Kavitha Rao and daughter Maya

(WOMENSENEWS)–Like many of my female Indian contemporaries, I plan to have a small family. But according to a survey published in the British medical journal Lancet in January, this makes me more, not less, likely to abort any future daughters I may have.

That’s because I am educated and my first child is a girl.

As many as 10 million girls were aborted from 1978 to 1998, says the survey, carried out by epidemiologist Dr. Prabhat Jha and his colleagues at the University of Toronto. This works out to 500,000 female fetuses aborted each year.

While that’s a shocking statistic, the selective abortion of girls in India–where abortion is legal before 20 weeks–is an old, old story. What is new is the survey’s surprising finding that educated Indian women are more likely to abort female fetuses because they can afford ultrasound technology to find out the sex of their babies.

Until now, it has been easy for the government to plead helplessness when poor, “backward” families abort unwanted girls. But this survey confirms what many researchers have long suspected. The craze for a male child engulfs well-to-do families as well, perhaps even more so. How else to explain the lopsided sex ratio in South Delhi’s richest neighborhood, where there are 845 girls to every 1,000 boys?

Small families are no friend of the girl child either. The women most likely to undergo a selective abortion already had one or two female children. One girl, it seems, may be tolerated, but two or three are out of the question.

Outcry and Debate

Predictably, there has been an outcry over the survey’s conclusions, by some researchers and activists who believe the figure is exaggerated.

The Indian government has refrained from comment. But the Indian Medical Association disputes the report, saying that the number of aborted female fetuses is closer to 250,000 a year. It noted that the survey was carried out before 2001, when India’s Supreme Court directed the government to tighten restrictions against ultrasounds to check gender, illegal since 1994.

While the number of missing girls may be in dispute, the country’s census figures suggest that the laws are rarely enforced. The 2001 census shows 933 girls for every 1,000 males. For the right fee, doctors find ways around the law by revealing gender through hand signals or code words.

When I was expecting my own daughter six years ago, I tried to find out the sex of my fetus, eager to start buying pink or blue clothes. My own doctor firmly, and rightly, refused.

But when I emerged from the exam room I found mothers in the waiting room discussing another clinic where doctors would disclose gender “if you asked the right way.”

Economics Influences All Classes

Why do Indians prefer boys?

The answer is in economics. Cost considerations cut across class barriers, but middle and upper-class families simply have more money to have ultrasounds done. Poor families cannot afford ultrasounds, so they have to take their chances.

Money spent on girls is often considered wasted, since girls are generally expected to marry and care for children, not go out to work. “What’s the point in educating daughters?” said my uncle once. “They will only end up in the kitchen anyway.”

Families, meanwhile, are expected to provide cripplingly large dowries. I did not have a dowry or an arranged marriage, but even in the upper-middle classes, no matter how progressive, families feel obliged to provide “gifts” to daughters who marry.

Discrete yet illegal advertisements and flyers for ultrasounds tacked on billboards and walls cleverly focus on the extra cost of having daughters. “Pay 500 rupees now and avoid paying 5 lakhs later.” In U.S. money, that’s the difference between $11 and $11,200.

Many mothers may not want to undergo sex-selection abortions. But they face intense family pressures to do so. Women who only bear girls may face ostracism, abandonment or worse, particularly in rural areas.

Before ultrasound technology, wealthy families had no choice but to keep their girl babies. Now technology is allowing them to opt out and, with a growing materialism, some wealthy families see nothing wrong in trying to buy a son, just as they might try to buy a car, a house or the latest in cell phones.

Every so often, the government takes action. In 2002, it launched a “Save the Girl Child” campaign and last year India’s tennis sensation Sania Mirza became its ambassador. Public-service ads run regularly on TV and in the papers. Periodically the government cracks down on unregistered ultrasound clinics. But in a country as huge as India, with a population of 1.1 billion, the efforts barely seem to make a dent.

Desperate for Brides

Authors of the Lancet survey warn that the skewed sex ratio may lead to a nation of bachelors desperate for brides, which could lead to more rapes and kidnappings. They also believe that polyandry, where one woman takes on several husbands, will become more common. Jha also speculates that there may be an increase in sexually transmitted diseases, especially HIV.

There are solutions.

Researchers recommend strict enforcement of anti-dowry laws, prohibited in India since 1961.

Free education for girls will also reduce the financial burden on families. More job initiatives are encouraged for female teens and women so families stop viewing girls as a liability. Women are still expected to be primarily responsible for the household, children and the extended family. There is a shortage of part-time, flexible or vocational jobs for women, though things are improving.

In addition, ultrasound clinics need to be strictly monitored and erring doctors severely punished. The government, and Indian society, need to stop looking the other way.

My immediate family was overjoyed when my daughter was born. Yet, there were people who refused to believe that we were happy.

“Don’t worry about it,” said a male friend in his 60s, commiserating with my husband. “Trust in God and he will give you a son next.”

I was enraged that my daughter, who was and is a beautiful, intelligent, loving child, could be so easily dismissed as second-best. I have never felt undue pressure to have a boy, because I have support from my husband and close family. Comments like these from friends and acquaintances sometimes still annoy me, even though they are intended as blessings.

Kavitha Rao is a London-based freelance writer who covers current affairs, culture, health, education and lifestyle. Her work has appeared in the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph, the South China Morning Post, the Far Eastern Economic Review and Asiaweek, among others.

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