India witnesses one of the highest female infanticide incidents in the world: study

At least 117 million girls around the world demographically go “missing” due to sex-selective abortions
Unfavourable sex ratio is a result of sex-selective abortion, childhood neglect of girls and infanticide Credit: Aidan Jones / Flicker
Unfavourable sex ratio is a result of sex-selective abortion, childhood neglect of girls and infanticide Credit: Aidan Jones / Flicker

In a first ever global study on female infanticide by Asian Centre for Human Rights, a Delhi-based NGO dedicated to protection of human rights, it has been revealed that preference of son over daughter is a major reason for female infanticide in many countries around the world. Dowry system in South Asia, which makes daughters “an unaffordable economic burden”, also contributes to female infanticide.

Titled “Female Infanticide Worldwide: The case for action by the UN Human Rights Council”, the report makes a continent-wise analysis of infanticide patterns. It sets the tone by stating that 117 million girls demographically go “missing” due to sex-selective abortions, as claimed by the United Nations Population Fund.

Countries with the most skewed sex ratio at birth Source: CIA World Factbook 2016

Prevailing laws

Apart from the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Maternal and Infant Health Care of 1994, Beijing also has the Population and Family Planning Law of the People’s Republic of China of 2002 that prohibits sex identification of foetus and sex-selective abortions.

 In India, the Pre-conception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, 1994 (amended in 2003) prohibits sex-selection or disclosure of the sex of the foetus. It also prohibits sale of “any ultrasound machine or any other equipment capable of detecting sex of foetus” to persons, laboratories and clinics not registered under the Act.

Nepal, in 2002, amended the Country Code, Muluki Ain, to allow abortion on medical grounds and prohibit sex-selective abortions. Similarly, the Population Ordinance (2006) and Prime Minister Decree (2006) of Vietnam prohibit all practices of antenatal foetal sex diagnosis and sex selection.

Challenges still remain

However, weak law enforcement and easy access to ultrasonography fail to curb this practice. According to the ACHR report, ultrasound for pre-natal determination of sex can be done for as low as US$ 2.6 in China. In India, ultrasound and abortion can be done for about $150 in India.

Moreover, sex selection through In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) and other technologies such as Pre-Implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD), Pre-Implantation Genetic Screening (PGS) and sperm-sorting has emerged as the next challenge towards curbing female infanticide.

Sex-selective abortion and sex ratio at birth

Unfavourable sex ratio, according to the report, is a result of sex-selective abortion, childhood neglect of girls and infanticide. However, it emphasises that only sex-selective abortion can affect the sex ratio at birth. As compared to Child Sex Ratio, the Sex Ratio at Birth is a more robust indicator of the extent to which sex-selective abortion is happening. The average SRB for the entire world is 101 males per 100 females. However, the ratio looks highly distorted in some countries, especially in India (110) and Liechtenstein (126).

China’s preference for boys

Firstly, SRB in China is heavily skewed in favour of boy because the preference for son is deeply rooted in Confucian values. Secondly, when the “one-child” policy was introduced in 1980 to arrest population explosion, it ended up creating huge gender imbalance as the policy encouraged the expectant parents to do ultrasounds and undertake sex-selective abortions to ensure only boys were born. The SRB, which increased in China in the late 1980s, reached 117 in 2011.

South Korea: a success story

According to the ACHR report, South Korea is one of the very few nations where the imbalanced sex ratio has been reversed. While the introduction of ultrasound technology in the 80s saw a sharp rise in SRB from 109 in 1985 to 115 in 1994, the country introduced several measures that helped reverse the tide. By 2013, the SRB came down to 105.3.

Nepalaese women under pressure to bear a son

According to a survey by a Nepal-based NGO, Center for Research on Environment Health and Population Activities, 81 per cent women, whose first child was a daughter, prefer son. Some women also reported to have faced pressure to bear a son. Pressure, which is in the form of psychological abuse, mainly comes from husbands (42 per cent) and mothers-in-law (41 per cent).  The study found out that unsafe abortions are also carried out clandestinely.

Curious case of Liechtenstein

The data on Liechtenstein, taken from the CIA World Factbook 2015, puts the SRB at 126, which is by far the highest rate of sex imbalance in the world. This small European nation is faring worse than China (117.8), Azerbaijan (115.6) and India (110.5).


While the SRB in most African countries remained static at 103 or less in 2014, Nigeria and Tunisia have experienced a rapid increase in its SRB. From 103 boys per 100 girls in 1996-2008, Nigeria witnessed a rise to 106 boys per 100 girls in 2009-2014. Moreover, about 7,60,000 abortions occur annually in Nigeria despite restrictive abortion law. Tunisia, with 107 boy births to 100 girls, has the highest sex ratio at birth among all of the countries in Africa.

How is India trying to tackle female infanticide?

India has one of the highest female foeticide incidents in the world. The female child population in the age group of 0-6 years declined from 78.83 million in 2001 to 75.84 million in 2011. During the period 1991-2011, the child sex ratio (0-6 years) declined from 945 to 914.

Apart from Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act, 1994 (PNDT Act) to address the issue of sex-selective abortion, India also enacted the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act in 1971 to regulate access to safe abortions. The MTP Act of 1971, amended in 2002, allows abortion up to 20 weeks of pregnancy in cases where “the continuance of the pregnancy would involve a risk to the life of the pregnant woman or of grave injury to her physical or mental health”.

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has acknowledged that illegal abortions still outnumber legal abortions and thousands of women die every year due to complications resulting from unsafe abortions. According to the Population Research Institute, at least 12,771,043 sex-selective abortions had taken place in India between 2000 and 2014. It takes the daily average of sex-selective abortion to 2,332.

The under-reporting under the MTP Act has also been a problem.

In a bid to encourage families to have girl children, prevent female foeticide and educate the girl child, the government launched Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao campaign in January 2015. It also launched several conditional cash transfer schemes such as Balika Samriddhi Yojana and Dhanalakshmi Scheme.

What is ‘reproductive tourism’?

In nations where gender selection is banned, people travel to Thailand, the US, Mexico and other nations where it’s legal to undergo PGD/ PGS. In Thailand, for example, the Chinese, the East Europeans and Indians form the majority of people (70-80 per cent) preferring PGD. According to the Asian Law Institute, over 80 per cent of PGD practices were undertaken for the purpose of sex selection.

Apart from Thailand, the US has also become the hub for such “reproductive tourism”. According to the report, hundreds of Australians started flocking to fertility clinics in the US when sex selection was banned. Singaporeans have also been going overseas, especially the US and Thailand, to choose their babies.

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