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Opinion

Gender-selective abortion in India is on the rise

The US and other Human Rights Council members should help save India's unborn girls.

By Madeline Wheeler / October 14, 2009



Warren, Mass.

Last month the United States attended the UN Human Rights Council as a member for the first time, and not a moment too soon for girls in India.

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Though female infanticide and gender-selective abortion have been on the radar of human rights groups for decades, the situation is worsening in most areas of India, says the United Nations Population Fund.

As the number of women seeking abortions worldwide has declined dramatically in the past decade, according to a new report. This is not the case in India, where the demographic imbalance of gender in India has reached epidemic proportions – due in large part to abortions.

The future of India depends on turning this around now, and the US has the power to influence this change. In most countries, there are about 105 female births for every 100 males. In India there are fewer than 93 women for every 100 men.

India outlawed gender-based abortion more than a decade ago. However, the death toll of female fetuses continues to rise. Also banned is the use of amniocentesis and sonography for sex-determination. But that hasn’t stopped what now amounts to “gendercide.” The illegal sex-selective abortion industry makes about $250 million a year in India.

“The number of girls killed over the past 20 years is going to change our society,” said Puneet Bedi, an antifeticide activist. These atrocities have left India without 10 million girls. “We are all going to pay the price,” Dr. Bedi added.

Without girls in India, there will be no wives, no mothers, and no future. Cruel methods of murdering newborn girls – often committed by senior women – include poisoning, starvation, and drowning.

Why is this happening? In part, deeply rooted gender norms in India devalue women. India is largely a feudal and patriarchal society, a fact that perpetuates their low status.

Males bring in income, keep the family land, and light the parents’ funeral pyre. The burden of females, however, requires expensive piercing rituals, a large dowry, and wedding expenses.

In addition, if you only have daughters, it’s believed you will be reincarnated in a lower caste. Even though the untouchables caste was abolished under British rule, and the dowry was banned in 1961 by law, both remain widely practiced. [Editors note: The original version of this essay misidentified what system was abolished under British rule.]

Sex-selective abortions are more common in wealthier, educated families in urban areas like Punjab, Haryana, and New Delhi. The 2001 national census found that in parts of Punjab, there were only 798 girls per 1,000 boys. A recent study by ActionAid, a global antipoverty agency, found that the gender gap in some areas of Punjab had increased to 300 girls per 1,000 boys.

The government has developed initiatives to alleviate the problem, including cash incentives to raise daughters, campaigns promoting the adoration of girls, and haven programs for abandoned baby girls.

But it hasn’t been enough.

New UNICEF figures show a reduction in the world’s under-age-5 mortality rate over the past decade, but it’s insufficient to reach the UN goal of a two-thirds reduction by 2015. Right now, the goals don’t specifically address infanticide in India.

They should. About 21 percent of the world’s under-5 mortality rate comes from India, and that doesn’t include feticide.

Strict implementation and enforcement of the law, and more innovative behavior-change campaigns to transform attitudes and mind-sets, are needed, says Aparajita Gogoi, country director of the Center for Development and Population Activities and the White Ribbon Alliance.

International pressure is also needed. The 20th-anniversary celebration of the Convention on the Rights of the Child is this month. The convention upholds a universally agreed-upon set of nonnegotiable basic human rights standards and obligations, including the right to survival and protection.

If the convention recommitted to protecting girls and ending “son preference,” this would send a strident message to the people of India.

As a new Human Rights Council member, the US should leap to the forefront of this cause and ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Sex-selective abortion is gendercide.
Madeline Wheeler is a writer and child abuse prevention advocate.

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