There is a lot of discussion on pre- birth sex selection with media reporting that no girl child has been born in the last three months in 133 villages of Uttarakhand. But only this time, the hype may be misplaced, while there is a definite cause for concern when we look at the big picture. Firstly, while nature balances the male-female ratios, it happens over a period of time, so basing our judgements on a three month data could be erroneous. Secondly, the number of births is very small- 216 births in 133 villages, on an average less than two births per village. With such small number of births, it is quite possible that the births may be skewed in favor of a particular sex in a few villages. Thirdly, the media reports do not mention that in 128 villages 180 children were born and all were girls. No boys were born. This reminds me of a family joke when there were many expected deliveries in a particular period. We used to say “Hey, it is a girl child season. Let’s prepare for one”. The point is sex ratio calculates the number of girls per 1000 boys either at the time of birth or in the age group of 0-6. This requires a sufficient number of births as a denominator and a long time span to get a clear idea of the trends in sex ratio.

Firstly, while nature balances the male-female ratios, it happens over a period of time, so basing our judgements on a three month data could be erroneous.

The small number or no births of girls in these villages could be seen as a problem, if there is an established pre- birth sex determination racket in the area. The needle of suspicion could then point towards wilful elimination of girls if most of those births are of women with only daughters. Yet, we cannot assume that every woman with two male female daughters having a son has indulged in sex selection or every abortion is a sex selective abortion. The administration should desist from any kind of tracking or punitive action against women and instead focus on regulating the diagnostic clinics and ensuring effective implementation of the Pre-Conception and Pre- Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act.

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Having said that, it is important to note that Uttarakhand has been reporting low child sex ratios and has been going through major social and demographic transition. Across the country, while economic development and improvements in women’s education have led to declining fertility rates, they are also directly correlated with falling sex ratios. While the poor and less educated families achieve the desired number of sons by producing more children, the educated and financially secure families want less number of children but they too want a son in the family. Increased availability, in spite of the legal barriers, and affordability of sex- determination techniques is fuelling the deep rooted son preference among the economically well to do sections of the society. This is borne out by the fact that the worst sex ratios in the country are found in Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Gujarat and Maharashtra- the most progressive states. In Maharashtra, the prosperous sugar belt has much worse sex ratios than the tribal districts.

Increased availability, in spite of the legal barriers, and affordability of sex- determination techniques is fuelling the deep rooted son preference among the economically well to do sections of the society.

Uttarakhand has been reckoned as one of the fastest growing states in the country with its economy registering a growth rate of around 7 per cent in 2016-17 (Human Development Report: Govt of Uttarakhand). It has also shown tremendous improvement in its Human Development Index (HDI) ranking. A study of HDIs of the Indian states by Suryanarayana and Agrawal (2013) finds the HDI for Uttarakhand as 0.531 (rank 12). According to the study, the HDI for Uttarakhand ranks above the all India average of 0.504.

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The fertility rates have declined sharply in Uttarakhand at the same time, as expected. The Total Fertility Rate is 2.1 which is the replacement level fertility, that is each couple has on an average two children, thus replacing themselves.

Yet, it shows deep rooted patriarchal mindsets when it comes to son preference. The population-level sex ratio is 1031 (much above the national level figure of 943 ) which is more a reflection of out-migration of men in search of jobs than a gender equal demographic distribution. This is borne by the fact that the sex ratio at birth in the last five years is a shocking 821 girls per 1000 boys indicating definite practice of pre-birth sex selection.

The administration should desist from any kind of tracking or punitive action against women and instead focus on regulating the diagnostic clinics and ensuring effective implementation of the Pre-Conception and Pre- Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act.

Thus, the desire for small families does not seem to be reducing the desire for sons. An interesting insight is provided by NFHS 4 report for Uttarakhand which shows that among women with two children, 90 percent with two sons and 88 percent with one son want no more children, compared with only 44 percent with two daughters who want no more children.

The issue of falling sex ratios is likely to be much pronounced in states with swift demographic and economic transformations as there may not be as swift a change in the patriarchal mindsets and socio-cultural values.

Therefore, there is a need to address the gender issues, particularly increasing the value of women by enhancing their political participation and increasing their value in society by giving them access to employment, income and property. Creating a socio-cultural context that helps them exercise their choice and agency may help reverse the trends, while in the short term, ensuring that the laws such as PCPNDT act are implemented effectively would play a big role in curbing the practice of pre-birth sex selection.

Picture credit: VistaNews.ru

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Dr A L Sharada is the Director of Population First. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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