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Mothers of India Cry for Joy to Learn It's a Boy

Sons are so prized that even well-educated women feel pressure to bear them. Prenatal testing, abortion and infanticide skew the ratio of males to females.

November 17, 2002|Tim Sullivan | Associated Press Writer

NEW DELHI — The sign stands outside a doctor's office in a leafy New Delhi neighborhood, a hand-painted warning that the law is upheld in this enclave of walled-off homes, imported cars and private clubs.

"Here prenatal sex determination [boy or girl before birth] is not done. It is a punishable act," the sign says in both English and Hindi.

The law, though, clearly has its loopholes.

"The Indian mentality is like this: You have to have a son," said one New Delhi woman from a wealthy industrial family.

After she gave birth to a daughter, her husband's family demanded that she have illegal sex-determination tests. When each of her next three pregnancies tested female, they demanded that she have abortions. In a nation where a woman's in-laws often wield enormous influence, she complied.

"They say I have to try and try" for a son, said the woman, who spoke on condition that she not be identified. "My mother-in-law -- full pressure; my father-in-law -- full pressure."

Across much of India, sons have long been preferred. They have more status, they don't require expensive wedding dowries, they can light their parents' funeral pyres. A married woman traditionally moves in with her husband's family.

"Raising a girl," an Indian adage says, "is like watering the neighbor's garden."

The preference for sons has led to such practices as killing female infants -- illegal for well over a century but still practiced in some parts of this nation of 1.05 billion people. And with the advent of sex-determination tests has come the aborting of female fetuses.

Activists and officials long believed that such practices were largely an issue among the poor and less educated, and would gradually be choked off by education, legislation and the spread of India's middle class.

But as that educated middle class has blossomed over the last two decades, and laws protecting girls have been strengthened, the numbers have grown worse.

And among the worst of all areas are those wealthy enclaves.

"We thought we'd create awareness through education," said Dr. Sharda Jain, a gynecologist with a well-heeled New Delhi clientele and a fierce opposition to sex-determination tests. "But what happens when the educated want to terminate their girl children?"

Six years ago, faced with the spread of inexpensive ultrasound technology and a parallel slide in the girl-boy ratio, India outlawed prenatal sex-determination tests.

At best, the effect has been minimal. In the 2001 census' count of children 6 or under, there were 927 girls for every 1,000 boys-- down from 945 girls in 1991 and 962 in 1981.

The statistics mean there are anywhere from 20 million to 40 million "missing" women in India -- the result of girls aborted or killed in infancy, according to census reports and activists.

The preference for boys, strong across most of Asia, has also led to a scarcity of women elsewhere, particularly in China, where the official one-child policy has dramatically magnified the pressure for male children and spawned trafficking in kidnapped women for brides.

In India's larger families, if the first-born is a daughter, she will normally be accepted. But the pressure for boys can build fiercely after that.

India's 2001 census found the widening of the sex ratio was sharpest in India's most economically developed states. In New Delhi, the capital, the ratio dropped from 945 girls per 1,000 boys in 1991 to 865 last year.

Near the bottom were some of the city's toniest neighborhoods.

"There has been a belief that urbanization and prosperity will somehow have a modernizing effect," said Satish Agnihotri, a Calcutta University professor who studies the demographics of what he and others call "feticide." The reality, though, is the opposite: "As prosperity goes up, the sex ratio seems to go down."

It is another example of the dichotomy that is modern India. Fifty-five years after independence from Britain, India has the world's largest middle class, estimated at 300 million people -- but nearly 250 million malnourished people.

It is a country with one of the world's leading software centers, the city of Bangalore -- but where 110 million homes have no toilets. It is a nation that decades ago elected a female prime minister, Indira Gandhi -- and where some women hold top posts in academia, business and government -- but where most women are still relegated to lives of quiet household desperation.

The reasons for the dismal gender statistics range from the economic to the cultural: pressure for small families, dowry demands that can run into thousands of dollars and, perhaps most important, a steep drop in the cost of ultrasound tests. Unlike prenatal amniocentesis exams, which can cost hundreds of dollars, a sex-determination ultrasound can cost less than $10, an abortion just $18.

That's a lot for India's poor, although still manageable for most. For the wealthy, it's less than a good restaurant dinner.

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