Where are the missing girls?

With God, unfortunately. Many of them didn’t get the chance to be born and life was snuffed out of many of them in their infancy. Despite a higher survival rate of the female child, the sex ratios across Asia, Africa and other developing countries show a shortfall of women. The missing women and girls. Various research studies put the estimate of missing women at 90-100 million across the globe! And no surprises that these numbers have increased since the advent of technologies that enable pre-natal sex identification.

India and China, the top two countries in terms of population are also among the top countries with skewed sex ratios. In 1990, Amartya Sen writing in the New York Review of Books estimated that there were 100 million fewer women in Asia than would be expected, and that this number of “missing” women “tell[s] us, quietly, a terrible story of inequality and neglect leading to the excess mortality of women”.

Why are girls unwanted?

Patriarchal systems what else. Systems that have systematically diminished the value of women and girls over centuries and making them a burden have led to a situation where many girls are killed in the womb or soon after birth. Moreover, lower availability of healthcare for women leads to higher death rates including mother mortality rates in women.

India is a deeply patriarchal society and therefore no wonder that it is among top countries of the world that account for missing girls. Indian women do not have their own identity and are dependent on men for their identity. They are recognized as daughters, sisters, wives, mothers. While being a mother is a thing of pride for women (after all that is their prime duty) – the real pride comes with birthing a male child and not a female child. The poor woman who has given birth to the second, third and fourth daughter, keeps falling in the eyes of the world – so much so that in some cases she is turned out of the house so that the husband can try for a male child with another woman.

Wait before you say that not everyone is like that. Of course, there are people who cherish girls. My parents were very happy with their two daughters and we never felt like we were an incomplete family. (so what that the doctor said she was sorry when my younger sister was born.)

But it shocks me no end, that a large number of people – education, income no bar still place a disproportionate value on sons. And it’s not me – numbers speak for themselves. The sex ratio in India has actually been on a decline so we cant even claim that increasing GDP levels or education have made a positive dent in some of these patriarchal systems. India’s sex ratio, or the number of females per 1,000 males, declined to 896 in 2015-17 from 898 in 2014-16, according to a government survey. The 40+ million missing girls in India are not coming only from rural, less educated areas. Urban areas are more responsible for this.

Just yesterday, in one of my women’s Facebook groups, a woman from an affluent city of India was literally despairing over the fact she gave birth to a second girl. She had a hard time accepting that she had two daughters and was dreading comments and suggestions from others about trying for a third child and astrologers predicting a boy and so on.

A lower value attached to women/girls, the belief that a son is a future investment while a daughter is a burden plus social ills such as the dowry system have brought us to where we are today.

This incident also highlights that double whammy on the birth of the girl child. Not only is the child unwanted, the mother is the one blamed for the sex of the child. So much so that after consecutive female child births, the mother ends up being subjected to physical or mental abuse to the extent of being turned out of the house. To counter that I remember a communications campaign from the late 80s or 90s that would explain how it is the male sperm that determines the sex of the child.

The government has been trying to do its bit for years. From criminalizing dowry system to banning sex determination tests to incentivizing the girl child. But it is an uphill task – unless the patriarchal mentality of people changes, laws and incentives can only do so much.

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