Discrimination against women is an ongoing and well known issue around the world, however, in India it continues to such an extent that many girls’ lives are ended before they’ve even begun.

The Populations Research Institute suggests that because of prenatal sex selection, 15.8 million girls were prevented from being born between 1990 and 2018[1]. Although natural sex ratios at birth aren’t absolutely equal, with slightly more boys being born than girls[2], in some areas sex ratios are as low as 877 females born for every 1000 males[3]. In a government study of 132 villages in the Uttarakhand State they found that of the 216 babies born over a three month period in 2019, none were girls[4]. While it is difficult to prove that female feticide has been carried out, such skewed sex ratios and cases like these are strongly indicative of sex selective abortion having taken place.

A variety of beliefs and traditions have led to the well ingrained preference for sons over daughters in Indian society, ranging from the financial to the spiritual. For example, traditionally, a son is expected to provide lifelong financial security for his parents whereas a daughter becomes a member of her husband’s family on her marriage and is therefore not thought to contribute materially to her birth family or considered to be responsible for her parents in their old age. Furthermore, the social pressure to give daughters a dowry and pay for a lavish wedding puts substantial financial strain on parents. Although giving or taking a dowry was made illegal 1961, the custom continues unofficially on a large scale. It is estimated that over 60% of families take out loans to cover marriage expenses[5] and in some cases the loans have such high interest rates that paying them back is impossible leading to families being forced into debt slavery. Financial concerns are not the sole factor in the preference for sons over daughters. Some Hindu families believe that parents are only able to get to heaven if their funeral rites are performed by their son[6]. For this reason, even on a spiritual level, daughters are considered to be inferior to sons. These customs and beliefs are all part of the patriarchal system which leads to discrimination and exacerbates the skewed sex ratios in India.

In the early days of prenatal sex selection, it was seen as a more ethical alternative to female infanticide, which was a widespread problem. However, many families who wouldn’t have considered infanticide were more comfortable with female feticide which further exacerbated the issue of a low sex ratio. As it happened prenatal sex selection did not have the effect of eradicating female feticide, because many families were unable to afford the procedure, furthermore after prenatal sex determination became illegal, a resurgence in infanticide was seen, with midwives in the Bihar region admitting to killing half of the baby girls they delivered in 1995[7] and ‘in 2005 in Kerala alone 25,000 female infanticides occurred in a year’[8]

Despite the 1994 law which banned determining the sex of a child or aborting it on the grounds of its sex, sex selective abortions have continued unofficially. Prenatal tests are allowed to check for genetic abnormalities in the foetus but in some cases the agents who operate the machines can be bribed to reveal whether the baby is female or male. Abortions can then be arranged, with some poorer families taking out loans and travelling to cities for the procedure. It should be noted however that sex ratios are consistently lower – suggesting a higher rate of sex selective abortion – in urban areas, in more prosperous states and among educated mothers[9].  

The consequences of consistently skewed sex ratios can be seen across the country. In some areas men are unable to find wives and resort to using human smugglers to traffic women from poor families abroad[10]. These women face many challenges, from living with people they do not know and often speaking a different language, to being used as sex slaves[11]. There are also cases of wives being shared between their husbands’ brothers and their being abused if they resist. This mistreatment of women is rarely reported ‘because women in these communities are seldom allowed outside the home unaccompanied, and the crimes carry deep stigma for the victims.’[12] Areas with the lowest sex ratios are those with high rates of violent crime against women, a phenomenon also seen in China[13] where the one child policy led to a significant increase in sex selective abortions and consequently low sex ratios. India also saw a dramatic increase in girls being raped and abducted between 2006 and 2011[14] and it is feared that a continued decline in the country’s sex ratios will lead to a worsening in women’s rights[15]. Finding long lasting solutions to the problem of India’s low sex ratios will be crucial to improving women’s rights.

The former Health Minister recognised in 2014 that the law against prenatal sex determination and sex selective abortion had not been effective in combatting the country’s low ratio of female to male births, and said it was necessary ‘to go into the root cause and build up a social movement.’[16] The government launched the ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’ or ‘Save the girl child, educate the girl child’ campaign in an attempt to change the way society sees girl children. People are urged to celebrate the birth of baby girls and share photographs with their daughters as part of the #selfiewithdaughter initiative which became popular worldwide[17]. With dowries being a significant concern for a girl’s family, it seems important to change the expectation that the bride’s family will spend a fortune on the event of her marriage, therefore educating girls and supporting them in having their own careers can make a significant difference as they then don’t have to be financially dependent on their husbands – a big reason for the bride’s family providing a dowry. In initiatives on a local level there have been promising examples of women’s empowerment. For example, in one village, it was decided that women should make up a third of the people in leadership positions, which resulted in women’s views being better represented, women feeling more comfortable in reporting crimes committed against them and schoolgirls and their parents having higher career aspirations[18]. Although there was initial backlash against traditional gender roles being challenged, negative perceptions and stereotypes eventually faded[19]. The success seen in this case suggests that implementing similar policies across the country could be beneficial to the standing of women in society which, in turn, would mean that families placed greater value on their daughters.


[1] Gopalakrishnan M. Female Feticide in India – a paradox of development? 01.08.2019

https://www.dw.com/en/female-feticide-in-india-a-paradox-of-development/a-49852825

[2] Ritchie H. & Roser M. Gender Ratio, June 2019 https://ourworldindata.org/gender-ratio

[3] Census 2011. Sex Ratio. 2011 https://www.census2011.co.in/sexratio.php#:~:text=The%20state%20of%20Haryana%20has,to%20that%20of%201000%20males.

[4] Gopalakrishnan M. Female Feticide in India – a paradox of development? 01.08.2019

https://www.dw.com/en/female-feticide-in-india-a-paradox-of-development/a-49852825

[5] Lal N. The Financial Burden of Weddings on India’s Poorest Families. 31.01.2021 https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2021/1/31/the-financial-burden-of-weddings-on-indias-poorest-families

[6] Gopalakrishnan M. Female Feticide in India – a paradox of development? 01.08.2019 https://www.dw.com/en/female-feticide-in-india-a-paradox-of-development/a-49852825

[7]  Madan K, and Breuning M. H. Impact of prenatal technologies on the sex ratio in India: an overview. June 2014 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4052431/

[8] ibid

[9] ibid

[10] Gopalakrishnan M. Female Feticide in India – a paradox of development? 01.08.2019

https://www.dw.com/en/female-feticide-in-india-a-paradox-of-development/a-49852825

[11] ibid

[12] Bhalla N. “Wife-sharing” haunts Indian villages as girls decline. 27.10.2011

https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-india-women-exploitation-idUKTRE79Q1WJ20111027?edition-redirect=uk

[13] Madan K, and Breuning M. H. Impact of prenatal technologies on the sex ratio in India: an overview. June 2014 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4052431/

[14] ibid

[15] Gopalakrishnan M. Female Feticide in India – a paradox of development? 01.08.2019

https://www.dw.com/en/female-feticide-in-india-a-paradox-of-development/a-49852825

[16] Tabaie S. Stopping female feticide in India: the failure and unintended consequence of ultrasound restriction. Journal of Global Health. 30.03.2017 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5441446/

[17] PMINDIA Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao: Caring for the Girl Child.

https://www.pmindia.gov.in/en/government_tr_rec/beti-bachao-beti-padhao-caring-for-the-girl-child/

[18] Sharma S.  Achieving gender equality in India: what works, and what doesn’t. 08/11/2016 https://theconversation.com/achieving-gender-equality-in-india-what-works-and-what-doesnt-67189

[19] ibid

Credits – Francesca Meynell

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