Tuesday, May 31, 2011

India's Girls Are Being Decimated

Most people who use the word "decimate" do not understand its true meaning or origin. They use it to mean a wiping out, a massive defeat, or a natural disaster. The tornado decimated Joplin, Missouri. In reality, it means the slaughter of 1/10 of a population. Decimation was used as a form of military punishment for cowardice in Roman times, and occasionally thereafter. So there aren't too many instances in which one can correctly use this word. But the appalling truth is that it can accurately be applied to many parts of India, where one in ten female fetuses is now being selectively aborted.

You may be familiar with this phenomenon from China, where the one-child policy, along with a preference for males, has been a major contributing factor to a skewed birth ratio. In a normal human population, slightly more boys are born than girls, with ratios ranging from around 103 to 109 males born for every 100 females. This naturally leads to a roughly 1:1 ratio of adults. But in countries such as China and India, where sex-selective abortion and infanticide occur, this ratio can become extremely skewed. In 2005, the ratio in China was at 119 to 100, and in some parts it had reached the astonishing imbalance of 130 males to 100 females. It is estimated that some 24 million Chinese men will be unable to marry when they reach adulthood around 2020, because their potential brides were selectively aborted.

India has apparently learned nothing from China's example, and although education and income levels have been rising in India, so too has the problem of selective abortion. In fact, according to a new study, it appears that the phenomenon is actually directly linked to affluence and education: educated, well-off women are far more likely to obtain an ultrasound and abort a female fetus. Thus, the latest Indian census found a ratio of 914 girls for every 1000 boys, which is the most imbalanced since India gained independence in 1947. Girls in India are literally being decimated.

The total numbers are staggering: in the last 30 years, it is estimated that between 4 and 12 million Indian females have been selectively aborted. Of course, the practice of using ultrasound to determine the sex of a fetus in order to selectively abort is illegal in India, but until deeply held cultural beliefs are changed, the laws are essentially meaningless. So-called "honor killings" are also illegal in India, yet a 2010 study found that 1000 people per year were being murdered by their family members for bringing "disgrace" to their family.

Here are a couple of recent articles which discuss the phenomenon of sex-selective abortion in India, as well as a link to the original study from which these articles were drawn:
-As Wealth and Literacy Rise in India, Report Says, So Do Sex-Selective Abortions  
-Earlier article on same topic, also from NY Times, with more social context
-Original study published in The Lancet 

Note: An earlier version of this post contained a typo regarding the Indian birth statistic. 

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