A Generation of Girls Is Missing in India

Sex-selective abortion fuels a cycle of patriarchy and abuse.

Young Indian women walk past a billboard in New Delhi encouraging the birth of girls on July 9, 2010.
Young Indian women walk past a billboard in New Delhi encouraging the birth of girls on July 9, 2010. Raveendran/AFP/Getty Images

Perched almost a mile above sea level and circled by majestic Himalayan peaks, Uttarkashi is a spot where religious pilgrims often make a pit stop before proceeding on the sacred Hindu Char Dham Yatra, the Four Abode Pilgrimage, which they believe will bring them closer to salvation. With its verdant landscape, dotted by temples and yoga ashrams, Uttarkashi is a place of breathtaking beauty.

But all is not well in this peaceful Himalayan district. Between February and April, not a single female child was born here in 216 births across the 132 villages. Local authorities, suspecting sex-selective abortions, have launched an extensive investigation, spearheaded by the district magistrate, Ashish Chauhan.

I think back to the months that I have spent over the years in Uttarkashi, living across a footbridge from a nursery school. I would often see groups of little boys walking to school but rarely girls. I thought that perhaps the girls were being dropped off by their parents on motorcycles. Or, in the worst-case scenario, they weren’t being sent to school. But it never crossed my mind that they did not exist at all.

Chauhan, the highest government authority in the town of Uttarkashi, chanced upon the figures while monitoring the work of female health workers in the region, known as ASHAs (short for Accredited Social Health Activist, a word in that means “hope” in Hindi). ASHAs are women selected from the local community and act as an interface between it and the public health system.

In an interview, Chauhan told me that he suspects that there may be a nexus between the ASHAs and owners of ultrasound machines that can determine the sex of a fetus. “I feel that there could be a perfect collusion between villagers and ultrasound machine owners. They are in hand-in-glove with each other. Though Uttarkashi only has three registered ultrasound machines, all in government clinics, people can easily travel to the city of Dehradun,” Chauhan said.

Although it has been illegal nationwide for doctors to disclose the sex of a fetus since the 1994 Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, the ease of ordering cheap and portable ultrasound machines, especially online, has kept the practice of sex-selective abortions alive. Although exact numbers of such terminations are not available, according to the first national study on abortion overall, an estimated 15.6 million abortions took place in India in 2015. Although the practice is legal up to 20 weeks into a pregnancy under a broad range of criteria, an estimated 10 women die every day due to unsafe procedures. As many as 56 percent of abortions in India are estimated to be unsafe, and about 8 to 9 percent of all maternal deaths in India are due to unsafe abortions.

It is safe to assume that a large number of the abortions that happen in India are performed because the fetus is female. Last year, an Indian government report found that about 63 million women were statistically “missing” from the country’s population due to a societal preference for male children. And this problem does not just stem from sex-selective abortion. The report noted that another 21 million girls were considered “unwanted” by their families, who continue to have children until a son is born. Roughly 239,000 girls under the age of 5 died in India every year between 2000 and 2005 due to gender-based neglect, according to a 2018 study.

In the wake of his discovery, Chauhan has embarked on an extensive investigation, monitoring health workers, doing block-by-block surveys, and carefully assessing data from hospitals and clinics. I ask what will happen if he finds a problem.

“Then we will go for remedial actions—enforcement and perhaps social awareness campaigns—though I know that those are more or less ornamental,” he said. Chauhan is referring to the New Delhi-led “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” (“Save Daughters, Educate Daughters”) campaign. Although much-publicized, the national campaign meant to stabilize the increasingly unequal sex ratio has been largely ineffectual because of poor implementation, a lack of monitoring, and misuse and diversion of funds. According to news reports, over 56 percent of the funds allocated to the campaign over the past five years were spent on “media related activities,” less than 25 percent of the funds were disbursed to districts and states to execute on-the-ground activities, and over 19 percent of the funds were not even released by the government.

Efforts to enforce the law have also been lacking. Despite vast evidence that sex-selective abortion happens on a wide scale, it still goes largely unpunished, mostly due to ineffective and lackadaisical judicial systems. According to data from the National Crime Records Bureau, between 2002 and 2012, there were a mere 218 cases charging medical practitioners with performing ultrasounds with an intention to determine the sex of the fetus. Only 55 people were convicted.

Beyond the troubling human rights implications, one problem with sex-selective abortion is that it may create a self-reinforcing cycle. An excess of men tends to reinforce patriarchy. According to the psychologist Robert Epstein, when there are more men than women in a society, women are driven out of the workplace and values become more conservative and traditional, with women more likely to be forced to stay at home. Violent crimes like rape are more frequent, and a society of single men with a steadily diminishing mating pool can lead to human trafficking and prostitution. In turn, having a female baby begins to look even less appealing.

India is already experiencing all of these problems, especially in northern states with particularly bad sex ratios. According to a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, the female sex ratio has fallen to 896 females per 1,000 males in 2015 to 2017 from 898 in 2014 to 2016. The Wire reported that according to census data, India’s national child gender ratio fell from 945 girls to 1,000 boys in 1991 to 918 in 2011. The states of Haryana, Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Uttarakhand, and Maharashtra all had a ratio even lower than 900 girls per 1,000 boys.

As Epstein, who has collected data in more than 100 countries, including the United States, told me in 2015, “Extra males affect the social system quite dramatically. Even now, there are women being drugged and kidnapped from Bangladesh and poor Indian states because there is a shortage of young females. Take that effect and magnify it over a period of years. It’s a social disaster.”

Given the scope of the problem, the battle against sex-selective abortion may seem impossible to win. But there are a few hopeful cases.

In 2004, Arvind Kumar, the district magistrate of Hyderabad, investigated 389 diagnostic clinics in the city and found that 361 of them were not complying with the ultrasound act. He canceled 91 licenses to operate diagnostic clinics, seized 83 machines, and took the suppliers of ultrasound machines to court. Today, Hyderabad has a sex ratio of 945 females per 1,000 males, more equal than the national average of 926 to 1,000. At the same time, crime statistics reflect women’s improving status. According to local officials, in 2017, there was a reduction of 10 percent in crimes against women in Hyderabad city as compared to the previous year.

In the short term, government administrators like Chauhan and Kumar may be able to solve problems in their own neighborhoods. In the long term, though, the best nationwide solution lies in female education, empowerment, and participation in the workforce. In states like Kerala and the northeast Indian states where women’s education and participation in the workforce is high, sex ratios are far more equal.

In July, I spoke to Vinod, a young man from Uttarkashi who has recently moved to Delhi to find a job. I asked if he realized that his hometown has such a severe problem. No, he told me, but he can imagine why.

“My father sold land and three cows to finance my sister’s wedding last year. The groom’s family wanted new clothes for everyone, a band, a DJ, and even nonvegetarian food at the wedding. My sister’s wedding was a crippling expense to my family. I love my sister, but I can see why some people may find daughters too expensive. It’s a shame, though, that we pray to Mother Ganges and then kill our baby girls,” Vinod said.

India’s reality is dire, and if the country doesn’t solve the endemic problems of sex-selective abortions, it will face much larger problems still. Rather than thinking of women as liabilities, women need to be thought of as assets. Given the freedom to do so, they can contribute to society in a number of different ways. Before it digs its own grave, India must bring back its girls.