Researchers and social scientists are fearful that decades of son preference in India will have a long-term impact on human trafficking, crime and the economy, not to mention the prospects of young men trying to find a bride.

The Indian government released its 2017-18 estimate this week (part of the country’s annual economic survey) which revealed that more than 63 million women are “missing” from the population. Furthermore, there are 21 million unwanted girls in India, and 2 million go “missing” each year attributed to abortion of female babies, neglect, malnutrition and disease.

In an article for the The Washington Post, the government’s chief economic adviser was quoted acknowledging the issue.

“We know that the sex ratio in India is highly skewed,” Arvind Subramanian said, pointing to the practice of continuing to try for a child until a couple successfully conceives a boy. This means the “unwanted” girls born along the way often receive less education and nourishment than their brothers.

Tests to determine the gender of a baby in utero are illegal in India, but they still occur and lead to many sex selective abortions.

“Indian parents often continue to have children till they have the desired number of sons,” the study said.

“Families that have sons are more likely to stop having children than families where a girl is born. This is suggestive of parents having children until they have as many sons as they want.”

The study, which compared data from 1991 and 2011, revealed that son preference is not at all restricted to poor families living in rural India. The practice reaches to the middle and upper-middle classes, and the sex ratio for different states has actually worsened as incomes have improved. For example, in the wealthy northern farming states of Punjab and Haryana, the sex ratio among infants up to six-years-old is 1200 males to 1000 females.

“Perhaps the area where Indian society — and this goes beyond governments to civil society, communities, and households — needs to reflect on the most is what might be called ‘son preference’ where development is not proving to be an antidote,” the survey suggested.

Some history

India has long been under international scrutiny for its skewed child sex ratio. A BBC report gives a helpful timeline:

  • In 1974 Delhi’s prestigious All India Institute of Medical Sciences came out with a study which said sex-determination tests were a boon for Indian women. It said women no longer needed to produce endless children to have the right number of sons, and instead encouraged use of the technology to determine gender and eliminate female babies in utero. It was spruiked as population control.
  • By the late ’80s, ultrasound sex determination was being freely advertised and clinics were boasting their ability to eliminate girl children.
  • 1994, the Pre-Natal Determination Test (PNDT) Act outlawed sex-selective abortion.
  • 2004, the Pre-Natal Determination Test (PNDT) Act was amended to include gender selection at the pre-conception stage.
  • There are still upwards of 40,000 registered ultrasound clinics in India today, and many more that are not registered.

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