January 31, 2018 1:14:02 am
It is a grim truth universally acknowledged that Indian society, all too often, doesn’t want its girl children. It shows up in customs and rituals, in the deprivation of women and beliefs about their inferiority and the “burden” they impose. For many women, it is so self-evident as to be invisible. But data can make discrimination visible. So, how much do we love our daughters? The Economic Survey has a sobering answer. There are over 21 million “unwanted girls” in India, females between the age of 0 and 25 who were born because their parents wanted a son, but had a daughter instead, it says. This is the first such estimate of endemic discrimination resulting from a strong son preference, which the Survey refers to as “meta-preference”. While the falling sex ratio at birth has indicated the wide prevalence of sex-selective abortions of female foetuses, this figure was arrived at after an analysis of the sex ratio of the last child (SRLC) which is heavily male-skewed. That is to say, it reveals that Indian families do not stop having children after they have had a girl; they keep trying for a son till one is born.
In 1990, economist Amartya Sen had formulated the concept of “missing women”, females who had not been born because technology enabled foeticide at a mass scale. In India, that number was close to 40 million in 1990. In 2014, it stands at a shameful 63 million. This new estimate, which is based on the work of development economist Seema Jayachandran, offers a glimpse into the lives of those women who are not killed in the womb. What does this figure say about them? That, given a basket of limited resources in a family, a girl will always get less: From nutrition to education to opportunities. As the Survey notes, “Indian society — and this goes beyond governments to civil society, communities, and households — needs to reflect on the. ‘son preference’ where development is not proving to be an antidote.” The worst skew in the SRLC, for instance, is in Haryana and Punjab, some of the richest states in the country.
Nevertheless, the figure, a sobering quantification of the gender inequity in the country, is a welcome addition to the Survey. Putting a number to a malady is one way of highlighting its urgency. A finer diagnosis of a problem might urge governments to draft better policy and find more effective and innovative ways to short-circuit the flows of discrimination in Indian life.
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