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The district highlighting India’s sex ratio problem

India is ‘missing’ 63 million girls and women because of prenatal and postnatal gender discrimination.

A district in Uttarakhand reflects a broader issue concerning India’s sex ratio, according to a recent report in The Times of India. In 132 of the Uttarkashi district’s villages, not a single girl was born in three months out of 216 deliveries. 

The concerning figures, collected from the state health department, potentially cast a spotlight on female foeticide according to Uttarkashi district magistrate Dr Ashish Chauhan. While claiming that it could be “a coincidence”, Chauhan nonetheless stated that “we can’t take any chances.” This has prompted accredited social health activists (ASHAs) to be dispatched to the villages to monitor the situation over the course of the next six months. Chauhan has also pledged “legal action” against families who are implicated in committing female foeticide. 

An inquiry has been ordered by Uttarakhand Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawt into the state’s skewed sex ratio, including the areas where no female births have been recorded in some time. According to 2011 census, there were 1,61,489 women compared to 1,68,597 men in Uttarkashi. Though the condition has improved over the years, in sixteen villages, no female births have been recorded in six months. However, skewed sex ratios are far from isolated to certain villages, districts, or even the state itself. It is a pan-India problem.

Between the 2014-16 and 2015-17 periods, India’s sex ratio declined. In the former period, there were 898 females for every 1,000 males; in the latter, the ratio stood at 896 : 1,000. This is compared to a sex ratio of 900 girls and women for every 1,000 men and boys during the 2013-15 period. Data is available from just 22 of the country’s 35 states and union territories. Fourteen states show sex ratios above the national average and eight show sex ratios below the national average. The sex ratio was highest in Chhattisgarh (961 : 1,000) and lowest in Haryana (833 : 1,000). 

India’s imbalanced sex ratio has long been an issue of concern. As stated by a 2016 study, “numerous laws intended to prevent discrimination on the basis of gender have been passed in India, yet the distorted female-to-male sex ratio seems to show worsening tendencies.” 

Sex determination ban in India to prevent imbalanced sex ratio. By Melanurya (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Prenatal sex determination is illegal in India as a way of addressing the country’s imbalanced sex ratio – but the trend nonetheless displays “worsening tendencies”.
One of the most notable policies enacted to combat the nation’s imbalanced sex ratio is a ban on prenatal sex determination. Enacted in 1994, the goal of the law was to prevent female foeticide but critics have stated that the law is poorly enforced, pointing to the continued and worsening imbalances in the nation’s sex ratio as proof. Meanwhile, the practice  continues to be performed illicitly, with a black market allowing for prenatal sex determination and sex-selective abortions estimated to be worth Rs 1,000 crore. 

Addressing India’s gender inequities has been one of the major development-related pledges of the BJP government since it first came to power in 2014. The Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao Yojana (Save Daughter, Educate Daughter Scheme) made targeting sex selection one of its core objectives, targeting 104 districts with wide gender gaps with institutional multisectoral campaigns and awareness drives. The initiative has been credited with effecting improvements in these districts since its launch in 2015.  Yet the national figures remain dismal and are worsening, calling the effectiveness of the policy in combating the issue at the national level into question.

Sex selection is not reserved before birth either. Postnatal gender discrimination causes the preventable deaths of 239,000 girls under five every year as daughters often do not receive the same standards of medical care, nutritional support, and education as the sons in their family. Such discrimination is not limited to isolated pockets: it is prevalent across ninety percent of India’s districts. The consequence of these long-standing patterns of discrimination, both before and after birth, is that India is missing 63 million girls and women.

It is clear that, in many respects, the law is failing India’s girls and women. Vigilance against potential offenders is vital, as is monitoring high-risk areas – building on what has already been conducted by state and central government agencies alike. India’s continued failure of its girls and women is a matter of national shame. Without addressing the sex ratio issue, the failure will only continue.

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