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India is missing 10 million daughters

NewScientist | January 9, 2006
By Shaoni Bhattacharya

India is missing about 10 million daughters since the widespread use of ultrasound, estimates a new study.

Over the last 20 years, about 10 million female fetuses may have been selectively aborted following ultrasound results in India, suggest Prabhat Jha at the University of Toronto, Canada, and colleagues.

Their study of 1.1 million households across India reveals that in 1997, far fewer girls were born to couples if their preceding child or children were also female. “There was about a 30% gap in second females following the birth of any earlier females,” Jha told New Scientist.

When the firstborn child was a daughter, the sex ratio for second children among the 134,000 births in 1997 was just 759 girls for every 1000 boys. For a third child, just 719 girls were born per 1000 boys, if both the older children were girls. However, if the eldest children were boys, the sex ratios for the second and third child were about 50-50.

Based “on conservative assumptions” the gap in births equates to about 0.5 million missing female births a year, says the team. Assuming the practice has been common in the two decades since ultrasound became widely available, this adds up to 10 million missing girls.

“Female infanticide of the past is refined and honed to a fine skill in this modern guise,” says Shiresh Sheth of the Breach Candy Hospital in Mumbai, India, in a commentary accompanying the study in The Lancet.
Removing doubt

Sheth notes that in India’s patriarchal society, daughters are regarded as a “liability”, as she will belong to the family of her future husband.

Jha believes his study is the most comprehensive survey of India to date. Previous work on the sex ratio has been more anecdotal and focused on certain regions, he says. The new study shows the disparity is across all parts of India, although it is worse in certain states, for example, in Rajasthan, Punjab and Bihar.

“What’s also new is a more robust finding that the women at greatest risk [of selective abortion] already had one or two earlier female children,” he notes. “It helps remove some of the doubt that there may have been underlying factors [explaining the deficit], for example, hormonal factors.”

A surprising finding was that the disparity was about twice as large in educated mothers, those with at least an Indian grade 10 education, than in illiterate women. “Most things in health are worse among the poor,” he notes.
Paid sex

Jha warns that the preference for boys is likely to have “profound long-term consequences”. In China, the cultural preference for boys and restrictions on family size are already having effects. Some reports suggest there are 40 million bachelors unable to find brides.

But there could be other serious consequences, Jha speculates, such as an impact on the spread of HIV. “If there are fewer females to marry and form stable sexual partnerships then males may resort to the use of paid sex,” he suggests.

Selective abortion on the basis of sex has been illegal in India since 1994. But there must be “diligence in enforcing existing laws, which is not commonly done”, says Jha.

The study uses data taken from a nationwide project funded by the Indian government called the “Million Death Study”, which is the world’s largest prospective study on mortality, covering 14 million people.


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