Punjabi saying: Raising a daughter is like watering your neighbor's garden
In most places in the world, a mother can find out the sex of her unborn child, but in India, it's illegal to do so. That is because if she's a female, there is a good chance she will never be born.
Roughly 6.7 million abortions occur yearly in India, but aborted girls outnumber boys by 500,000 -- or 10 million over the past two decades -- creating a huge imbalance between males and females in the world's largest democracy.
Ratios of men to women are being altered at an unprecedented rate in India and neighboring China, two countries which account for 40 percent of the world's population.
According to UNICEF, India produces 25 million babies a year. China produces 17 million. Together, these are one-third of the world's babies, so how their women choose to regulate births affects the globe.
Female infanticide -- whereby tiny girls were either poisoned, buried alive or strangled -- has existed for thousands of years in India. But its boy-to-girl ratio didn't begin to widen precipitously until the advent of the ultrasound, or sonogram, machine in the 1970s, enabling a woman to tell the sex of her child by the fourth month of her pregnancy.
That coupled with the legalization of abortion in 1971 made it possible to dispose of an unwanted girl without the neighbors even knowing the mother was pregnant. In 2001, 927 girls were born for every 1,000 boys, significantly below the natural birth rate of about 952 girls for every 1,000 boys.
In many regions, however, this imbalance has reached alarming levels and it continues to grow. In 2004, the New Delhi-based magazine Outlook reported, sex ratios in the capital had plummeted to 818 girls for every 1,000 boys, and in 2005 they had slipped to 814.
The issue is highly sensitive for the Indian government, which had given the nation's sex imbalance scant attention until this month.
"It is a matter of international and national shame for us that India, with [economic] growth of 9 percent still kills its daughters," Renuka Chowdhury, the Cabinet-level minister of state for women and child development told the Press Trust of India news agency in an interview that was widely published in the national press.
Mrs. Chowdhury announced plans to set up a nationwide network of orphanages where women can drop off unwanted daughters with no questions asked.
"We will bring up the children. But don't kill them because there really is a crisis situation," she says.
Yet the practice of "female feticide" is so widespread and deeply ingrained in the nation's psyche, scholars and activists fear that even the most vigorous attempts to combat it would require a lifetime or longer to restore nature's balance.
"There has always been a deficit of women: Infanticide, neglect or they're left to die if they are sick, but technology has accentuated it," says Prem Chowdhry, a New Delhi-based scholar and specialist on male-female relations in India. "The volume has grown. Culturally, these things are not new, but now they're taking a new shape."
Early this year, the British medical journal Lancet estimated the male-female gap at 43 million. Worldwide, Lancet said, there are 100 million "missing girls" who should have been born but were not. Fifty million of them would have been Chinese and 43 million would have been Indian. The rest would have been born in Afghanistan, South Korea, Pakistan and Nepal.
China gave an even bleaker assessment last month, with the government saying that its men will outnumber women in the year 2020 by 300 million.
One Geneva-based research center, in a 2005 update on the phenomenon, termed it "the slaughter of Eve."
"What we're seeing now is genocide," says Sabu George, a New Delhi-based activist. "We will soon exceed China in losing 1 million girls a year."
The date may already be here. In a report released Dec. 12, UNICEF said India is "missing" 7,000 girls a day or 2.5 million a year.
Although India has passed laws forbidding sex-specific abortions, legions of compliant doctors and lax government officials involved in India's $100 million sex-selection industry have made sure they are rarely enforced.
Several companies, notably General Electric Corp., have profited hugely from India's love affair with the ultrasound machine.
As a result, a new class of wifeless men are scouring eastern India, Bangladesh and Nepal for available women. India, already a world leader in sex trafficking, is absorbing a new trade in girls kidnapped or sold from their homes and shipped across the country.
As sex-specific abortions increase, the destabilizing effects on Indian society are bound to greatly impact a country with expanding economic and strategic ties to the United States.
India to open orphanages for female infants to reduce sex-selective abortion
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