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India's latest census reveals a disturbing trend. There are far fewer girls born there each year than boys. Activists say the disparity is deliberate. Much of Indian culture regards boys as assets to families and girls as liabilities. Some families are using ultrasound technology to determine the sex of fetuses and aborting females.

As NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from New Delhi, the practice has been going on for decades and it has created a shortage of marriageable girls that is now being felt all over India.

COREY FLINTOFF: Dr. C. Chandramouli says the numbers don't lie, the girls are missing. Among children under six years old in India today, there are only 940 girls for every 1,000 boys. Worldwide, it's around 986 to every thousand. Chandramouli, the census commissioner for all of India, says this is a continuation of a trend that was first seen clearly in the 2000 census - but the new figures show the problem is spreading.

Dr. C. CHANDRAMOULI (Census Commissioner, India): It has to be said that what was predominantly a north Indian phenomena of a few states has now spread across the country, and that is what is more distressing.

Dr. RANJANA KUMARI (Director, Centre for Social Research): It's almost like first step towards eradication of humanity itself because if there are no mothers, there'll be no children, and there is going to be nobody ever born.

FLINTOFF: That's Ranjana Kumari, head of the Centre for Social Research, a New Delhi-based aid organization that focuses on empowering women. She says female feticide is becoming more common, despite the fact that Indian law makes it illegal to use ultrasound and other technologies to determine the sex of a fetus. Why do families do it?

This is Kailash Satyarthi, founder of Global March, a group that focuses on human trafficking and child labor issues.

Mr. KAILASH SATYARTHI (Founder, Global March): The parents feel that boy is a help for the future, where the girl is a liability. If we spend money on her, then we have to spend money on her marriage, dowry probably, and then if something goes wrong, then we are always sufferers. So, better that girl is not born.

FLINTOFF: Notice that it's not just about the money, although a girl's family is expected to provide a big payment to the groom's family before the marriage takes place.

Another perception is that a girl is a potential source of dishonor to the family if something goes wrong - that is, if she's accused of sexual misbehavior or even if she's raped.

The district with the worst sex ratio in the entire country is Jhajjar, in the fertile farm country of Haryana state, not far from New Delhi. You can see the disparity here at Sarvodya School, which serves about 2,200 students from throughout the district.

Principal Punit Sharma says only about 30 percent of his students are girls. He says some rural families are reluctant to educate their girls, but the disparity is mainly because of the low ratio of girls in the population.

Mr. PUNIT SHARMA (Principal, Saryodya School): Primarily it is a male-dominated society. That's the main reason of not having girls as students.

FLINTOFF: Has there been any difficulty yet for young men finding women to marry?

Mr. SHARMA: Yes, it is very much difficult here.

FLINTOFF: Sharma says young women are brought to Haryana from other states for marriage, but that brings still more social problems.

Kailash Satyarthi says that women from other Indian states are cut off from their families and often don't speak the local language or understand local customs. Sometimes, he says, the marriage is just a cover for sexual exploitation.

Mr. SATYARTHI: That girl is used by other male folk in the families for sexual exploitation, so she is married to one man, but other brothers or relatives of that man use that girl for sexual purposes. And sometimes, one girl is married to several men.

FLINTOFF: Punit Sharma, the school principal, says the men of his district, the fathers of families as well as the men who would like to become fathers, are aware of the problem but are only now beginning to confront it. He says his school is teaching young men that the young women in their classrooms are their equals.

Ranjana Kumari says the solution is a long-term one that involves better law enforcement, public awareness and the empowerment of Indian women.

Dr. KUMARI: I think the more women become aware of their rights, the more they become stronger in terms of their economic rights, political rights, then, sure, that women will not go for such abortion because to save the women species, women have to come forward.

FLINTOFF: And she adds, to save themselves, men will have to come forward as well.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, New Delhi.

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