Selective abortion in India could lead to massive decrease in female population

By Nikki Peach

There could be 6.8 million fewer female births across India by 2030, according to research led by King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia. This deficit is a result of selective abortion, where female foetuses are being terminated at an alarming rate.

The figure is based on the sex ratio of 27 Indian states and union territories, factoring in the desired sex ratio at birth and the population’s fertility rates. Similar issues have been raised in South Korea and China in the past, all of which stem from the prevalence of cultural gender inequality.

What is happening?

Selective abortion usually takes place when the foetus is thought to have “undesirable” characteristics. In the current case in India, this includes being female.

The cultural preference for a sonappeared strongest in 17 states in the north of India, the study notes. Uttar Pradesh, the state with the largest population, is also the state that shows the highest deficit in female births. Currently, there are 900-930 females per 1,000 males in India, as girls continue to be seen as a burden across every social class.

The sex ratio at birth in India has been imbalanced since the 1970s, largely due to the practice of sex-selective abortions at a national level when sex determination tests were introduced. In 1994, these tests became illegal, but the enforcement of that law varies enormously between states. Its custom, in some areas, has worsened.

However, in January of this year, the Union Cabinet amended the 1971 Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act allowing women to seek abortions as part of reproductive rights and gender justice. This amendment seems progressive and empowering, enabling women to make autonomous choices about their own bodies. But how empowering is this law to women when the darker reality of sex-selectivity is taken into account?

Why do people still prefer sons over daughters?

Reasons for preferring a boy are largely economic, as family life in many parts of India is still largely dependent on sons. If girls cannot own property and are seen as transitory, leaving home when they marry, then they cannot help their family retain any wealth.

“The economics here is pretty straightforward. It’s the culture that’s to be blamed,” explained a demographics expert to German-based media organisation, DW. “The system as it stands today rewards the birth of a son, while penalising the birth of a daughter.”

While many female foetuses are aborted before birth because of their gender, the fate of women and girls is still far from encouraging. Over a quarter of girls in India are married before they turn 18, and 7% are married before the age of 15, meaning India has the highest number of child brides in the world at 15,509,000 – a figure obtained by UNICEF.

Life for women in India, in terms of health, economics, politics and education, has worsened in recent years, according to the World Economic Forum. The nation now places 112 out of 153 countries where the gender gap has been studied.

What does this mean for gender equality?

Many women in India seem to be trapped in a cruel dichotomy of misfortune: to be aborted along gender lines, or to survive and face the modern slavery of child marriage, endure little cultural or economic freedom, and accept a fast-declining status in society. Neither offer much hope for the future of an entire gender.

While Indian police are attempting to increase persecutions for those offering sex determination tests to pregnant women, it is not difficult to see why sex-selective abortion has become a desperate but favourable option for many.

Government officials, journalists and some Bollywood stars are even trying to reduce the stigma around having a daughter by visiting the homes of baby girls to celebrate their arrival. Despite increased literary rates and better access to healthcare and education, equality still seems bitterly unattainable.

What does this mean for the population?

UN population projections predict that India will surpass China to become the world’s most populated country by 2027. While fertility rates in China are slowing down, India’s growth rate is being driven by a rate of 2.2 births per woman.

If the world’s most populous country has a declining female population, what does this mean for the global gender ratio? Though it is never entirely balanced, the war against women has the potential to skew this ratio to an unprecedented extent.

Sex-selective abortions are a result of thousands of years of gender inequality, and are representative of an entrenched economic problem far more than a biological one. If this gender divergence continues as predicted, male dominance in India only will grow.

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