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India's 'girl deficit' deepest among educated

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

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Against common expectations, female feticide is not a crime of India's backward masses. Instead, it is most common among India's elite, who can afford multiple trips to an ultrasound clinic, and the hushed-up abortion of an unwanted girl. In the prosperous farming district of Kurukshetra, for instance, there are only 770 girl babies for every 1,000 boys. In the high-rent Southwest neighborhoods of New Delhi, the number of girl babies is 845 per 1,000 boys.

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Some activists say it is wrong to blame Indian society for the incidents of female feticide. The main cause for the "girl deficit," they say, is the arrival of ultrasound technology, and the entrepreneurial spirit of Indian doctors.

"This is not a cultural thing," says Donna Fernandez, director of Vimochana, a women's rights group based in Bangalore. "This is much more of an economic and political issue. It has got a lot to do with the globalization of technology. It's about the commodification of choices."

Cultures don't change overnight, of course, so it's no wonder that activists are focusing attention on regulating the technology that makes feticide possible, the ultrasound. By law, the government can regulate - but not deny - the use of prenatal diagnostic techniques for the purposes of detecting birth defects, but not gender itself. Activists say that while most doctor's offices and clinics have signboards saying that they cannot disclose the gender of a child, it is rare to see a doctor prosecuted if he does so.

Karuna Bishnoi, spokeswoman for UNICEF in Delhi, says it shouldn't come as a surprise that educated women are among the most likely to use prenatal sex determination.

"I personally believe this as a failure of society, not a failure of women," says Ms. Bishnoi. "Women who choose this technique may be victims of discrimination themselves, and they may not be the decisionmakers. Nobody can deny that the status of women is very low in India. There is no quick fix to this."

The cultural practice of giving a dowry to the groom's family puts a tremendous financial burden on a bride's family. The cost of not paying a larger dowry can be even higher. In the high-tech city of Bangalore, activists report that it is still common for women to be burned alive by husbands who expected a larger dowry.

While most of India's religions condemn discrimination against women, there are a few temples in the state of Punjab that promise to help bring fewer women into existence. At the Bir Baba Mandir in Amritsar, couples eat flatbread and onions to ensure a boy child.

As a researcher for 20 years on female feticide, conducting field research in the highly educated state of Tamil Nadu, Sabu George says he has some qualms about The Lancet study. In particular, he feels that taking the figures from one year and projecting them backward 20 years just doesn't square with the facts on the ground.

But while he believes The Lancet study may have exaggerated the number of female abortions in the past 20 years, it also might underestimate the exponential growth of female feticide into the futures.

"This is a much larger problem in the future," he says. "Without strong pressure by civil society groups, we'll be seeing 1 million female feticides every year within five years time, definitely."

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