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Inderpal GrewalBack to OpinionInderpal Grewal

Where are India’s ‘missing girls’?

The Lancet, the British medical journal, gives us the bad news: selective abortion of female fetuses in India is on the rise. Research tells us that sex ratios are especially skewed for mothers whose first child is a girl. But it’s the media that gives us a clumsy interpretation of this trend, often blaming the practice on something called “Indian culture.”

But “Indian culture,” seen as the main cause of this problem, doesn’t tell us why this practice first occurred in some parts of India and not in others, or why it has increased among those with 10 years or more of education and is more common among wealthier households.

True, there are some communities with a long-standing preference for sons, particularly in Punjab and Haryana in North India. India has certainly struggled with a gender bias that needs to be eradicated, and the prevailing hope has been that economic development would facilitate progressive changes. Instead, women have become increasingly marginalized in the new economic order. The World Economic Forum Report tells us that India’s global gender ranking fell from 96 in 2006 to 112 in 2010. Therefore, we can deduce that the preference for boys is not about “Indian culture” per se; rather, in the increasingly globalized economy of contemporary India, class mobility is still a man’s game.

The new digital economy of India, a cornerstone of the economic engine that promises to make India a global superpower, is not paying dividends for women yet. The country’s booming technology sector operates on a two-tiered system, with men advancing into the management class, while the majority of women remain relegated to lower-status support positions. While there are no statistics available for women’s participation in IT, the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology report mentions that in 2003, 79 percent of professionals in the field were men.

All too aware of this pervasive glass ceiling, families realize that daughters will face more professional obstacles, which only reinforces their desire for male offspring. New technologies have enabled families to identify the sex of the fetus, thus allowing them to more carefully engineer their offspring’s gender. (Sex-selective abortions were banned in 1994, but the practice is still widespread despite the substantial cost.) Although the Indian government’s ubiquitous slogan, “only two or three children,” has been around since the 1970s, the country’s urban middle classes are only now able to plan the sex of the children and thus design the family they want.

Furthermore, more educated families know they have to invest resources to educate their children to participate in this changing economy. Such costs include regular and intensive tutoring to ace the entrance examinations to colleges, as degrees from certain colleges have become prerequisites for new high-paying jobs. Educating large numbers of children is expensive, and getting into a good college is even more difficult because of the size of the population and the increasing numbers of applicants. As families limit the numbers of children, they want to ensure that they have a son who can compete in the new economy.

Of course, the story is not just about the digital economy, but the gender dynamics at play in this booming industry illustrate the motivating factors behind India’s “missing-girl syndrome.”

Feminist activism in India is only now turning its attention to issues that affect middle class women. The Center for Study of Women in Developing Societies, a feminist think tank in New Delhi, has found that literacy alone would not equalize the sex ratio or end sex-selective abortions. The center advocates a broad-based approach that includes education, especially better health education, as well as programs through which the actual contributions that women make to the economy — which get left out of the GDP — can be acknowledged.

Cultures do not stand still. Contemporary Indian culture is also a product of globalization and the economic needs of a fast-growing economy. Government programs in India that criminalize doctors, place pregnant women under surveillance or offer women financial incentives not to abort female fetuses have all produced mixed results at best. Rather, the situation calls for a frank acknowledgment of the future problems and costs of sex-selective abortions, and more proactive measures, in both public and private sectors, to ensure that women are also benefiting from the country’s economic transformation.