. At the same time, Indians have a “meta-preference” for sons. So if a girl is born, they go on having children till they get a son. As a result, the country has 21 million “unwanted" girls.

For years sociologists have been warning that in a situation in India (and China) where tens of millions of men are unable to find brides, the bubble could burst in the long term, leading to increasing violence, human trafficking and other crimes. Yet, if anything, the problem of gender imbalance is getting worse.

A report released last month by the Union government’s NITI Aayog (Planning Commission) brought out the alarming fact that in the recent period, the sex ratio at birth (SRB) has seen “a decline in 17 out of 21 large states of the country, with Gujarat recording an alarming dip of 53 points.” This despite the Modi government’s nationwide “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” (save your girl, educate your girl) campaign, of which more later.

As the India Tribune notes following the report, “in Gujarat the SRB fell to 854 females from 907 females per 1,000 males born” in a single year: 2014-15 to 2015-16. “Gujarat is followed by Haryana, which registered a drop of 35 points, Rajasthan (32 points), Uttarakhand (27 points), Maharashtra (18 points), Himachal Pradesh (14 points), Chhattisgarh (drop of 12 points), and Karnataka (11 points).” Among the few states that reported “improvement in SRB” are “Punjab, which registered a rise of 19 points, followed by Uttar Pradesh (10 points) and Bihar (9 points).” Gujarat is, incidentally, the picture perfect state of India’s current prime minister whose ‘model of development’ has of late come in for criticism of slipping human development indices overall and jobless growth.

As Jonathan Abbamonte writes:

“It is generally believed that a natural sex ratio at birth is somewhere close to 1.06 boys for every girl. Sex ratios at birth are naturally higher than 1.0 due to the fact that males suffer higher mortality than females. The sex ratio at birth may vary slightly from country to country from 1.03 to 1.07 depending on mortality rates prevalent in that country and other factors that are not entirely understood.”

Pointing out that “Sex ratio at birth is an important indicator and reflects the extent to which there is reduction in [the] number of girl children born by sex-selective abortions,” the Healthy States, Progressive India report of the NITI Aayog stresses the “need for states to effectively implement the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, 1994 and take measures to promote the value of the girl child.”

Under the act, it is a serious criminal offense for any clinic, hospital or diagnostic center to conduct a test on a pregnant woman to determine the sex of the fetus. All diagnostic centers are obliged by law to prominently display a notice stating that sex determination is a criminal offense and that such tests are not conducted at their center.

However, it is evident from the deteriorating sex ratio that feticide continues as a rampant practice in many parts of the country. One particularly disturbing example, reported by the Indian Express, came from the national capital in October 2015 when the “Delhi government... issued show-cause notices to 89 hospitals and diagnostic centers” to account for the “shocking, skewed sex ratio” reported by the hospitals. “Against a state wide average sex ratio at birth of 896 females for every 1,000 males in Delhi, the errant medical centres furnished records with ratios ranging from a dismal 285:1000 to 788:1000.”

The Indian Express continued:

“The findings of the survey were ‘alarming,’ said Delhi Health Minister Satyandar Jain, adding, ‘The sex ratio in Delhi is already alarmingly poor. After AAP [Aam Admi Party] took charge, we realised that a hospital-based survey on sex ratio at birth had never been conducted in Delhi. The findings of the survey were shocking. I find it very surprising that one centre has a sex ratio of less than 300:1000. Only 285 girls were born here for 1,000 boys.”

Newspapers often report instances from across the country of a female fetus, an unborn girl, being found in a garbage dump or some public place wrapped in a piece of cloth or newspaper. While there is feticide, there is infanticide too, as evident from two separate news reports from Haryana in north India and Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, in central India during 2017.

As mentioned above, sociologists have for some years been warning countries like India and China about the long-term implications of a bloated male population relative to female population. A glimpse of what lies in the distant future may be had from a 2013 report of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, stating that “the Indian predilection for aborting or killing the female child appears to have created a clear market for trafficked brides.”

According to the report, the market is divided into supply states and buyer states. The eastern states of Assam, Odisha and West Bengal continue to be supply states, as they always were, while Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan form the group of buyer states.

The skewed sex ratio in a few major Indian states has given rise to an intense demand for brides from organized trafficking agencies. People in these states buy brides from poorer states, saying there are not enough women in their caste/community, the report added.

In a recent book titled Too Many Men, Too Few Women, several scholars have addressed the problems associated with the serious gender imbalances in India and China. Contributors to the book, as Ravinder Kaur writes, “assert that in both India and China there is a likely link between the increasingly masculine sex ratio and the growing incidence of violence of all sorts, especially against women.” According to one such scholar from China, Kaur continues, “there is a rising incidence of rape and sexual harassment, and that the scarcity of women is unlikely to enhance their position in society.”

In the book, an Indian researcher writing about unmarried men in Haryana says, “The unemployed and single men of Haryana provide the raw material for all agitations in the state.” Another contributor points out that cross-region brides brought into Haryana “are subjected to greater domestic violence as they lack natal family support structures, which act as a shield for local brides.”

While the problem of skewed sex ratio is already acute and growing, there seem to be no clear solutions in sight. Education and development are commonly believed to be the panacea for many social ills. However, when it comes to the mania for sons, India presents a picture that is upside-down.

The 2011 nationwide decadal Census data revealed that, as the Hindu reports, “Despite having lower literacy rates” and poorer economic status, “scheduled caste households [Dalits, the lowest in India’s caste hierarchy] have higher sex ratios” than the upper castes, while the scheduled tribes have the highest sex ratio of all. The Hindu continues, “The child sex ratio (girls for every 1,000 boys aged 1-6) is 957 for STs [scheduled tribes] and 933 for SCs [scheduled castes] as compared to 910 for ‘others’ [upper castes]. In urban areas, the child sex ratio of the non-scheduled caste, non-tribal population is just over 900, meaning there are 100 less girls for every 1,000 boys.”

Delhi and Chandigarh (both Union Territories) and the states of Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat are among the country’s highest per capita regions. Literacy/educational levels there too are far higher compared to those of the lower castes and tribes. But the sex ratios in these territories and states indicate an inverse relationship between literacy and gender balance. The better educated and economically better off display a higher mania for sons. Compared to the 957 for STs and 933 for SCs cited above, the corresponding figures are Delhi (868), Chandigarh (818), Haryana (879), Punjab (895), Gujarat (919), All India (940).

The southern states, however, are an exception to the rule. The southernmost state of Kerala, which has among the highest literacy rates in the country and scores very well in terms of the human development index, also boasts of the best sex ratio in the country with 1,084 females to 1,000 males. Not far behind are Puducherry, formerly Pondicherry (1,037 females to 1,000 males), Tamil Nadu (996:1,000), undivided Andhra Pradesh (993:1,000) and Karnataka (973:1,000).

In an article in the Hindu jointly penned in 2014 by two scholars from the Indian School of Business, it was argued that “though fair elections are held at regular intervals for State Assemblies and Parliament, they do not reflect the true consent of the people because a large number of women are missing from the electorate.” In other words, the skewed sex ratio tilts state policy in favor of men.

There has been a growing demand in recent years, supported by the Congress Party and the communist parties, to reserve 33 percent of the seats in the national Parliament as well as in the state assemblies for women. Some believe that political empowerment of women through this process will lead to more gender-just policies and programs. The authors of the Hindu article, however, argued that “the competitive electoral process in Indian democracy with or without women’s reservation will fail to deliver policies that are not gender-biased… India can begin to address this disaster by first recognising that an adverse gender ratio is a human rights problem which is an outcome of the sustained, gross neglect of women. And the solution for this lies outside the competitive democratic system.”

The Modi government’s “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (BBBP) scheme” referred to above was launched in January 2015 “as a joint initiative of the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and Ministry of Human Resource Development under coordinated and convergent efforts to empower the girl child. First, it was initiated in 100 districts with low girl child sex ratio.” The goal of the program “is to arrest the decline in girl child sex ratio and promote women’s empowerment in order to improve the women status in the country.”

In an editorial published in November 2017, the Indian Express commented on the 2017 report of the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index. The report, as the Indian Express noted, ranked India “108 out of 144 countries, a fall of 21 places from the previous year’s 87—and its lowest since the index was developed in 2006.” The editorial wryly commented, “It would be safe to say that, at this rate, it would take centuries to close the wide gap between Indian men and women.” Though the signs are not very encouraging, one can only hope that the “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” scheme revs up the process of empowering India’s women and rapidly reverses the alarming deterioration in the country’s gender balance.

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