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

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.