India is suffering from a supposedly ancient yet timely problem. In violation of the law and Constitution, India’s girls are vanishing. It has been reported by government officials that more than 63 million women are missing across India, and more than 21 million girls are unwanted by their families. As per the Ministry of Health’s Census, the child sex ratio (0-6 years) has shown a decline from 927 females per thousand males in 2001 to 919 females per thousand males in 2011. That’s 81 of every 1,000 girls killed. Statistics are released every 10 years. Clearly, the country is failing its girls, denying their right to even live.
Skewed sex ratios are a living testament to India’s deep-rooted patriarchal society. Girls are avoided at all cost because of a widely prevalent perception that they are a burden and a future asset to someone else’s home. Not only do parents want to avoid the exorbitant demand of a dowry (although Indian laws against dowries have been in effect for decades they are largely ineffective), but there is also the misconception that only boys can support their elderly parents, and inheritance is limited to the male members of the family. With girls given little societal value, they are at best neglected, and at worst routinely aborted.
In theory, strict laws explicitly prohibit sex determination during pregnancy. The Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, 1971 permits termination of pregnancy for a broad range of conditions up to 20 weeks of gestation, but sex selection is not a ground for termination. The Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act, 1994 was specifically enacted with the aim of preventing the misuse of pre-natal diagnostic techniques for sex determination. As mandated by the PCPNDT Act, no laboratory, centre or clinic will conduct any test including ultrasonography (USG) for sex determination. No person will communicate the sex of the foetus to the pregnant woman or her relatives by words, signs or any other method. No advertisement shall be posted for prenatal and/or preconception sex determination facilities in the form of a notice, circular, label, wrapper or any document, or advertisements through internet or other media in electronic or print. This is punishable by imprisonment and fine.
Furthermore, the principle of gender equality is enshrined in the Indian Constitution. The Constitution not only grants equality to women (Article 14) and prohibits discrimination based on sex (Article 15 (1)), but also empowers the State to adopt measures of positive discrimination in favour of women (Article 15(3)). Article 16 ensures equal employment opportunity to every citizen of India.
Despite legal efforts, the demographic imbalance is of ongoing concern with far-reaching social and economic impacts. The presence of women in public spaces is more of an exception than the norm. Those girls that are lucky enough to see daylight are usually confined to their homes. Studies have shown that Indian girls receive less education, have poorer nutrition and get less medical attention than boys. Only recently has international light been shed by the Economist on Indian women not joining the working force. It is claimed that were India to rebalance its workforce, the world’s biggest democracy would be 27% richer. Instead, the female employment rate is falling at an alarming pace; from 35% in 2005 to just 26% now. As for domestic violence, dowry death and rape statistics – these are hushed, reflecting a cultural agreement that women have little value.
And so, enforcement of the PCPNDT Act is feeble. Medical professionals and families routinely break the law with little consequence. In a nation of 1.3 billion people, up until December 2017, there were only 449 convictions, and the medical licenses of 136 doctors have been suspended.
The Vanishing girls campaign reports that in the state of Delhi, some modest progress has been made. While in the year 2012, there were only 886 females born for every 1,000 males, in 2016 the ratio improved with 902 girls being born for every 1,000 boys. Sadly, in other parts of India, this positive trend is reversed: more girls are aborted because of their sex than ever before. The worst hit states are Haryana (830), Punjab (846), and Jammu and Kashmir (859).
Greater efforts need to be made to combat one of the greatest injustices and legal violations in India today: the illegal but widely accepted practice of sex-selective abortions. Son preference and daughter aversion needs to become a thing of the past. To implement and enforce the law, biases need to be challenged, mindsets changed, and the status of girls and women strengthened. To initiate public debates and build awareness across Indian society is not only timely but urgent to enable girls and women to fully enjoy their fundamental freedoms and rights guaranteed under India’s Constitution. Their lives are at stake.