More boys than girls are filling India's classroom

NEW DELHI (WOMENSENEWS)–In a bid to curb the growing pace of female feticide, India is mulling offering cash incentives to the families of baby girls in an effort to limit the number of sex-selective abortions in favor of boys.

The plan, presented to the cabinet in March but still under review, stipulates that a girl’s family will get financial benefits worth around $5,000, including health insurance, until she is 18, if she is sent to school and remains unmarried.

If approved it would authorize the government to spend around $2.5 million in the coming year, with grants focused on families in 10 districts of the states of Punjab, Haryana, Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa.

Manjula Krishnan, economic advisor for the Ministry of Women and Child Welfare, said the plan targets families whose incomes put them below the poverty line and will encourage these families to look upon girls as an asset rather than a liability.

Traditionally, girls have lower family status; boys carry the family name and don’t require dowry payments.

But Dr. Sabu George, a leading critic of medical sex selection, says the government could help curb the practice by doing more to enforce the country’s 14-year-old anti-feticide law.

“As of now, doctors are convinced that they won’t be caught by law-enforcing agencies. And till the law is enforced, no scheme is going to have any impact,” says George, a researcher with the Center for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes, a voluntary organization based in Mumbai. This past August he filed a case in Supreme Court against three U.S.-based firms–Google India, Yahoo India and a division of Microsoft Corporation–for providing sex-determination information on the Web in violation of the law.

Research Raises Question

The initiative’s focus on low-income families is also called into question by a 2006 study in the Lancet, the British medical journal, finding abortion for the purpose of male selection most rampant in families who are better educated and affluent enough to afford both diagnostic procedures and dowries. Selective abortions may result in 500,000 abortions of female fetuses a year, according to the research, which was based on a national survey of over 1 million households in 1998.

India’s adult sex ratio is 933 females per 1,000 males, according to 2001 census figures. In more affluent states like Punjab, Delhi, Rajasthan and Haryana the ratio is even lower. All of these states have fewer than 875 females per 1,000 males.

India’s child sex ratio is even more imbalanced: 927 girls for every 1,000 boys under age 6. Worldwide slightly more boys are born than girls but more boys die in the first year of life.

One area of Punjab, India’s wealthiest state, has just 300 girls to every 1,000 boys, according to a June 23 report issued by the London-based charity Action Aid and the International Development Research Center, based in Ottawa, Canada. The groups also say that the gender ratio in five states is becoming more skewed since the 2001 census.

Abortion became legal in India with the passage of a 1971 law allowing doctors to perform the procedure at any time before 20 weeks of gestation.

Prohibited Since 1994

But female feticide–defined as misusing techniques to determine the sex of a fetus for the purpose of aborting those that are female–has been prohibited since 1994 under the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, which bans doctors from revealing the sex of a fetus to prospective parents.

Since 1994, only 350 cases have been filed under the law. Of those, 226 were for running a clinic without registration, 37 for revealing the sex of the fetus and 27 for advertising sex-selection services.

Penalties for doctors who abort a healthy female fetus after a sex-selection test are imprisonment for up to three years and a fine up to $250. This is increased to five years and $2,500 for subsequent offenses. Doctors may be suspended from practicing if convicted.

The law also focuses on pregnant women and her family members who undertake sex-selective abortions as well, providing for a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a fine of 10,000 rupees, about $250.

In March, prominent New Delhi gynecologist Dr. Mangala Telang was arrested and her medical license suspended after she was recorded by the BBC taking money in exchange for information about the sex of a fetus. She faces charges under the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act.

Previously, only one case resulted in prosecution, when a doctor was sentenced to two years in prison in 2006 and fined about $125, according to media reports.

In August, a New Delhi doctor, Mitu Khurana, brought a lawsuit against her husband, also a doctor, and his parents for illegally obtaining the sex-selection test and pressuring her to abort. Today she is a mother of twin girls. The case is still under investigation.

Drumming Up Demand

George and other activists accuse doctors of drumming up patient demand for sex-selection procedures and want it declared as medical malpractice.

But one doctor who declined to be named denied that. “We do it because there is demand for sex selection in the country,” the doctor told Women’s eNews. “Do you think we would be able to conduct sex-selection abortions if couples do not want it? If I don’t do it somebody else will.”

“Sex-selective abortions are an organized mass medical crime,” says George, who has been researching female feticide for more than two decades. “Doctors and medical practitioners are doing it for money and they are convinced that they are not going to get caught.”

Because it is so easy to find doctors to conduct the illegal sex-diagnostic tests–some advertise openly–George regards the government as lax in monitoring the practice.

Other officials have proposed a variety of crackdowns and incentives to curb the crime.

Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss has advocated in March for a life sentence for doctors who perform sex-selective abortions.

The Ministry for Women and Child Development plans to offer cash incentive to district magistrates who are able to control the skewed sex ratio in their area, but has not offered a specific timeline for implementing the program.

Gagandeep is a freelance writer based in New Delhi writing mainly on development issues.

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