Print edition : March 10, 2006

Continuing decline in the child sex ratio is not restricted to India; it is in fact a global phenomenon.

THE Census of India's provisional results caused alarm when it were released in 2001 as they showed a continuing trend in the serious imbalance in the child sex ratio (CSR) against girls. But the CSR decline in India and most of South Asia is not an isolated "cultural" phenomenon related solely to son preference. It has been prevalent the world over, including in developed countries.

Data on declining CSRs in the developed world have been published in the "World Population Prospects: The 2002 Revision, Volume II, Sex and Age Distribution of Population, United Nations, New York, 2003 (U.N. Secretariat, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division)". The period under study covers the 50 years from 1950 to 2000. If there was a culture of silence and denial in the Third World, then it was very much there in the First World too, where the technologies for sex selection originated and the notion of individual choice got vulgarised to unimaginable extents. The data were processed by Savitri Ray, a senior research associate at the Centre for Women's Development Studies (CWDS).

The average CSR (0-4 age group) in the developed regions comprising Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand and Japan showed a steady decline in the 50-year period - from 957 female children (per 1,000 male children) in 1950 to 949 in 2000. In contrast, the CSR for this age group in the least developed countries (49 in all - 34 in Africa, nine in Asia, one in Latin America and the Caribbean and five in Oceania) stood at 998 in 1950, much higher than that in the developed bloc, and in 2000 it was 976.

Similarly, the CSR for the 5-9 age group was 1,002 girl children in 1950 and 977 in 2000. Though the decline is sharp, the figure remains much higher than the corresponding figure for this age group in the more developed regions. Even in South-East Asia, where in 1950 the CSR stood at 1,003, the figure came down to 963 in 2000, and the reasons for the decline were not entirely cultural. If they were so, then in the absence of sex-selection technology, female children would still have been eliminated by mass foeticide. As in Africa, the CSR decline in Islamic countries between 1950 and 2000 was not prominent. In fact, Afghanistan showed a marginal improvement. And Iraq, reeling under the weight of U.N. sanctions, showed a dramatic improvement in the survival of the girl child in the 0-4 age group. In 2000, its CSR stood at 964, higher than the world average of 948.

An Iraqi girl arrives with her mother to take part in the Ashura religious ceremony in Karbala, south of Baghdad. Iraq, despite the U.N. sanctions, showed a dramatic improvement in the survival rate of girl children in the 0-4 age group.-AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP

Vina Mazumdar, former Chairperson of the CWDS, avers that the political and social legitimacy of the population debate needs to be questioned. More so because developing countries are always accused of adding to the global demographic figures and of eating away the resources and thereby becoming the target of aggressive population control policies. She also says that it was the Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India, 1974, that came out with the initial assessment of the state of women; their marginalisation and their neglect by the state. In parts of Asia, and more particularly South Asia, such efforts continued.

In fact, Razia Ismail Abbasi, co-convener of the India Alliance for Child Rights, feels that perhaps events like the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), held in Cairo, with emphasis on the position that the "poor should curb their numbers while the rich feast on global resources", put all women and girls in the framework of reproductive functions and reproductive health rights and ended up doing a great disservice to the poor and their children - especially their daughters.

The technology for sex selection appeared around the same time - the 1980s - as the hysteria over the ticking "population bomb" reached its peak the world over. In fact, Razia says that a critical aim of the Non-Aligned Movement's effort at the start of the ICPD was to insist on balancing the issues of population and development. In 1994-95, African women's organisations met at Dakar and called attention to the girl child but the developed bloc remained largely silent on the issue.

Of late, the declining CSR in India seems to have caught the attention of the media abroad, which highlight the strong "son preference" in the population as a whole, while the fact borne by Census figures is that there is no such "cultural" consensus or homogeneity on this issue across the country. Satish Agnihotri's "Sex Ratio Patterns in the Indian Population: A Fresh Exploration", based on Census 1981 and 1991, illustrates this amply when he points out the near absence of discrimination against female children among the Scheduled Tribe populations. In 2001, the office of the Registrar-General of India observed: "It is clear that the origins of the decline in the Child Sex Ratio lie in the urban centres where the accessibility to modern technology is relatively easy. Its [mis] use is possibly exacerbated by the slightly better economic conditions and the desire of the urban couple to restrict its family size."

Interestingly, it was only the seven South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) member-countries that declared the period between 1991 and 2000 as the Decade of the Girl Child in order to confront discrimination against girls. The impetus came from women in the developing countries who had noticed the crisis facing the girl child. Meanwhile, all through the 1990s, technologies of sex selection, including pre-implantation genetic diagnosis or PGD, were relentlessly pushed despite their consequences. Its impact was felt even in the First World.

A woman goes to work carrying her female child at a village near Kancheepuram in Tamil Nadu. Typically, the girl child is portrayed as the poverty-stricken child labourer and child bride in India.-A. MURALITHARAN

Marcy Darnovsky, writing in Genewatch, an American magazine dedicated to monitoring biotechnology's social, ethical and environmental consequences, says in her article "Revisiting Sex Selection" that in recent years PGD has begun to be used to screen for more and more genetic attributes - late-onset conditions, tissue types suitable for matching those of a future child's sick sibling, and sex. The international human rights discourse surrounding the girl child, write Yasmin Jiwani and Helene Berman in their research paper focussing on violence and the Canadian girl child ("Violence Prevention and the Girl Child: Phase Two Report"), is underpinned by a universal and stereotypical construction that presents her as a victim of backward, oppressive and highly patriarchal cultures.

Typically, the girl child is portrayed as the desperate and reluctant victim of female genital mutilation in Africa; the poverty-stricken child labourer and child bride in India; the child prostitute in Thailand; the undeserving victim of honour killing in West Asia; the illiterate, uneducated, exploited and uncared for girl child in Latin America; or the unwanted girl child in China. More recently, they say, the girl child has entered the popular Western imagination in the form of the fleeing, illegal refugee who is in need of protection on the one hand and who signifies the barbarism of her country of origin on the other. All of these images are typically displayed prominently in the fund-raising initiatives of international aid organisations and in the mass media. The unstated premise is that atrocities inflicted upon girls occur elsewhere - in backward nations outside the realm of the "civilised" West.

Studies have been conducted, albeit in a limited way, on gender preferences in modern Western societies. One of them, a paper entitled "Gender Preferences for Children in Europe: Empirical Results from 17 FFS Countries"; written by Karsten Hank and Hans-Peter Kohler for Demographic Research, a journal published by the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Germany, argues that there seems to be a consistent tendency to have at least one child of each sex.

But when people are asked for the preferred sex of their first child, or if they have chosen an unbalanced number of children, there is some indication of a pre-dominance of sons over daughters.

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