Female feticide in India.

Author:Ahmad, Nehaluddin

ABSTRACT: Women are murdered all over the world. But in India a most brutal form of killing females takes place regularly, even before they have the opportunity to be born. Female feticide--the selective abortion of female fetuses--is killing upwards of one million females in India annually with far-ranging and tragic consequences. In some areas, the sex ratio of females to males has dropped to less than 800:1,000. Females not only face inequality in this culture, they are even denied the right to be born. Why do so many families selectively abort baby daughters? In a word: economics. Aborting female fetuses is both practical and socially acceptable in India.

Female feticide is driven by many factors, but primarily by the prospect of having to pay a dowry to the future bridegroom of a daughter. While sons offer security to their families in old age and can perform the rites for the souls of deceased parents and ancestors, daughters are perceived as a social and economic burden. Prenatal sex detection technologies have been misused, allowing the selective abortions of female offspring to proliferate. Legally, however, female feticide is a penal offence.

Although female infanticide has long been committed in India, feticide is a relatively new practice, emerging concurrently with the advent of technological advancements in prenatal sex determination on a large scale in the 1990s. While abortion is legal in India, it is a crime to abort a pregnancy solely because the fetus is female. Strict laws and penalties are in place for violators. These laws, however, have not stemmed the tide of this abhorrent practice. This article will discuss the socio-legal conundrum female feticide presents, as well as the consequences of having too few women in Indian society.


According to the United Nations, there are, on average, 105 females to every 100 males in most countries of the world. But this pattern, tellingly, does not hold in four countries where female infanticide and feticide are still practiced: India, where there are 93 women to every 100 men; Bangladesh and Afghanistan, where the ratio is 94 to 100; and China, where there are only 88 women to every 100 men. (1) The Indian census has always reflected a gender imbalance. Female feticide--the selective abortion of female fetuses--and infanticide are largely responsible for this disparity. This marked gap between males and females has nationwide implications. This article will explore: (1) the history of India's gender preference; (2) the background of female feticide; (3) how female feticide is accomplished; (4) the prevalence of female feticide; (5) viewpoints on female feticide; (6) consequences of female feticide; (7) legislative responses; (8) consequences for offenders; (9) the difficulty of enforcement; and (lo) judicial responses.

Historical Background

Indian society, like many societies the world over, is patrilineal, patriarchal, and patrilocal. For centuries, India has not welcomed the birth of daughters. Women in Indian society were either heralded as goddesses, a rarity, or objectified. Daughters were thus never welcome. Even the blessing given by Rishis (priests) illustrates this painful reality: "Ashta Putra Saubhagyavati Bhava"--"Be a Mother of eight sons." The blessing was never for four sons and four daughters. Why?

Tradition holds that sons are necessary in order to kindle the funeral pyre of their late parents and to assist in the soul salvation. (2) According to Manu, (3) a man has to be reborn as a man to attain moksha (redemption). A man cannot attain moksha unless he has a son to light his funeral pyre. Also, a woman who gives birth only to daughters may be left in the 11th year of marriage. Obviously, this demonstrates the gender bias prevalent in this male-dominated society. (4)

Moreover, daughters come with a high price to be paid later in the form of dowries, and they have little utilitarian value growing up. The unfortunate practice of dowries and the historical view of women as undesirable second class citizens have lead to the wholesale slaughter of female infants, and now fetuses. (5) The "burden" of taking a woman into the family continues to account for the high dowry rates in India which, in turn, have led to an epidemic of female feticide. (6) But before feticide became a widespread practice, infanticide was the method of choice for families desirous of relieving themselves of the burden of an unwanted daughter. (7)

The Background of Female Feticide


Sex selective abortion is a fairly recent phenomenon, however, it should be seen as a subset of the crime of infanticide, which has also targeted the people who are physically or mentally disabled, as well as infant males and infant females on a gender-selective basis.

In the late 18th century, infanticide was initially documented by British officials who recorded it in their diaries during their travels to India. The scope of the problem of female infanticide became apparent in 1871, in the taking of India's first census survey. At that time, it was noted that there was a significantly abnormal sex ratio of 940 women to 1000 men. This prompted the British to pass The Infanticide Act in 1871, making the practice of murdering infants illegal. But the Infanticide Act was difficult to enforce in a country where most births took place at home and where registration of births was not common. (8) This inhuman practice continues today.

Some would dispute the assigning of infanticide or female infanticide to the category of "genocide," or as here, "gendercide." Nonetheless, governments and other actors can be just as guilty of mass killing by neglect or tacit encouragement, as by direct murder. (9) R. J. Pummel buttresses this view, referring to infanticide:

In India, for example, because their beliefs and the rigid caste system, young girls were murdered as a matter of course. When demographic statistics were first collected in the nineteenth century, it was discovered that in 'some villages,' no girl babies were found at all; in a total of thirty others, there were 343 boys to 54 girls.... in Bombay, the number of girls alive in 1834 was 603. (10) Rummel adds:

Instances of infanticide ... are usually singular events; they do not happen en masse. But the accumulation of such officially sanctioned or demanded murders comprises, in effect, serial massacre. Since such practices were so pervasive in some cultures, I suspect that the death toll from infanticide must exceed that from mass sacrifice and perhaps even outright mass murder. (11) No matter that female infanticide, or its progeny, feticide, is not committed en masse, it is a tragedy of epic proportions with far-ranging consequences for Indian society.

What is Female Feticide?

Female feticide is "a practice that involves the detection and abortion of female foetus due to the preference for male babies and from the low value associated with the birth of females." (12) This could be done at the behest of the mother, father, or under family pressure. Karlekar points out that:

[T]hose women who undergo sex determination tests and abort on knowing that the foetus is female are actively taking a decision against equality and the right to life for girls. In many cases, of course, the women are not independent agents but merely victims of a dominant family ideology based on preference for male children. (13) Why is Female Feticide so Widely Practiced?

It is quite simply more expensive to raise a female than a male, as the female child needs to be provided a dowry upon marriage. It is widely known that increased dowry payments led to the further decline of the status of women. (14) The bride's family, according to Indian convention, bears the major cost of the wedding. The amount of dowry given is determined by the groom's caste, his earnings potential, and the distinct needs of his family. Therefore, the wealth of a bride or her family is irrelevant in the determination of the dowry amount. The female child, particularly in families of lower economic stature, is thus an economic drain on her family. The need for a dowry for a female child exerts considerable economic pressure on families to use any means possible to avoid having girls, who are seen as a liability. Sonalda Desai has reported that there are posters in Bombay advertising sex-determination tests (which lead to selective abortions of female fetuses) that read: "It is better to pay 500 Rs now than 500,000 Rs (in dowry) later." (15)

The following factors are often advanced as other justifications for the practice of feticide:

* Social Security: Consequent upon the advances in medical science, the termination of unwanted children, especially female fetuses through abortion, has become common in families to satisfy their preference for sons. Studies indicate that there is a preference for sons in South Korea, Pakistan, India, Turkey, Mexico, Taiwan and China. (16) In India, the excuse offered is that families prefer boys to girls because boys provide security to aged parents.

* Dowry: A boy is an asset who fetches a dowry.


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