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India: crackdown on sex-selective abortions

The government has proposed a cash-incentive plan to encourage families to have girls.

Young Indian women walk past a billboard in New Delhi on July 9, 2010, encouraging the birth of girls. Mostly as a result of sex-selective abortion, India is one of the few countries worldwide with an adverse child sex ratio in favor of boys. (Raveendran/AFP/Getty Images)

MUMBAI, India — As India’s middle class grows, more families are using modern technology to ensure they have a boy, according to gender and population experts. Confronted with a decrease in the number of girls born, the state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, has decided to crack down on the illegal practice of so-called female feticide.

India outlawed the practice of doctors using technologies like ultrasounds to tell patients the sex of their unborn child in 1994. Abortion based on certain grounds is legal, but having one based on sex is not.

Despite the law as well as gains in girls’ education and employment opportunities across India, the practice has continued and even grown as more people have access to ultrasounds. The child sex ratio, the number of girls to every 1,000 boys in the 0 to 6 years age group, dropped from 945 girls in 1991 to 927 girls in 2001, according to data from the United Nations Population Fund based on the census. When just looking at the sex ratio at birth, for the period 2006-08, the ratio drops to 904 girls per 1,000 boys.

Sex determination leads to a missing 500,000 to 700,000 girls across India each year, according to the United Nations Population Fund.

The home minister of Maharashtra, R.R. Patil, warned that female feticide and the resulting skewed sex ratio could turn into a “social disaster” and called combating this crime a top priority. In Maharashtra, the sex ratio drops to 884 girls per 1,000 boys, according to the 2006-2008 data.

‘The doctors who are a part of this shameful act should be punished and the medical council should cancel their license to practice medicine for the rest of their life,” he wrote on his blog.

The state government has since announced a proposal to encourage families to have girls by providing cash incentives. On the birth of a girl child, 5,000 rupees ($114) will be deposited into a bank account under her name, according to local media reports. Once the family ensures the girl completes her schooling and does not marry before the age of 18, she will have access to the money. The finance department has not yet approved the program, which would initially be for families living below the poverty line, according to the Times of India.

Cash incentives have similarly been used in India to encourage women to give birth in hospitals or other medical institutions and have been credited with an increase in institutional deliveries.

However, social activists in Mumbai question the effectiveness of providing cash incentives to encourage women to have a girl child when the families that need to be targeted are not the poor but rather the middle class and affluent.