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Poverty. Riches. The world's largest democracy. An ancient caste system. Bollywood. India is a land of contrasts, a booming new power that remains baffling to outsiders and insiders alike. The Shiva Rules is a year-long GlobalPost series that decodes the many mysteries of India's uneven rise in the 21st century.

India girl 2012 01 03
Indian girl in front of the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on Jan. 30, 2010 in New Delhi. (Daniel Berehulak/AFP/Getty Images)

Shiva Rules: Sex selection about more than gender discrimination

Up to 12 million abortions have occurred in India as a result of sex selection. What is India doing about it?

Editor's Note: The Shiva Rules is a year-long GlobalPost reporting series that examines India in the 21st century. In it, correspondents Jason Overdorf and Hanna Ingber Win will examine the sweeping economic, political and cultural changes that are transforming this nascent global power in surprising and sometimes inexplicable ways. To help uncover the complexities of India's uneven rise, The Shiva Rules uses as a loose reporting metaphor Shiva, the popular Hindu deity of destruction and rebirth.

MOHOPADA, India — The arrival of Anu and Sanjay’s first daughter brought happiness to the family.

When the second daughter came along, they were still content — they could always have another. But after the third child — another girl — they decided to take action.

During Anu’s fourth pregnancy she and Sanjay went to a radiologist, who had been recommended by their gynecologist, in a town outside their village in Maharashtra in western India. For 600 rupees or about $14, the radiologist told the couple the bad news: a girl.

Anu returned to her gynecologist and aborted the fetus.

“Gender discrimination is there, but we have to confront the fact that there are also women making these choices.”
~Mara Hvistendahl, author of “Unnatural Selection"

“My husband used to insist that he wants a son, that’s why I decided myself that I wanted to wait for a boy,” Anu said in Marathi through a translator during a recent interview. “So I aborted.”

Anu and Sanjay, whose names have been changed due to the sensitivity of the story, tried again and again to have a son. By the end, Anu got pregnant eight times. She gave birth to four daughters and had four abortions.

As India develops and its middle class grows, the aborting of female fetuses is becoming more common. India’s 2011 census showed that the country’s child sex ratio, the number of girls to boys under age 7, is the worst it has been since India gained independence in 1947.

A natural sex ratio is 105 boys born for every 100 girls. This is to adjust for girls’ slightly higher likelihood of surviving than boys. However, India’s 2011 census showed that the sex ratio for children under age seven is 109 to 100. While not ostensibly a large difference, that ratio equates to 7 million fewer girls than boys under the age of 7 in India, which is home to 1.2 billion people.

From India: Crackdown on sex-selective abortions

Public health experts say the drastically skewed ratio is a result of couples having ultrasounds to determine the sex of their fetus and then aborting girls.

A recent study published in the British medical journal The Lancet stated that sex-selective abortions are up sharply during the last two decades, and most of the Indian population now lives in states where sex selection is common. It estimates that between 4 and 12 million abortions have occurred in the last three decades in India as a result of sex selection.

The study said that women from wealthier and more educated families are more likely to have a sex-selective abortion than women from poorer families, presumably because they can afford to use the technology.

“Recent increases in literacy and Indian per-person income might have thus contributed to increased selective abortion of girls,” it said.

Gender discrimination is largely behind sex-selective abortions, but the phenomenon has also been exacerbated by a growth in organized crime among doctors who collude to evade restrictions against revealing the sex of fetuses to expectant parents.

As India faces a growing gender disparity, some activists feel that the government isn't doing enough to tackle the issue. Some organize sting operations on clinics to help identify doctors who are breaking the rules.

Sex-selective abortions represent “the dark side of social and economic development,” French demographer and sex-selection expert Christophe Guilmoto told GlobalPost.

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“You empower women, but at the same time old tradition comes back to the fore, and gender preferences are implemented in a much more effective way because of access to technology, information, [and] knowledge.”

The practice of sex selection has begun to have dire effects on communities in India. In some parts of the country, like in the relatively wealthy states of Haryana and Punjab, families have been known to buy brides from poorer states.

The trafficking of brides across the country puts these women at risk because they become isolated and more vulnerable to abuse, said women’s-rights activist Ranjana Kumari. The women also come from different cultural backgrounds and therefore struggle to adapt to their new village’s dietary habits and customs, she said.

Pressure to have a son

There have long been religious, social and economic pressures on Indian families to have a son. Once daughters grow up, they will traditionally get married and go live with their in-laws. Sons, on the other hand, stay home and take care of the parents as they grow old.

Anu says she would have stopped having children after the first two daughters, but her husband and mother-in-law kept insisting the family needed a son. In many communities, Indian women who have a son are given more respect and status.

“Your security is your son,” Anu said as she sat upstairs from her physician’s clinic in Mohopada village, about 40 miles outside Mumbai.

Daughters are also more expensive. Sanjay earns 20,000 rupees, or about $450 a month, working at a chemical company in town, and that should be enough to provide the family with a decent middle-class life. However, he said that he has spent all his money on the daughters’ education, daily expenses and now on marrying the girls off.

Sanjay said that when his first daughter got married, he did not have to pay a dowry because she is well-educated. But he did have to cover the majority of the wedding expenses — and Indian weddings do not come cheap.

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He wanted to give his daughter a proper wedding, including new jewelry for the bride, gifts for every relative and a large reception. He spent 4 lakhs on the wedding, about $9,000. That is Sanjay’s salary for 20 months.

He said that he wants to provide each of his daughters proper Indian weddings, and will take out loans to pay for the others.

Sanjay has no savings left for retirement and does not get a pension or social security.

Gender discrimination

Some argue that sex selection is less a result of families disliking girls, and more an offshoot of them feeling a need for a son.

Statistics bolster this argument, as they have shown that Indian families like Anu and Sanjay are often content having the first child be a girl. The Lancet study published in June showed that sex-selective abortions rarely occurred with firstborns. The abortions occur in the second or third pregnancy when the first child is a girl, and the family wants to have at least one son.

However, others, like demographer Guilmoto, say the argument that families have nothing against girls is just rhetoric, given that many aren't just trying again to have a son, but are actually getting rid of unwanted girls.

“It’s all very nice to say that people have nothing against girls,” Guilmoto said. “But if they really want a son, there’s no better way than to try again.”

Women’s rights activists say sex selection represents another example of India’s pervasive discrimination against women. In some communities, daughters are more likely to be malnourished and less likely to be educated and taken to the doctor. Mothers face high rates of domestic violence and maternal mortality. And widows, no longer needed to support a husband or produce sons, face abandonment.

With sex selection, said public-health activist Sabu George, “we’re dealing with an extreme form of discrimination where women are not allowed to be born.”

In many cases, a woman aborts her female fetus in response to societal pressure, but there are also instances when the woman herself makes the decision. In order to better understand the phenomenon of sex selection, it is crucial that these cases also be taken into account, according to Mara Hvistendahl, who recently wrote a book on the issue, “Unnatural Selection.”

“Yes, gender discrimination is there,” she told GlobalPost. “But we also need to talk about the personal decisions that are being made.”

“We have to confront the fact that there are women who are making these choices,” she said.