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India's 'girl deficit' deepest among educated

Study: Selective-sex abortion claims 500,000 girls a year.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 13, 2006


Banned by Indian law for more than a decade, the practice of prenatal selection and selective abortion remains a common practice in India, claiming up to half a million female children each year, according to a recent study by the British medical journal, The Lancet.

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The use of ultrasound equipment to determine the sex of an unborn child - introduced to India in 1979 - has now spread to every district in the country. The study found it played a crucial role in thetermination of an estimated 10 million female fetuses in the two decades leading up to 1998, and 5 million since 1994, the year the practice was banned. Few doctors in regular clinics offer the service openly, but activists estimate that sex-selection is a $100 million business in India, largely through mobile sex-selection clinics that can drive into almost any village or neighborhood.

The practice is common among all religious groups - Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Muslims, and Christians - but appears to be most common among educated women, a fact that befuddles public health officials and women's rights activists alike.

"More educated women have more access to technology, they are more privileged, and most educated families have the least number of children," says Sabu George, a researcher with the Center for Women's Development Studies in New Delhi, who did not participate in the study. "This is not just India. Everywhere in the world, smaller families come at the expense of girls."

Like China, India has encouraged smaller families through a mixture of financial incentives and campaigns calling for two children at most. Faced with such pressure, many families, rich and poor alike, are turning to prenatal selection to ensure that they receive a son. It's a problem with many potential causes - from social traditions to the economic burden of dowries - but one that could have strong social repercussions for generations to come.

The Lancet survey, conducted by Prabhat Jha of St. Michael's Hospital at the University of Toronto and Rajesh Kumar of the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Research in Chandigarh, India, looked at government data collected from a 1998 sample of Indian families in all the districts of the country. From this data, they concluded that 1 out of every 25 female fetuses is aborted, roughly 500,000 per year.

Many doctors, including the Indian Medical Association, dispute the findings of the report, saying that the number of female feticides is closer to 250,000 per year. They note that the data sample used by The Lancet study precedes a 2001 Supreme Court decision outlawing the use of ultrasounds to check for girls. But activists note that the law is largely unenforced.

"If there were half a million feticides a year," S.C. Gulati of the Delhi Institute of Economic Growth told the Indian news channel IBN, "the sex ratio would have been very skewed indeed."

Yet the sex ratio is skewed. According to the official Indian Census of 2001, there were 927 girl babies for every 1,000 boy babies, nationwide. The problem is worst in the northwestern states of Haryana, Punjab, Delhi, and Gujarat, where the ratio is less than 900 girls for every 1,000 boys.