Health ministry slept as killing of girl child spiked alarmingly

Health ministry slept as killing of girl child spiked alarmingly

But the real jolt came a couple of months later when a research study illustrated that after more Indians became better educated and acquired more wealth,  many more girls were killed in the last two decades than in the 1980s.

The decline in child sex ratio has remained a persistent problem in India. Between 1981 and 1991, the number of girl children declined by 17 points from 962 to 945 per 1,000 boys. The fall continued between 1991 and 2001, when it further went down by 18 points. The provisional data from 2011 Census shows that the declining trend continues unabated up with a further drop of 13 points.

The reasons for the adverse sex ratio are all too well known. It’s a known social evil for many decades. “The obsessive preference for a male child, coupled with a desire to limit the family size are the key factors encouraging female neglect and foeticide. There is no escaping the fact, that we need to change mindsets for the girl child to be universally desired and nurtured,” said union health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad at a recent meeting of the central supervisory board under the Pre-conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, 1994 (PC and PNDT Act).

Eye opener

The research study – published in the journal Lancet – however, was the real eye opener. The authors estimate that the number of selective abortions of girls rose from 2.0 million in the 1980s to 1.2 to 4.1 million in the 1990s and 3.1 to 6.0 million in the 2000s. Selective abortions of girls are estimated at between 4 and 12 million over three decades from 1980 to 2010.

The period coincides with the coming of age for Indian economy, which embraced the economic liberalisation. The GDP and people’s purchasing power increased steadily. The level of literacy spread across the states. But as the team of Indo-Canadian researchers showed, the financial and educational upliftment had no bearing whatsoever on the fate of lakhs of girl children.

The situation was particularly worse in case of second births in those families in which the first born was a girl. They found that the girl-boy ratio fell from 906 girls per 1,000 boys in 1990 to 836 in 2005 – an annual decline of 0.52 per cent.

The authors point out between the 2001 and 2011 censuses, more than twice the number of Indian districts showed declines in child sex ratio compared to districts with no change or increases. Ironically, the sex ratio decline was much greater in mothers with 10 or more years of education than in mothers with no education, and in wealthier households compared with  poorer households. But if the first child had been a boy, there was no fall in the girl-boy ratio for the second child over the study period, strongly suggesting that families, particularly the wealthy and educated ones, are selectively aborting girls if their firstborn child is also a girl.

The sex ratio for second order births when the firstborn was a girl fell sharply among the 20 per cent of the richest Indian households in contrast to the poorest 20 per cent. Furthermore, the dip is slightly greater in urban than in rural areas and did not differ between Hindu and Muslims.

The conclusion is obvious. Even though the government implemented the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act in 1996 to prevent the misuse of techniques for the purpose of prenatal sex determination leading to selective abortion of girls and amended the Act later to make it more stringent, the law has not been effectively implemented at all.
Fetal ultrasound has become more available over the past decade, thanks to the government’s abject failure to crack down on those clinics providing the illegal sex selection service.

No doubt, a handful of doctors in three-four northern states were booked under the law but the rate of conviction is abysmally low. Meanwhile, the menace has spread to all corners of the country instead of being restricted to a handful of states.
“Percolation of ultrasound machines to far flung areas coupled with the deep-rooted son preference in Indian society is the root cause of the evil practice,” said Shailaja Chandra, who heads the National Population Stabilisation Fund.

Coming out of the slumber, the Central government has taken what may seem to be only a few cosmetic corrective steps, which includes reconstituting the central supervisory board and setting up district and state level panels for monitoring besides making more funds available to the states and voluntary organisations for the save the girl child campaign. The efficacy of all these panels and programmes, however, remains dubious even as experts agree that a strict grass-root level monitoring could only be the answer to curb this menace.

Sums up Prabhat Jha, lead author of the Lancet study and a public health specialist at the University of Toronto, “The selective abortion of female fetuses, usually after a firstborn girl, has increased in India over the past few decades, and has contributed to a widening imbalance in the child sex ratio. Reliable monitoring and reporting of sex ratios by birth order in each of India’s districts could be a reasonable part of any efforts to curb the sharp growth of selective abortions of girl children,” he said.

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