India Confronts Gender-Selective Abortion

The medical journal The Lancet, reports that there have been 10 million "missing female births" in India in the past 20 years. By "missing," that means females who were aborted. Activists are trying to stop the practice, which is as prevalent in wealthy areas as it is in poor areas.

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Earlier this year, an article in the British medical journal The Lancets stated that over the last 20 years there have been 10 million missing female births in India. The article was referring to abortions.

For years there's been a debate in India about this practice and it's often conducted on the assumption that the families who do it are poor and uneducated, but as Mandy Cunningham reports from New Delhi that is often not the case.

AMANDA CUNNINGHAM reporting:

The practice of aborting a baby because it's a girl is nothing new in India. It's been going on for years and, says Dr. Perneet Betty, a specialist in fetal medicine, in some areas it's produced a staggering imbalance in the genders.

Dr. PERNEET BETTY (Fetal medicine specialist): In most private hospitals in South Delhi the figures now are somewhere between 500 and 650, that means on an average 600 girls are being born to 1,000 boys.

CUNNINGHAM: It's also assumed that most cases of aborting girls are among the poor, people living on a few cents a day where girls are viewed as a burden on the family.

Now a different picture is emerging, one that reveals that the practice is common among India's prosperous and educated middle class and in the heart of the nation's capital, in south Delhi the affluent part of the city.

Dr. Betty again.

Dr. BETTY: Right now if you're a girl and in your mother's womb you have only a four in five or five in six chance of making it to this world alive.

(Soundbite of people speaking foreign language)

CUNNINGHAM: This is Sultan Porvenage (ph) School in the northwestern Indian state of Punjab. The village is neat and well kept. The surrounding fields are full of wheat waiting to be harvested. Punjab is India's wealthiest state, yet is has the worst sex ratio of any state in the country.

In the zero-to-six age group, for every 100 boys here there are only 80 girls. There should be 95 girls for every 100 boys and in some areas, the imbalance in even greater. In this school there are two boys for every girl.

The issue of female abortion is highly sensitive here. Residents don't like discussing it. Sitting in her office next to the classroom, Bowinda Kor (ph), the local childcare worker, simply denies the problem exists.

Ms. BOWINDA KOR (Childcare Worker): (Through translator) No, no one here carries out abortions. This is nature. Some people have one girl, one boy and some have two.

CUNNINGHAM: But there is a problem. That much is clear from the government statistics. Krishna Kumar (ph), the top government official in Nawashar district, says that it's indisputable proof that female abortion is practiced here. In parts of his district, he says, there are only 500 girls for every 1,000 boys.

Mr. KRISHNA KUMAR (Government Official): We have come down from 800 to say 500 in the span of four years. Where will we go in the next four years or five years or 10 years along the line?

CUNNINGHAM: The reason for statistics like these, says child development officer Paranjeet Kor (ph) have much to do with the importance Punjabis attach to having sons.

Ms. PARANJEET KOR (Child development officer): (Through translator) The way I see it, the men here dominate the women and demand of her a son. There is rejoicing when a son is born and if a woman is pregnant a second time, she hopes it's a boy, but if it turns out to be a girl, she is looked down upon by her peers and society.

CUNNINGHAM: There's another reason why female abortions are as common among the rich as the poor, says Ghori Chowdhri (ph) of Action India, that's the Indi-Golba (ph) traditional practice of demanding a dowry from a bride's family.

Ms. GHORI CHOWDHRI (Action India): The amount of dowry that the rich are giving is now obnoxiously huge from giving cash for starting business or practice to giving an apartment or a car. So it's a huge expense to get a girl to marry.

CUNNINGHAM: Opponents of sex-related abortion are beginning to mobilize. In parts of Gujarat state where young brides are in short supply, couples are adding an extra oath to their wedding vows pledging not to abort baby girls. In Punjab, campaigners have been organizing demonstrations.

(Soundbite of demonstrators)

CUNNINGHAM: Stop this cruel killing, shouts the crowd at a recent protest. Paranjeet Kor says this is one of a number of events they've been organizing.

Ms. KOR: (Through translator) When we came across five or six cases this year, we organized mock funerals at their houses. We mourned the death of a girl child just the way people mourn at a funeral to make people aware that she's been killed before she could be born. They feel that they've done something wrong and they start to question why they did it and they say that they shouldn't have done it.

CUNNINGHAM: Kumar, the local government chief in Nawashar, says holding demonstrations is just one tactic in his personal war on sex-related abortion. He's also set up a computer system to monitor all local pregnancies. He's offering a payment to students who inform him of any new pregnancy in the area and he's publicized a telephone number on which he can be contacted day or night.

Mr. KUMAR: So anybody who want to give information, he or she can deliver this information at this number, 5501.

CUNNINGHAM: The Indian government has tried to correct this growing imbalance in the sex ratio. It's banned doctors from using ultrasound machines to tell parents the gender of their unborn babies and it's made abortion on the grounds of sex illegal, but Dr. Perneet Betty says the law is widely abused by unethical doctors, and women who are desperate for a son know that.

Dr. BETTY: I don't know any woman who's pregnant whose got daughters who doesn't know where it is done, how much it costs and she doesn't care what the boy/girl ratio in the country or the world is, she wants a son and she's willing to kill her daughter for that.

CUNNINGHAM: It's time, he says, for India to stop talking and take actions.

For NPR News, I'm Mandy Cunningham in New Delhi.

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