Gender Violence in India Report 2014: Prenatal Sex Selection, Foeticide & Infanticide

Practices like female infanticide, female foeticide and prenatal sex selection have resulted in chronically low female-to-male sex ratios throughout India.

Sex selection is defined as “any procedure, technique, test or administration or prescription or provision of anything for the purpose of ensuring or increasing the probability that an embryo will be of a particular sex“.[1] Prenatal sex selection encompasses both the termination of a foetus because of its gender (female foeticide) and the prevention of the conception of a girl foetus, often through the use of medical technologies like ultrasounds, amniocentesis and sperm separation. While these technologies have been used worldwide to detect genetic and physical abnormalities in foetuses, they have been misused in India to facilitate a cultural preference for sons.

Female infanticide is defined as the deliberate and intentional act of killing a female child within one year of its birth, either directly or by conscious neglect on the part of the mother, parents or others to whose care the child is entrusted.[2]

The result of practices like prenatal sex selection and female infanticide is a declining sex ratio, which in turn facilitates other forms of gender violence, like dowry harassment and human trafficking.

Know the Law

While abortion in India is legal under specific circumstances, the abortion of a foetus on the basis of gender is illegal. In 1994 and again in 2003, the Indian legislature acted to curb such practices.

Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act, 1994

This Act criminalized disclosing the gender of a foetus to parents and limited the use of medical technologies to screening for genetic abnormalities. In addition, the Act set up a Central Supervisory Board (CSB) to advise authorities in state and union territories on implementation and enforcement.[3]

Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, 2003

In 2003, the 1994 Act was amended to further regulate the use of medical technologies and to bring sex determination under the purview of the law. It also requires documentation of medical equipment that can discern the sex of the foetus and mandates that all offices using ultrasounds display a signboard stating that the detection and revelation of the sex of the foetus is illegal.

Medical practitioners that violate the above acts can be imprisoned for a period of up to three years and fined Rs. 10,000 for a first offense; subsequent convictions can result in up to five years’ imprisonment and fines up to Rs. 50,000 rupees. Any person that tries to find out the sex of a foetus from a medical institution or practitioner can be imprisoned for a period of three years and fined Rs. 50,000; additional convictions can result in up to three years’ imprisonment and fines of Rs. 1 lakh.

Keeping Count

The data on pre-natal sex selection and infanticide is best reflected by the sex ratios (the number of girls for every 1000 boys) generated by the Indian Census. Both Table 1 and Figure 1 show sex ratios from the past five decennial censuses:

Table 1: Sex Ratios in India According to Census Data

Year 1971 1981 1991 2001 2011
Overall Sex Ratio (females per 1000 males) 930 934 927 933[4] 943[5]
Child Sex Ratio (age 0-6) (girls per 1000 boys) 964 962 945 927[6] 919[7]

Figure I

Sex Selection Graphic

Child sex ratios significantly lower than the overall sex ratio are an indicator of the incidence of prenatal sex selection and female foeticide.

Aggregate data does not fully capture the considerable regional variation that exists; for instance, the states of Jammu and Kashmir, Haryana, Punjab and Gujarat historically report lower sex ratios (between 870 and 920 females per 1000 males), while states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh report higher ratios (above 990 females per 1000 males).[9] Within each state, sex ratios also vary significantly from district to district.

[1] The Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, 1994, http://rajswasthya.nic.in, accessed 6th October, 2014.

[2] Tandon and Sharma, Female Foeticide and Infanticide in India: An Analysis of Crimes against Girl Children, 2006.

[3] See above note 2.

[4] Census of India 2001, Chapter 6: Sex Composition of the Population, p.3, www.censusindia.gov.in, accessed 6th October, 2014. Report includes overall sex ratios reported in decennial census data from 1901 to 2001; data from 1971 onward are included here.

[5] Census of India 2011, Primary Census Abstract: Figures at a Glance, p. xi, www.censusindia.gov.in, accessed 7th October 2014.

[6] Census 2001, p. 8 (see above note 4). Report includes child sex ratios from 1971 to 2001.

[7] See above note 5.

[8] Generated from the data displayed in Table 1.

[9] Census of India 2011, CensusInfo India 2011, http://www.dataforall.org/dashboard/censusinfoindia_pca/, accessed 7th October 2014.

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This series of posts were researched, drafted and edited by Divya Bhat, Shakthi Manickavasagam, Titiksha Pandit and Mitha Nandagopalan.

December 2014

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National Girl Child Day: Article on sex selection and male child preference

Farah Naqvi and AK Shivakumar, India & the sex selection conundrum, The Hindu, January 24, 2012.

What was our immediate response to further decline in the child sex ratio in India? Within days of the provisional 2011 Census results (March-April 2011), the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare reconstituted the Central Supervisory Board for the Pre-conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex selection) Act 1994 , which had not met for 3 years, and on November 30, 2011 the Ministry of Women and Child Development formed a Sectoral Innovation Council for Child Sex Ratio. But we are busy dousing flames in haste without looking to dampen the source. This fire-fighting approach is unlikely to succeed, because putting out fires in one district virtually ensures its spread to another. That is what has happened.

The decline in child sex ratio (0-6 years) from 945 in 1991 to 927 in 2001 and further to 914 females per 1,000 males in 2011 — the lowest since independence — is cause for alarm, but also occasion for serious policy re-think. Over the last two decades, the rate of decline appears to have slowed but what began as an urban phenomenon has spread to rural areas. This is despite legal provisions, incentive-based schemes, and media messages. Indians across the country, bridging class and caste divides, are deliberately ensuring that girls are simply not born. This artificial alteration of our demographic landscape has implications for not only gender justice and equality but also social violence, human development and democracy. 

Read the article here.

Why do we not want girls?

Kalpana Sharma writes in The Hindu (24 July 2011) about India’s declining sex ratio, in the context of preliminary census data. As she says, this is one issue we have to keep returning to, again and again, to try and find answers to this question: why are girls not wanted in India?

The Other Half – Insurmountable hurdle

As the declining sex ratio from Census 2011 shows, merely having laws against sex selective abortion is not enough. Fighting entrenched social attitudes is a much tougher call…

Three cheers for Japanese women. Their soccer team beat the powerful U.S. team and won the FIFA Women’s World Cup. Indeed, in a week with much gloom, this was the one cheerful piece of news. Even more to celebrate was the fact that women’s sports is finally making headlines, and is not relegated to a single column at the bottom of the page.

But the bad news from Census 2011 about women is relentless. Once again, as provisional data is released on the 2011 Census, and we know now, for instance, that India is becoming increasingly urban, we are also getting confirmation that India is increasingly male. We were warned in 2001 that the situation was alarming; in 2011 that adjective appears an understatement.

Persistent problem

India’s declining sex ratio is a subject one has to revisit repeatedly. No matter how often you think about it, or write about, it is difficult to come up with a straightforward or simple solution to the situation we face in India: Where girls are simply not wanted. They can excel in sport, in studies, in jobs, as politicians, as bureaucrats, as writers, as engineers. But none of that changes the attitude of the couple on the verge of parenthood — who long for a boy and grieve if a girl is born.

Now, in addition to the usual breast-beating about this appalling situation, we have people suggesting that access to abortion should be restricted. In Maharashtra, where the 0-6 years sex ratio has seen a precipitous decline, suggestions are flying around of restricting access in different ways. For instance, the Nagpur Municipal Corporation has made it compulsory for all radiologists and gynaecologists to post details of their work online. That might prove a salutary step. But in addition, they must get clearance from the municipality before they perform an abortion. How adding a layer of bureaucracy to the process will check the misuse of abortion facilities for sex-selective abortions beats comprehension.

India’s abortion laws are considered to be progressive because they recognise the right of women to have access to safe abortion. The importance of safe abortion cannot be emphasised enough. India has the highest number of unsafe abortions in the world and an estimated 56 per cent or more than half the recorded abortions that take place, are under unsafe conditions. As a result, 15 to 20 per cent of maternal deaths are due to unsafe abortions. India’s maternal mortality rate is one of the highest in the world. So women who need to undergo an abortion for a variety of reasons including rape, or contraceptive failure when they are not ready for another child, should have legal, safe and clean facilities for the procedure.

Unfortunately, even what exists by way of public facilities is grossly inadequate. According to studies on abortion in India, only 25 per cent of abortion facilities are in the government sector. Studies have also revealed that as little as six per cent of all primary health centres have abortion facilities. This means women living in rural areas have no option but to turn to private practitioners, of whom many resort to unsafe procedures.

In cities, health facilities are better. But the people who misuse legalised abortion for sex selection rarely use government facilities. They can afford the private practitioners who ask no questions and charge a hefty fee.

Not a solution

So restricting abortion facilities will affect poor women, already burdened with inadequate health facilities; while those with money, who also seem to have decided they do not want girls, will continue as before.

The dilemma is a real one. Since 2001, when the first shock of the extent of the decline in the sex ratio hit home, there have been many discussions about the problem. The Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, 2003 has been tightened. Despite that, there have only been a small number of convictions; out of 800 cases in 17 states, only 55 convictions. Clearly the law is not being implemented the way it should be.

But even if it were strictly enforced, would there be a difference? Indians are notoriously proficient in bypassing even the best-made laws. If they want to do something, they find a way of doing it.

To give you a simple example of how difficult it is to get people to obey a law. In most states, it is compulsory to wear helmets if you drive a motorbike or scooter. The law has been made for the safety of those who ride these machines, people who should know that the law is in their best interests. Yet, in city after city, you will see people risking their lives and finding ways to evade being caught rather than wearing helmets, or quickly putting them on just before they see a policeman. In fact, there is an advertisement on television these days showing a young man finding an ingenious way to side-step the rule when he sees a cop on the horizon; he puts on a hollowed-out watermelon on his head in place of his non-existent helmet. And the ad is supposed to be light-hearted and funny.

Perhaps this example is not a direct parallel to the ways in which the PC&PNDT Act has failed to make a difference. But it illustrates an approach towards law that makes implementation of any law an even greater challenge in India. When that law meets entrenched social attitudes, the hurdle appears almost insurmountable.

So the dilemma before us is how we get people to actually not resort to sex selection and sex selective abortions. One way is to keep the issue alive in the media, to provoke debates on this in colleges, and to constantly remind people that a country progresses if all its people are secure, if all feel they have rights, and not if one half of the population is made to feel so unwelcome that you ensure that they are never born.

Email the writer: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com