Unwanted Girls

Give a girl an education and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well, without further expense to anybody. ”  (Jane Austen)

The title of this post is neither surprising nor new. It is a repetitive old story, only, that in modern time, it has assumed an uglier face. I recently attended an Economics seminar titled “Bare Branches and Drifting Kites: Tackling Infanticide and Feticide in India”  by  Arjun Bedi – Professor of Development Economics at the Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague, The Netherlands. As the title suggests, the paper explored the various ways in which female infanticide is being tackled in India. I have written some posts along the same lines previously. But today, the post attempts to explore the issue in-depth in order to understand the mechanics behind this ugly phenomenon. The rationale of exploration is simple: To an educated individual (a girl!) like myself, the paper presented shocking and horrific facts.

Female infanticide is not new. Its’ existence dates back to ancient times and the practice continues to this day.The issue continues to plague the developing countries. The phenomenon is highly controversial from the ethics, human rights and moral grounds. But what has further complicated the scenario is the modern technology. The cheap and easy access to ultrasounds that identify the sex of the fetus had led to sex-selective abortion resulting in the “missing girls”.   If you ever thought being a woman or a girl in this world is difficult, you will thank the stars that today you are alive, for a million girls were killed in the wombs even before they were born.

Being a woman in today’s world means fulfilling various roles and responsibilities. From nurturing to raising and contributing positively to the nation as a whole , a woman assumes multiple roles to accomplish various objectives and norms imposed on her either by the society, or, culture, or, simply by the virtue of being the opposite sex. Failure to do so results in criticisms and taunts, with the final game ending with a common mantra  ‘its’ women’s fault”  I have observed such statements various time back home, in my family gatherings and community, where woman is blamed for every single evil in the world.

The perception is further strengthened by the strong culture preference for boys than girls . In developing countries, men are not only seen as the breadwinners of the family, but also, the bearers of the bloodline, the only ones who carry the family name forward. Thus, a family’s lineage survival highly depends on boys. A girl is viewed as a burden for one has to pay dowry for marriage and since she goes to someone else’s house, hence the connection to the family name is broken. In the quest of having a son, The Economist in 2010 reported that in India, 100 million girls or more have disappeared and the number is continuing to rise. The article claimed that gendercide will affect India’s economic growth in the future.

However, India is not the only country where female infanticide and feticide is common. The trend is observable in countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, Nepal, Vietnam and has recently spread to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In China, the one-child policy has strictly gone against the girls. Combining with the culture preference, in China alone, it is the estimated that the imbalances are reaching a critical point where most Chinese men would be unable to find wives and could turn violent. Violence, frustration could lead to social chaos, ultimately, threatening the economic growth China has witnessed over the years. In one paper, ‘Hudson and Den Beor (2004) predict that by the year 2020, 12-15 percent of the young adult male population in China and India will not find brides leading to higher crime rates, diminishing prospects of democracy, stability and peace’.  Higher crime rates with women victims are on the increase in the developing world. ‘In Haryana, India, shortage of women has led to marriage migration, abduction, polyandry (one woman married to several men) and kidnapping of girls’ (Bedi 2009).

A horrifying fact is that in India, it is the wealthier parts of the nation where female infanticide is common. Worse, ‘as a mother’s education level increases, the sex ratio worsens until graduate level” (Bedi 2009). Thus, privilege and wealth are the main cause of sex selective abortions and female infanticide. One report of New York Times quotes an author that  “a male offspring brings a higher social status”. This reasoning makes one ask: has education taught these women nothing at all?!  How could an educated woman agree to abort a female fetus? How could an educated woman agree to kill a life in her own womb?! Is it that despite education, such women lack authority and the decision-making power to take such decisions? Is the pressure from the family or the society to such an extent that an educated woman is forced to bow down to the norms? What are the underlying mechanisms that the educated women take such steps?!! In India, it is claimed that ‘sex selection began in the urban, well-educated stratum of the society, before spreading down the income ladder’ (NY Times 2011). So really before blaming the poor for neglecting their daughters and not fulfilling their responsibilities, one has to first point the finger at the so-called well off, well-educated members of the society who openly discriminate against the baby girls. Instead, it is the low status families who opt for more girls than boys.

One of the  arguments in favour of female infanticide is that  low supply of girls will lead to a lower demand of dowry. Hence, shortage of women works in their own favor. However, that is not the case. It seems that the market for dowry is sticky (is rigid and doesn’t move much) and hence lower number of women has had no impact on lowering dowry at all.

However, all is not doom. Tamil Nadu – one of the states in India implemented programs and policies to combat female infanticide. The government of Tamil Nadu along with NGOs implemented schemes like Cradle Baby schemes in order to save the baby girls and to correct the imbalance created by the feticide. A Girl’s Child Protection Scheme is that as girls are viewed as an economic burden, to enhance their economic values the government provides financial support to families to raise girls. This was particularly targeted on families below the poverty line. The scheme has effectively worked in increasing the sex ratio at birth.

Daughter deficit – the gap between the number of expected daughters and the number of daughters born or alive in a certain age group – declined in the heavily treated districts (whereby the policies were implemented strictly like ‘on the face’ approach). The approach indicated the importance of large-scale interventions motivated by political and administrative zeal can reverse the impact of female infanticide. Thus, the results clearly show that if political will exists, the issue is amenable by public policies.

The issue of sex selective abortion and daughter deficit from the economic point of view is critical. Human capital is one of the critical requirements for economic growth. The term ‘human capital’ is not confined to males alone. It encompasses human which means both men and women. In today’s globalized world, where women’s contribution through work is critical, having less women means having less labor supply in the future, which could effectively derail an economy from its growth and development path. Without women, economic development is hard to obtain since a woman’s main contribution comes in the form of mother who raises a generation from the beginning and nurtures it so that there is positive contribution to the society. Without a woman, a society will simply shatter for the values, ethics and morals are all aspects that a woman passes on to her children.

The research in turn lead to  a number of questions requiring attention such as:

Boys marrying girls from other regions or backgrounds, what is their preference in terms children? Do they have a strong preference for  girls or boys?

What are the prospects of match making under such a scenario? Do educated women get well-educated husbands? Is there more choice for women than men?

While I attended this seminar, I am currently reading the book “The Secret Daughter” by Shilpi Somaya Gowda whose story is along the same lines of the paper. The story looks from the eyes of three characters whose lives are interconnected in different ways. The story line will be discussed in the Women’s Book Club in which I will be participating for the first time. It would be interesting to hear the views and thoughts of women and girls from different backgrounds on the topic that is a harsh reality for many.

While the questions are thought, and debated, while the story is read and shared, it cannot be denied that a girl is also a human being, who when grows up becomes a part of community, society and nation and contributes to the economy in a million ways. The real question that stands in front of us is:

Will the era of unwanted girls ever end?


“What would men be without women? Scarce, sir…mighty scarce.” (Mark Twain )


Bedi, Arjun and Srinivasan , Sharda (2009) “Bare Branches and Drifiting Kites: Tackling Female Infanticide and Feticide in India”

The Economist (March 2010) ” The war on baby girls: Genedercide”

The Economist (May 2011) “One dishonorable step backwards”

The New York Times (June 2011) ” 160 Million and Counting”