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How to stop the killing of unborn girls in India?

Studies suggest this may be a problem in wealthier households
Studies suggest this may be a problem in wealthier households

Provisional census data released in India this year shows the number of girls under the age of six is continuing to decline. Studies suggest that unborn baby girls are terminated by families hoping for a boy instead. Why is this happening, and what is being done to stop it?

In 2011, 914 young girls were registered in India for every 1,000 boys, compared to 927 a decade ago. And with the preference of families for male children, a recent study conducted by the Centre for Global Health Research estimates that as many as 6 million girls may have been aborted in India over the last decade. India enacted a law in 1996 to prevent the scanning of foetuses for selective abortion of girls. However, this law is difficult to enforce and is clearly having no effect on the problem.

Some states in India have introduced initiatives to discourage the abortion of girls. The northern state of Bihar has a ‘Girl Protection Scheme’ for poor families. When parents register the birth of their daughters at government offices, female children (up to a maximum of 2) are enrolled in the scheme, which sets aside 44 dollars in a state investment fund for each girl. Once the child reaches 18, officials say the amount should have grown around 10 times and can be used to pay for wedding costs or to fund further education. For poor Indian families, the cost of providing dowries for girls or keeping them in education is a real worry. Other schemes being run by the state include book and uniform allowances and free bicycles to girls who reach the 9th grade of school. A BBC reporter went to the village of Navanagar, where teenage girls were posing for photos with their new shiny bicycles.

A middle class problem?

But though the preference to have boys in India is the same across all sections of society, some social experts say the main problem lies not with poor families, but among the middle and upper classes. The research from the Centre for Global Health suggests that abortions occur more frequently among richer and better-educated parents, since they can afford the cost of abortions. And as women increasingly want small families of one or two children, the temptation to abort girls is even greater. Some experts suggest that the scale of missing girls in India’s society would be even greater if it weren’t for the endemic poverty which prevents many of India’s poor from affording abortions.

The disparity in the sex ratio between boys and girls has not been high on the government’s agenda. But the new census figures have come as a shock to many officials. Some states, such as Bihar, have said they will register all ultrasound clinics so that any which carry out illegal sex determination can be prosecuted. As the health minister for the state of Bihar told the BBC, society must be told “that female foeticide is wrong” and killing unborn girls should be seen as “a crime – religious and social”.

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