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Killing the little girls of the world – the lingering problem of female infanticide

Issue Identification

For 50 years, from 1960-2011, fewer and fewer girls were allowed to be born in India. This situation, what I refer to as gendered arrangement, is old and commonly misunderstood. In India, there are “about 7.1 million fewer girls than boys aged 0-6 years.” This is due to “prenatal sex determination with subsequent selective abortion of female fetuses” (Jha et.al, 2011). Data from the 2011 population census, provided by the Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India, Ministry of Home Affairs, also proves this. There are 914 girls per 1000 boys between the ages of 0 and 6. Future estimates paint a grim picture of the imbalanced demographic slide, the effects of which, research estimates, will spill beyond India.


Census of India, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-13264301

In 1990, Nobel Laureate and economist Amartya Sen alerted the world to the phenomenon of “missing women.” He said that more than 100 million women were missing from the world, which challenged the commonly held belief that women make up fifty percent of the world’s population. Such a view is a generalization of the fact that there is a relatively higher number of women compared to men in Europe and North America. For a majority of the world, however, and especially in South Asia, the gender ratio favors men over women (Sen, 1990). Women in these parts of the world are considered “missing” in the sense that they aren’t allowed to be born.


The issue of “endangered sex” is not limited to India. Cultural preference for boys extends to both China and the Republic of Korea as well, countries that have also had a history of being predominantly male; and although the Republic of Korea has been successful in reversing the gender imbalance, China continues to have a female deficit, which research says has become worse due to their one-child policy. A United Nations Population Fund report on skewed gender ratios states that in the Republic of Korea, “the imbalance could not have developed in the 1980s without modern technology, coupled with son preference and declining fertility . . . More research is needed to prove that the decrease in sex selection in Korea has been mainly due to increase in daughter preference, policy changes and shifts in socio cultural norms” (UNFPA Report, 2011).

Historical Perspective

Girls have been eliminated in India for centuries. In the past getting rid of girls was harder and was accomplished after birth by strangling the infant girl, also known as female infanticide. During British rule over India in the 19th century, however, female infanticide was recognized as a social evil and was outlawed by the Female Infanticide Prevention Act of 1870 (Wikipedia). There have also been instances where sex of the fetus is determined before birth and the pregnant woman is beaten with blows to her stomach so that the female fetus doesn’t survive (www.satyamevjayate.in).

Current Status

For the first time in 64 years (1947-2011), the number of girls (0-6 years) in India has dropped down to 914 per 1000 boys (2011 Population Census of India). Researchers suggest that in India “there are about 400,000 sex selective abortions per year” (Skewed Sex Ratios at Birth, UNFPA, 2012), which is roughly equal to the entire estimated population of Oakland, California in 2012 (US Census Bureau). This fact relates to the more recent development in India, which is to eliminate girls even before birth.

This latest phenomenon became possible primarily through the misuse of ultrasound technology. Ultrasound technology was a major breakthrough in medical imaging in the 1980’s and it also led to major developments in obstetrics and gynecology. It was intended to expedite the process of fixing issues by allowing doctors to visualize the fetus and detect abnormalities, including severe neurological disorders. Certain fetal abnormalities do not surface entirely until later in pregnancy, primarily between late first trimester and early second trimester. In such situations when fetal abnormalities can potentially threaten the life of a pregnant patient or the developing fetus, the patient may decide to abort the pregnancy. Feticide is one of the procedures used to terminate such a pregnancy. In medical literature, the term is used neutrally “as if it were unproblematic” (Graham, Robson, Rankin, 2007).

In India, the use of ultrasound has become something more precarious than a technique used to perform neutral feticides. It is largely used to determine the sex of a fetus so that the pregnancy can be terminated if the fetus is female. In academic discussions, “sex selective abortion” is a term used to refer to the abortion of a female fetus. “UNICEF reported that 43 million of the estimated 100 million women worldwide who would have been born if not for extraneous circumstances, including gender-specific abortion, would have been Indian” (Frontline PBS, 2007). So, about half of the missing female population is from India, a country that is roughly one-third the size of the United States but that has three times as many people.


The population census of India, conducted every 10 years, is the most reliable form of data on gender percentages in the country. The most current population census of 2011 has helped disprove some popular research-based perceptions about sex selective abortions.

Son Preference

Preference for sons over daughters is cited as the number one reason for sex selective abortions in India. “One reason for desiring sons, common to all the patrilineal societies of the world, is the transmission of family name and property” (May & Herr, Populations Studies, 1968). It is expected that marrying a son will extend the family lineage. “May you be the mother of 100 sons” is still a common blessing for a pregnant woman. According to the Hindu religion, a son or a male relative must fulfill the last rites for a parent. Most people think it worthwhile to spend money on a boy who is expected to contribute to the family even after marriage, both financially and emotionally, by supporting aging parents.

Girls are primarily considered a liability until they are married off. Spending money on educating a girl is equated to investing in a venture that has already failed. “Other’s Wealth” is an adjective that is used for a daughter. No matter how much a parent or family spends on educating their daughter, most Hindu parents will not even touch the money a daughter earns whether it is before or after she marries. Instances of dowry, which is given by the bride’s family to the groom’s, only increase the burden of having a girl.

How can preferring a son be the sole reason for fewer and fewer girls in India, when girls have been consistently declining among all religiously affiliated and southern Indian states with a matrilineal society?


The introduction of ultrasound technology in India is also blamed for the rapid elimination of females in India. Though sex selective abortions rose steeply after the introduction of ultrasound in India in the 1980s, it is not technology but its misuse that is responsible for the fewer number of females.

“The problem is that when it comes to sex determination, doctor and patient go hand- in-hand. Patients have to undergo ultrasound for many other medical conditions and it is difficult to find if it is for sex determination or not. One of the two stakeholders – either the patient or the doctor — needs to feel they are doing the wrong thing by looking for the unborn child’s sex” (Singh, TNN 2011).


Another common misconception is that poverty, dowry, rural Indians and poor economic status is responsible for the elimination of girls in India. In a 2000 study, Shelly Clarke concludes that “son preference is not distributed randomly, but is found to be greater among the socially and economically disadvantaged, that is uneducated, scheduled castes, rural Muslims and Hindus and non-southern states” (Sex Ratio at Birth, UNFPA, 28), while it is a fact that India’s economy continued to grow even as the world’s economy was “fairly uneven and uncertain” (Singh, IMF).

Illiteracy & Ignorance

Lack of literacy and ignorance is often cited as reasons for the declining number of girls in India. Based on that logic, an improvement in the national literacy rates should reflect an improvement in the sex ratio. According to the 2011 census, all 35 states and union territories of India reported an improvement in literacy rates from 2001. 74 percent of the total Indian population, 7 years and older, is literate while only 26 percent still remains illiterate. Females, who are less in number than males, outnumber males in literacy rates by roughly 4 percent.

Urban vs Rural

It is often believed that more rural than urban Indians opt for sex selection. Contrary to this belief, the 2011 census showed that there are fewer girls in cities (902 per 1000 boys, aged 0-6) than in villages (919 per 1000 boys, aged 0-6). Media reports in India have quoted the Census Commissioner, C. Chandramouli saying that, “It’s a matter of grave concern that educated people in cities, who are better off, are opting for sex determination tests” (Singh, TNN 2011). This statistic is consistent with the conclusions drawn after the 2001 census: “The decline in urban sex ratio was more than twice that is [sic] seen in rural areas” (George, 2002; UNFPA, 31).

North vs South

It is said the phenomenon of sex selective abortions was regional, limited to only a few North Indian states, but today more than 90% of India, i.e. 27 out of the 35 states and union territories, has fewer girls than boys (2011 population census, India). This includes some southern states that were not considered to have a deficit in girls. Previous research is not only conflicting but has been proved wrong. For example a researcher named Arokiasamy concluded in 2005 that “the rise in sex ratio at birth was steeper in the northern region while the western and eastern regions showed moderate rise [sic]” (Declining Sex Ratio in India, 21-22). The southern state of Kerala, which has the highest number of literate females in the entire country, reported a decline in the number of girls in 2001 and again in 2011, whereas Arnold’s research study published in 1998 says that “Kerala was the only state that did not exhibit son preference at any parity.”

Abortion or Pro-Choice

Mostly in the west, the discourse on sex selective abortion is often seen in the same light as abortions. The argument is that a ban on sex selective abortions is taking away the choice and right of a female to control her own body, whereas for women who want to know the sex of their fetus, “it is assumed that she does so under compulsion from the family” (Gupta, Skewed Sex Ratios at Birth, UNFPA, 14). Sex selection in India is not about the choices or rights of women, in fact, in India, “sex selection is not about abortion, its [sic] about sex determination” (Vemuri, UNFPA). “The 1972 Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act in India legalized abortion in order to reduce the incidence of illegal abortions” (Legalization of abortion in India, Gupta, Pande). These misconceptions only confuse and dwarf the issue of sex selection.

It is important to realize that sex selective abortion is an Indian issue that is already causing irreparable consequences and that what is true in one culture cannot be seen as a solution for another. A majority of westerners and feminists, including Indian, view the issue simply in terms of rights and choices, but if there are no women, whose rights and choices will we talk about. The current situation is so bad that often people hesitate to talk about sex selection for fear of being perceived as belonging to the abortion or pro-choice debates. None of these situations are helping to resolve the shortage of girls in India.

Laws vs Social Outlook 

“In order to prohibit sex selection and prevent misuse of technology for preconception and prenatal sex determination, the Government of India enacted the Pre-conception and Pre-natal Diagnostics Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, 1994 (PCPNDTAct)” (Towards a Stronger Implementation of the PCPNDT Act, Govt. of India & UNFPA, 2012).

Since then, the act has been amended in 2003. Despite these laws, fewer and fewer girls are born in India, which has been “attributed to the introduction and proliferation of modern technology such as ultrasound that enables sex determination, thereby reinforcing societal mindsets for son preference (1). “It has been challenging to enforce the law. Effective implementation of this significant social legislation requires commitment to the ideal of gender equality and entails capacity building of all stakeholders involved in implementation of the PCPNDT Act” (1).

How do you make sure that following an ultrasound the sex of a fetus is not seen and reported to the patient? Here, the decision becomes an ethical one. The issue of sex selection is so complicated, but more than the issue itself, its interpretation is what makes the problem complex.

The Reality

Since sex selective abortions have increased throughout India, there is no one reason that fits all. Despite the enactment of prohibitory laws intended to protect unborn girls, the truth is that in India selective abortion of female fetuses is a very real problem, one that has spread like an epidemic, engulfing the entire country. The archives of local and national newspapers have reported instances of female fetuses, ranging from a few weeks to 15-18 weeks, found floating in bodies of water, dumped in sewers, or abandoned in Medical College campuses in Udaipur, Jaipur, Pali and other cities of Rajasthan (The Tribune, 2006).

The Way Ahead

Decreasing number of females in India is a problem that people intellectually understand, but when it comes to personal issues, they often go against their own logic. How do you resolve such a complex problem? Many special groups, activists, media and government organizations, as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), are trying to address the issue in their own way, and yet there is a disconnect when it comes to stakeholders, their stories, and the interaction among these different groups. Moreover, often the way various groups address the issue is in conflict with each other, except the fact that the number of girls is decreasing. Activists and social workers talk about the reality they see on the ground, which scholars, researchers and policy makers consider as “emotionally charged.”

If there is a problem, there has to be a solution too, but where does the solution come from? The impact of the female feticide requires that the issue be addressed by multiple agencies in various mediums, since there are various stakeholders here, and not everyone understands a similar language. Keeping the wide cross section of society in mind, awareness campaigns need to be catered to specific audience, for example the issue should be addressed through the medium of art, music, theater, informal conversations, writing, and so forth. It is important to hear people’s stories and narratives, out of which a solution may emerge. Acknowledging the positive in society is another way. Simplifying the issue itself is a big problem. Scholars need to step out of their ivory tower and interact with people in a language that they can understand.

In an attempt to simplify and understand the problem, I am working on a digital and visual rhetoric of videos and infographs: a combination of words and visuals in a poster. If there is a problem, a solution must be there.

The author would like to acknowledge the support from a SEAD grant by The Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology at Virginia Tech. Michelle Gailhac’s (mg2@vt.edu) graphic design contribution is very instrumental to this essay.


Census of India: Provisional Population Totals 2011: India: Census 2011. (2011). doi: http://censusindia.gov.in/2011-prov-results/data_files/india/pov_popu_total_presentation_2011.pdf

Graham, Ruth H., Rankin, Judith M, Robson, Stephen C (2008). “Understanding feticide: An analytic review.Social Science and Medicine, 66 (289–300)

Gupta, O.P., Pandey, N.L. Legalization of Abortion in India, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. doi: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12336413

Prabhat Jha et. all. (2011). doi: http://cghr.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/Trends-in-selective-abortions-of-girls-in-India-2011.pdf

May DA, Herr DM (1968). Son survivorship motivation and family size in India: A computer simulation. Population Studies. doi:  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22091610

Sen, Amartya (1990). More Than 100 Million Women are Missing. The New York Review of Books. doi: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1990/dec/20/more-than-100-million-women-are-missing/?pagination=false

Singh, Anoop Urban India pips is sex selection, http://blog-imfdirect.imf.org/2011/10/25/india-linked-or-de-linked-from-the-global-economy/

United States Census Bureau. doi: http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/06/0653000.html

UNFPA. Report of the International Workshop on Skewed Sex Ratios at Birth: Addressing the Issue and the Way Forward. doi:  http://www.unfpa.org/webdav/site/global/shared/documents/publications/2012/Report_SexRatios_2012.pdf

Vemuri, Anuradha.(2012). Presentations made by Resource Persons at the PNDT Workshop. UNFPA. doi:  http://india.unfpa.org/drive/PresentationmadeatthePNDTWorkshop.pdf

UNFPA India, Reports. (2012) Towards a Stronger Implementation of the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act. doi: http://india.unfpa.org/drive/PCNDTworkshop_report19final.pdf
“2 more female foetuses found,” Tribune, last updated September 4, 2006, http://www.tribuneindia.com/2006/20060905/nation.htm#16.

Cite This Article

Manisha Sharma (2013). Killing the little girls of the world - the lingering problem of female infanticide. The Socjourn. [http://www.sociology.org/female-infanticide-killing-the-little-girls-of-the-world/]

Lila, the Revolutionary

By: William T. Hathaway

Lila, the Revolutionary is a fable for adults about an eight-year-old girl—smart, charming, and tough as can be—who creates a world revolution for social justice. No one ever told her she couldn't end poverty and inequality, so she doesn't doubt that she can Just Do It! Starting with the Nike shoe factory where she works. Like the boy in "The Emperor's New Clothes," Lila can see the reality that adults are blind to. And she's not shy about pointing it out. Her story is a call to action: If Lila can do it, so can we. She convinces us that Yes, a better world is possible, and we're the ones to create it.

About Dr. Manisha Sharma


  1. We have featured this post on Women’s Web ‘Pick of the Week’ this week. http://www.womensweb.in/2013/06/womens-stories-week-2/

  2. Thanks, Women’s Web!

  3. I am a retired social worker. Greatly enjoyed the articles in your journal and shall read it always in the future. Though provoking and mind stretching.
    Thank you, Helen Woods

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