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April 17, 2003

Where did the brown chix go?


Missing sisters
Apr 17th 2003 | ROHTAK
From The Economist print edition

A shortage of girls will haunt India for decades

Will there be wives for them?

IN THE district of Rohtak, a fairly well-off town in northern India's farm belt, it is estimated that one in every six girls conceived is aborted. Modern ultrasound technology, coupled with a traditional preference for boys, has led to mass female foeticide. Progress does not help: rising prosperity, public-education campaigns and strict-looking laws have all failed to curb the practice. But the resulting dearth of females is already wreaking social damage, which can only worsen.

Demographers have long puzzled over India's skewed sex ratio. Throughout the 20th century, it grew ever more unbalanced, from 972 women for every 1,000 men in 1901, to 927 in 1991. Encouragingly, it then climbed to 933 in 2001. This, however, masked a sharp imbalance among children under the age of seven: from 945 girls per 1,000 boys in 1991, to 927 in 2001. Data on the sex ratio at birth are scanty, because many births are not registered. Figures must be gleaned from the ten-yearly censuses, and from local surveys.

These show wide regional disparities. In the south, especially in the state of Kerala, there are many more girls. But in 48 of India's 577 districts, the sex ratio among children is below 850. Of these, 34 are, like Rohtak, in Haryana or its neighbouring state, Punjab. In Rohtak there are 847 females for every 1,000 males, and just 796 girls for every 1,000 boys.

A strong preference for boys is common in agricultural societies. Boys inherit the family name and land, and provide an old-age insurance policy. Girls join their husbands' families, and need dowries. When mobile ultrasound units started touring rural Haryana in the late 1980s, their advertising pitch was, appallingly, “Pay 500 rupees now and save 50,000 later.”

Pramod Gouri, director of Search, a government-financed civic-education outfit in Rohtak, offers two explanations as to why Punjab and Haryana should be so egregiously prone to female foeticide: the region's social norms have proved remarkably immune to “modernity”; and the agricultural “green revolution” put enough money in local pockets to make sex-selection affordable. Abortion is far more prevalent among better-off, town-dwelling, higher-caste and literate women. Smaller families have, as in China, also further encouraged female abortion.

In 1994, sex tests were made illegal. But in Haryana only three cases have been filed: the law is hard to enforce, since ultrasound scans are now widespread. For doctors, there is good money—3,000-5,000 rupees ($60-100) a time—to be made from (illegal) abortions.

Already, the female shortage is making itself felt. Urmila, a district councillor in the countryside near Rohtak, says unmarried young men are turning to crime, and violence against women has increased. Some men in Haryana are buying “brides” (for between 10,000 and 20,000 rupees) from other parts of India, or Bangladesh. There are an estimated 15,000 such women. Many, though, are treated as slaves. Even their children are shunned.

Despite the shortage of brides, Urmila says that dowries have risen, not fallen. In Rohtak, a middle-class family will typically spend 600,000-800,000 rupees—several years' earnings. Touring her district, she finds people anxiously asking her if she knows of any marriageable girls. This, she hopes, may be the first sign of a change in attitudes. But it may be too late to avoid serious social trauma.

Posted by razib at 06:30 PM

When's the law of supply and demand going to catch up?

Posted by: justapolak at April 17, 2003 07:27 PM

All I can say is *sucked in* (just desserts) to all the backward, patriarchal shit-hole societies that practice gender selection at birth (e.g. China, India). Now they can all go to buggery (in a manner of speaking).

Posted by: Jason Soon at April 17, 2003 07:37 PM

"Abortion [including abortion done for sex selection?] is far more prevalent among better-off, town-dwelling, higher-caste and literate women."

Shame on these women and on their husbands: the social class having least "justification" for committing fœticide commits it most.

Does anyone know Hinduism's stance on sex-selection abortion? Does it condemn it? That Judæo-Christianity condemns it is reason for pride at being Judæo-Christian, those who are. (Unitarianism and modern liberal Episcopalianism, Presbyterianism, and Reform Judaism and their ilk are scarcely part of Judæo-Christianity.)

The term "fœticide" employed in the article entails recognition that something is being killed. (The clipping of fingernails isn't called "phanericide.")

"All I can say is *sucked in* (just desserts) to all the backward, patriarchal shit-hole societies that practice gender selection at birth (e.g. China, India). Now they can all go to buggery (in a manner of speaking)." -- Jason Soon

Jason, capricious abortion isn't "patriarchal." It's being rammed down throats by the sworn enemies of "The Patriarchy." You use the term "patriarchy" completely wrong here.

Posted by: Unadorned at April 17, 2003 09:56 PM

Unadorned - it's obvious that what's relevant is the fact that in these societies males are prized over females and gain more advantages, hence patriachy. The abortion is just a technology. If not for abortion, they would be leaving the female babies out to die.

Posted by: Jason Soon at April 17, 2003 11:36 PM

Unadorned, Hinduism has few universal canons, and there is really no such thing as Hindu Law that is applicable across the country. And as far as sex selection goes, short-sighted "pragmatism" is the norm. Boys today, worry about society tomorrow.

I remember this issue being brought up several months ago. http://www.palit.com/2002_12_01_tkl_archive.asp#90011372

Allowing a societal implosion in Punjab and Haryana might be the only solution. I don't think there is a chance in hell that either government intervention or NGO hectoring will work.

Posted by: Suman Palit at April 17, 2003 11:38 PM

"Unadorned, Hinduism has few universal canons, and there is really no such thing as Hindu Law that is applicable across the country. "

You know, I had a friend who was Hindu who told me with a straight face that Hinduism was the oldest surviving MONOTHEISTIC religion. He prescribed to the belief that Vishnu was the 'only' God and that all others were simply representations of Vishnu. I doubt most Hindus I know would really practice that, however. Speaking of which, most of the Hindus I've met have tended to be fairly non- religious once they come to the US. I am not sure Hinduism is as portable as Christianity or Islam.

Posted by: -R at April 18, 2003 12:39 AM

Maybe life in India will get easier for dark-skinned women.

Posted by: duende at April 18, 2003 07:18 AM

Speaking of basic economics (as justapolak was), why do people pay dowries? What do the parents of the girl get in exchange for the dowry?

How long before Haryana and Punjab flip, and parents start offering "bride-price" instead of dowries? (Even if "bride-price" is only train-fare from Kerala.)

Posted by: Anthony at April 18, 2003 08:54 AM

Anthony -
I would guess that dowries still get paid both as a way of trying to improve the prospects of the woman getting married, and because a failure to pay would result in a loss of social status (even if the woman still found someone). There are a lot of status-related financial obligations in India... dowry is just one of the bigger and more well-known ones.

Posted by: bbartlog at April 18, 2003 09:07 AM

In the long run this *might* have a number of positive side effect...

1) The dowry custom could break down as a result of the imbalance.
2) Population growth, being constrained by the number of women rather than the number of men, will be moderated.
3) If the men compete for the available women on the basis of some trait(s) that are useful or positive (and genetically mediated), the gene pool will improve more quickly if there is an oversupply of men.

Posted by: bbartlog at April 18, 2003 09:12 AM

So what about the evpsych thing about women being more inherently valuable or whatever it is? Explain this to me, ye Dawkinsites.

Posted by: Justin Slotman at April 18, 2003 09:19 AM

Is there a reason why female infanticide seems to be a uniquely North Indian phenomenon? Do the South Indians of Kerala and Tamil Nadu value female life more? Are the dark-skinned Dravidian heirs of the Indus Valley civilization more matriarchal?

This is the disaster that results when outmoded and archaic cultural values combine with modern (Western) medical technology.

Posted by: Sen at April 18, 2003 12:35 PM

I think the southerners are the most Christian (I know that's true in Kerala) and were never conquered by the Muslims, in my recollection.

something to think about.

Posted by: David at April 19, 2003 11:07 AM

Part of the reason that North Indians tend to abort their girls more than South Indians may be due to the history of invasion the North experienced. From the Greeks to the Afghans, the northern portion of the subcontinent experienced wave after wave of invasion. To attempt to repel such invasions, you need men to fight. Plus, with the notion of "honor" that seems particularly acute among Punjabis, a woman presents a tempting target for invading armies. During Partition, many Sikh women were murdered by their own families, lest they be 'dishonored' by Muslim mobs.

In the South, you did not see this one invasion after the next, so social systems could be geared towards growth, and well educated women clearly contribute to a regions growth. While North Indians tend to dominate the cultural and political landscape, the main economic growth areas are in the South. And South Indians tend to be disproportionately represented among IIT grads. India's president, Abdul Kalam, is himself a Tamil Muslim.

Posted by: KXB at April 19, 2003 08:12 PM

let me be frank about this-my indian ancestors were pussies next to my iranian & turkish ancestors. until the rise of shivaji-a maratha, from the deccan, not the gangetic plain-hindu kingship in the north existed as supplicants to muslim overlords. if there was selection for martial prowess-it was very weak obviously. the muslims acted as a military aristocracy in much of the north-not effecting the indigenous substrate but collecting rents.

the sikhs themselves became militarized rather late in history-it was during the twilight of the moghul empire that the non-muslim peoples of the north had their balls drop again and realized that the uncircumcized could win on the plains of battle.

even in the south only the VERY tip around madurai and cochin escaped muslim domination. aside from the empire of vijayanagar based around modern day andhara pradesh the south did not see much in the way of proactive hindu power-rather the deep south simply acted as a geographic reserve. but the high plains of the deccan were dominated by various muslim sultanates.

also, "northern" groups like marwaris (i believe from rajahstan), and the cultivator classes of gujarat are economically dynamic. do not neglect that.

now, i am curious about the % of brahmins in indian IT. i should ask shanti, i believe she is kshatriya in background....

Posted by: razib at April 19, 2003 09:09 PM

Late comment -- Kerala is 25% muslims as well. Liek Sri Lanka (and Indonesia), Islam in Kerala was brought over the oceans by Arabs, not by land by Turks/Mongols/Persians.

Posted by: ikram at April 24, 2003 02:07 PM

The sollution is an invasion of the west.
Male surplusses make societies more aggressive and warlike.
I believe making massive armies and hurling them on the weak western countries would reap rich rewards.
The other 'sane' solution is to have male selective family planning programmes, such child birth disincentives do not count female children.

Posted by: Timurlane at October 13, 2003 01:22 AM