Masochist masculinity

That's what's behind India's skewed sex ratio

Published: Tuesday 28 February 2006

-- Over two decades ago, in an Economic and Political Weekly article, the economic historian Dharma Kumar wrote that as numbers of women decrease, there would be a growing demand for them, thereby raising their status in society. Many lauded Kumar, for going against the grain. But she was wrong. A strong preference for sons persists in this country, aided by technology that increasingly allows parents to realise their desires. Amniocentesis and ultrasound can easily identify the sex of a fetus, and the law has had scarce impact on the numerous sex-selective abortion centres in the country.

India's sex ratio is terribly skewed: 933 women for every thousand. In most parts of the world it's women who actually outnumber men: in the UK, US, several countries in Latin America, Southeast Asia and even sub-Saharan Africa. Many liberal social scientists do believe that India would reverse its terrible sex ratio with economic growth.Like a lot of other assumptions that prop up optimistic theories of economic growth, this one is also terribly simplistic -- and way off the mark. Punjab's prosperity and the Green Revolution did not ensure that a lot of girls could grow up as respected individuals (see pp 46-49). There are less than 800 girls for 1,000 men in that state.

But why criticise only Punjab? Even Maharashtra, which fares better on other human development indi-cators, had 922 women for 1,000 men in 2002. In 1991, there were 934 women for 1,000 men in the state. The skewed ratio perpetuates a vicious and potentially destabilising cycle. A couple of decades ago, the sociologist Leela Dube warned that declining female population could lead to abduction, sale of girls and polyandry. These were not the apocryphal words of a cynical academic. Today, there are many studies that show a small pool of marriageable women not only increases demand for trafficked women -- both for the purposes of marriage and prostitution -- it also forces many girls to cut short their education in order to wed and bear children.

But a family doesn't imply security. A recent UNIFEM survey on violence against women in India showed that 94 per cent cases involved an offender who was a member of the family. This is one problemeconomic growth, education or family ties have failed to address. We need to rethink ourselves as a society.

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