Every day 5-year-old Aaradhya Sharma was taken by her father to a temple in a small town in Northern India to pray for a baby brother. Although the young girl was praying sincerely while sitting on her pregnant mother’s lap, she has little knowledge of what would happen if her mother produced another girl.
In Indian society, irrespective of caste, economic status, or religion, most households prefer having boys to girls. Over the past decades this has given rise to an alarming trend of a rise in selective abortions of girls.
Last year’s census revealed that that there are 7.1 million fewer girls than boys aged 0-6 years. The gap was 6 million in 2001, and 4.2 million in 1991.
The increase in access to prenatal sex determination technology followed by selective abortions has been named as the main reason behind the increase, according to a research by the Center for Global Health and Research published last year.
According to the research, the selective abortion of girls may account for 12 million missing girls over the past three decades.
While a boy adds to the family’s wealth in India, a girl becomes part of another family after marriage. She is considered Praya Dhan, meaning “someone else’s wealth” in Hindi.
In patriarchal Indian society, boys are those who carry forth the family lineage and are responsible for taking care of the parents in old age.
When a girl is born, along with her comes an excessive responsibility to protect her and through her the family honor, to marry her off to another household and to pay for her dowry.
While the whole community, particularly in rural areas, breaks out into celebrations when a boy is born, the birth of a girl is usually a hush-hush affair met with either sighs or frowns.
According to the research by the Center for Global Health and Research, son-preference varies little by education or income in India. But selective abortion of girls is more common in educated or richer households. Ultrasounds and abortion services can be expensive in India, particularly since using ultrasound for the sole purpose of determining the sex of a baby is illegal.
Prerna (pseudonym) from Bangalore, said, “My mother-in-law was sad when my second child born was also a girl. After that she kept on pressing us to take another chance to have a boy. She is kind to my little girls but she always longs for a grandson.”
Women who only have daughters not sons face a general curse and are blamed for not being able to provide an heir to the family lineage.
These days, in urban areas, as women are becoming more educated and economically independent, the pressure on them overall has declined, although the longing for a boy remains largely intact.
In rural and semi-rural communities, the pressure is greater, with many cases still being reported of women being abandoned by their husbands because they were not able to provide a male heir.
In these societies, a common dictum is still widely followed: “Dho he phul Khilain gey” (We will give birth to only two flowers). However, by two flowers, it doesn’t mean two girls. It means a boy and a girl, or if you are even luckier, two boys.
That’s why the selective abortions of girls are especially prone to happen in households where the firstborn is a girl.
Kusum (a pseudonym because she fears reprisals from her community), is a 53-year-old educated mother. Kusum recalls the social pressures she faced 15 years ago after giving birth to two daughters. “After I had my first child, a girl, we wanted a boy, but the second one was also a girl. Thus when I conceived my third child, I was internally facing lots of depression and anxiety over fear that the third one will also be a girl,” she said.
Facing the prospect of another girl raised thoughts in her mind of ending the pregnancy. “My conscience revolted and I decided that I would not abort the child. Luckily I had conceived a boy and the whole pressure eased off!”
But this was not the case for all women in Kusum’s large family. Her brother-in-law’s wife had already given birth to three girls and the whole clan was worried about how they would manage to pay for so many dowries.
Thus when the fourth child conceived was also a girl, the baby was aborted in her fourth month in a private clinic in another city to keep it a secret, Kusum said.
“Unfortunately the fifth child conceived was also a girl; in this case my brother-in-law’s wife asked for my help and we took her to a clinic in the city.”
Kusum’s voice suddenly deepens as she sighs and says, “When I saw the four month aborted fetus in the dustbin, I felt like crying somewhere from deep inside me. I told my accomplice we have done a sin. Luckily her sixth pregnancy was a boy and the vicious circle ended there.”