Rising India Cannot Shake Its Bias for Boys
Gender Imbalance Widens in 2nd Most Populous Country
SINGHPURA, India - Standing in front of his small brick home, in a courtyard where the dirt has been packed down by generations of barefoot children, the middle-age mustard farmer doesn't bother to hide his exhaustion.
"Only someone who has been through something like this can understand the size of my catastrophe," said Sukhpal Singh Tomar. For years, he has struggled to find some reason for his suffering, but has come up with little. He shrugged: "It must be my karma."
The catastrophe? His daughters - all eight - so many he sometimes stumbles over their names. But his wife, Shanti, never forgets, and the words spill from her like a breathless prayer: "Anu, Jyoti, Poonam, Roshni, Sheetal, Bindu, Chandni, Shezal."
They have been born in a country leaping headfirst into the globalized world but still holding tight to a preference for boys, enlarging an ever-widening gender imbalance in the second most populous nation on Earth.
Tomar, 50, said his wife had also had three abortions. Asked if the intent had been to abort female fetuses, he looked silently at the ground.
"It would have been easier to have a son. Even just one," said Shanti, 38, whose stringy hair and worn skin make her look 20 years older. She's holding their youngest girl, 3-month-old Shezal.
Much has changed in this village since the Tomars' first daughter was born 19 years ago. Electricity arrived, and later the first cell phones. The number of tractors has quadrupled. Today, the village's girls attend the local primary school just like its boys.
"There's more money here now, and more education. But it's still in the back of everyone's mind: 'I must have a male child,' " said Madhur Gurhan, the obstetrician who runs the public hospital's maternity ward in Morena, the largest nearby city. "The money doesn't change that."
It has long been clear that India has a deep-seated preference for boys. By 2001, researchers estimated the country had anywhere from 20 million to 40 million "missing" girls from sex-selective abortions made available through the spread of ultrasound technology.
But as India modernizes - as places like Singhpura become small towns, as towns become cities and as India's once-overwhelming poverty is slowly supplanted by an increasingly educated middle class that wants fewer children - researchers say the problem is only getting worse.
"We're now dealing with attitudes that are spreading," said Sabu George, a prominent activist against the practice. "It's frightening what we're heading to."
While the next national census will not be done until 2011, giving a detailed overall picture, study after study has found an increasingly grim situation even as India's middle class grows.
While researchers once thought education and wealth would dampen the preference for boys, the reverse has turned out to be true.
According to UNICEF, about 7,000 fewer girls than expected are born every day in India. According to the British medical journal The Lancet, up to 500,000 female fetuses are being aborted every year. This in a country where abortion is legal but sex-determination tests were outlawed in 1991 - a law nearly impossible to enforce, since ultrasound tests leave no trace.
For a recent report, the group ActionAid sent interviewers to 6,000 households in five north Indian regions. In Punjab state, researchers found rural areas with just 500 girls for every 1,000 boys, and communities of high-caste urbanites with just 300 girls per 1,000.
Around Morena, in an increasingly urbanized part of Madhya Pradesh state, the 2001 census found a total of 851 girls per 1,000 boys - a number ActionAid found had dropped to 842.
Researchers say pressure for smaller families is the most immediate problem.
"Squeeze on family size is fueling the trend," said ActionAid researcher Jyoti Sapru. "For households expressing preference for one child only, they want to make sure it is a son."
If India is changing dramatically, the rationale for preferring boys remains fixed: Boys don't need the dowries that can cripple a family financially; boys stay home after marrying and help care for aging parents; Hinduism dictates that only boys can light their parents' funeral pyres.
Over the past decade, the government and aid agencies have spent millions of dollars on everything from poster campaigns to television ads to soap operas, all urging families to accept daughters. Governments have repeatedly pledged to crack down on clinics that perform sex-determination tests, yet these remain readily available.
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Around Singhpura, they cost about $60, or five times the cost of a legal ultrasound. Prosecutions are extremely rare.
The number of lost girls is almost sure to increase.
India's growing middle class means far more people can afford ultrasound tests. Increased urbanization means easier access to the machines. And as family sizes drop, the pressure to have boys intensifies.
The statistics tell this story starkly: In 1981, when ultrasound technology was rare here, India had 962 girls for every 1,000 boys. That's roughly what nature dictates.
But by 1991, as ultrasound technology began spreading, 962 had tumbled to 945. Ten years later, it was 927. In some parts of the country, particularly parts of north India where the preference for boys can be traced back for centuries, the ratio plummeted.
What remains unclear are the long-term affects. Activists say the laws of supply and demand don't apply in the face of such powerful cultural norms - and the shortage of potential brides has done nothing to make girls seem more valuable.
"The girl is like someone else's property - she's going to leave one day," said Hema Singhal, an ob-gyn who runs a small medical center in Morena with her husband.
Tomar, a man drowning in daughters, is an aberration in his village.
"Look around, you don't see many other girls here," he said.
While no one will admit openly to having sex-selective abortions, the practice is clearly common. It's clear in nearby villages, where girls are rarely seen. It's clear in classrooms, where boys can outnumber girls by 5 to 1.
It's very clear in the birth records in Gurhan's maternity ward, in a desperately underfunded and filthy government hospital, where nearly every day the newborn boys outnumber the girls.
Clusters of grandmothers stand outside the delivery room, waiting to carry their newborn grandchildren to the recovery rooms.
When it's a boy, their faces are lit with a protective gaze.
But if it's a girl the grimness is often palpable. And the mothers-in-law plod behind the mother's gurney, walking unlit hallways scattered with litter.
© 2008 Associated Press