India is one of only two countries in the world where the under-five mortality rate of girls is higher than that of boys, an analysis led by the Queen Mary University of London and published in the journal BMJ Global Health has found.
The study compared the under-five mortality rates of girls and boys in 195 countries and shows that only in India and Tonga are the mortality rates of girls higher than that of boys.
The under-five child mortality for girls is 40 deaths per 1,000 live births while the under-five mortality of the boys is 39 deaths per 1,000 live births. The report says: “In India, girls have lower odds than boys of receiving facility-based curative and preventive care and vaccinations and are simultaneously vulnerable to female infanticide and circumcision, resulting in socially rather than biologically-rooted, sex differences in infant and child mortality rates. Second, gender inequality may contribute to sex differences in infant and child mortality through its impact on mothers.”
Analysing the relation between gender inequality and child survival the world over, it adds: “Maternal undernutrition, exposure to violence and lack of access to education results in children who are more vulnerable to negative health outcomes through both biological and social mechanisms such as susceptibility to communicable and non-communicable diseases as well as decreased access to preventive health practice.”
“The increased impact on girls’ survival chances is again explained by the fact that mothers of daughters are valued less than mothers of sons and hence are more often exposed to the aforementioned risk factors due to the responsible cultural preferences.”
Though a UNICEF report earlier this year said that for the first time India’s share of under-five child mortality is proportionate to its share in the global birth cohort, the Queen Mary University analysis once again highlights the all-pervading nature of gender discrimination.
Lead researcher Dr Valentina Gallo from the Queen Mary University of London said: “The more unequal a society, the more girls are penalised in terms of their survival chances, particularly in lower-middle income countries. Gender inequality then perpetuates itself through the generations via these unfair odds of survival. Because of a sexist ideology which values boys over girls, young girls are often at greater risk of mortality through diminished access to health resources, as well as through heightened exposure to health risks.”
While female foeticide has contributed to a dismal sex ratio at birth, the fact that girls are less likely to make it past their fifth birthday in India despite being “stronger” is in line with several other similar findings. This year’s Economic Survey estimated that 21 million Indian girls are unwanted – parents wanted a boy but had a girl instead. Government data show that in sick newborn care units across the country, there is a 60:40 ratio of boys and girls admitted which means baby girls, even when there is a need, do not reach health facilities and are denied treatment.