'Gendercide' in India
Indian mother Bhuri Kalbi (C) looks at her daughter assisted by a nurse as paediatrician and neonatologist, doctor Gautam Jain examines the baby girl in the Neo-natal Intensive Care Unit of Rajasthan Hospitals in Ahmedabad on February 28, 2008.
August 16th, 2011
01:29 PM ET

'Gendercide' in India

Editor's Note: Rakesh Mani is a former investment banker and Teach for India Fellow. For more from Mani, visit Project Syndicate's website, or check it out on Facebook and Twitter.

By Rakesh Mani, Project Syndicate

NEW DELHI – Ernest Hemingway’s collection of stories, Men without Women, examines tense gender relationships. In a particularly poignant story, a young man convinces his partner to have an abortion, viewing their unborn child as a hindrance to the status quo. Frustrated, the woman gives in.

That story, published more than 80 years ago, remains relevant today in India, where female fetuses face severe risks. According to the 2011 census, the sex ratio of the country’s children has dipped from 927 females per 1000 males to 914, a 60-year low. Ratios in the northern states are particularly alarming: only Himachal Pradesh now has a ratio of girls to boys above 900.

Despite being illegal, ultrasound sex-determination tests are being used across India to identify for abortion extraordinary numbers of healthy female fetuses. But there are serious concerns about legal operations, too. Genitoplasty – a sex-change operation on newborn girls – is a mushrooming, and deeply disturbing, business in India.

There’s only one word for it: gendercide. Left unchecked, it will leave India’s next generation of men with a severe shortage of women.

Indian couples have a strong cultural preference, bordering on obsession, for sons over daughters – despite the strides in education and employment that women have made over the last few decades. Education and wealth have nothing to do with it – in fact, some of the worst-affected areas are in India’s wealthiest cities. However discomfiting a possibility, the real culprit might be Indian culture and tradition itself.

The expenses and pressure of the dowry system, and the fact that, in most joint families, only sons inherit property and wealth, contribute to this favoritism. Perhaps just as important is that sons typically live with their parents even after they are married, and assume responsibility for parents in their old age. Daughters, who live with their in-laws after they marry, are viewed as amanat – someone else’s property. In short, sons represent income and daughters an expense.

In the old days, when families typically had 5-10 children, this didn’t matter so much. The number of sons and daughters often evened out. But, for today’s smaller families, whether the children are two boys or two girls influences everything from financial planning to preparations for old age.

Many have argued that Indian women should stand up to their families and refuse to abort their daughters. But Indian women want male children just as much. Unlike Hemingway’s character, they are often more than willing to abort a girl and try for a boy. The novelist Salman Rushdie once put the question to supporters of abortion rights: “What should be done when a woman uses her power over her own body to discriminate against female fetuses?”

This raises other questions concerning the consequences of a large shortage of girls. Will women be valued and treasured? Or will the oversupply of men result in more bride trafficking, sexual violence, and female suicides?

Niall Ferguson, the British historian, cites scholars who attribute Japan’s imperial expansion after 1914 to a male youth bulge, and who link the rise of Islamist extremism to an Islamic youth bulge. “Maybe the coming generation of Asian men without women will find harmless outlets for their inevitable frustrations, like team sports or video games. But I doubt it,” he writes. He warns us not to be surprised if, in the coming generation, “shrill nationalism is replaced by macho militarism or even imperialism.”

Unfortunately, there is no instant solution. Saving our girls will require radically altering some of Indian society’s family arrangements, traditions, and attitudes. And there is no easy way to accomplish this. Legislation alone won’t help, for tradition is a law unto itself. Hindu religious law, for example, allows a woman to claim an equal share in her parents’ wealth, but few exercise this right. Culturally, she feels that she does not have an equal claim on her father’s property.

Nonetheless, India does need new laws – direct and enforceable – that clamp down on the cultural practices that underpin destructive traditions. For example, India could enforce a ceiling on wedding expenditure – typically a father’s biggest expense associated with his daughter. Constrained from spending on the wedding, he would compensate her differently – perhaps with a larger inheritance. Gradually, this would become the norm, and tradition would adjust accordingly. (Interestingly, the state of Kerala, whose people adhere to matrilineal inheritance, has among the most equal sex ratios and literacy rates in India.)

A more radical measure, which some have advocated, would be direction intervene, with the state providing benefits for families with more girls. Perhaps the authorities could also penalize families with boys, at least temporarily.

India imagines herself as a woman – Bharat Mata, or Mother India. The irony is that, unless far-reaching changes are made soon, Mother India could eventually be the only woman left in the country.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Rakesh Mani. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.

soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. RM

    Gendercide is absolutely unacceptable. India is living in the medieval ages as far as cultural values are concerned and USA and European nations are keeping silent....which is deafening. A strong message needs to be sent to India in a language that they understand.....either change or USA will stop all nuclear handouts....cease issuing all types of visas to Indians......stop all military aid....ban all outsourcing by western companies to India etc.

    August 16, 2011 at 8:17 pm | Reply
    • voice of reason

      You, and many others are rightly shocked and say "Gendercide is unacceptable" and "India is living in the medieval ages" and I agree. But what does that say about America and the West?
      Why suggeset strong punitive action against India? America is responsible for a huge percentage of the 60+ Million abortions world wide [and that DOESN'T include China and Russia]

      Gendercide = termination= freedom of choice = abortion. Those names are the so called 'acceptable' face of murder.
      These comments are not directed at you. They are intende to promote the discussion. Your point is great.

      August 17, 2011 at 5:12 pm | Reply
    • kir

      Gender bias is unfortunately a really big problem in many states and cities in India, this however, does not mean it is a problem in EVERY city/state in India. Also you say to send them a message in a language they would understand, there are 100's of languages and religions. Before demeaning the entire India and all their cultures and religions, maybe you should educate yourself a little more.

      January 15, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Reply
  2. Name*Gcb

    Do not blame the Indian woman for what the culture forces upon her . She was brain washed from childhood to believe in her genders inferior status. Only when the educated begin to question the reprehensible practices of their traditional value system and delete them from their every day lives will the Indian woman find equality.

    August 16, 2011 at 10:41 pm | Reply
    • Josh

      I agree, and well said!

      August 17, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Reply
  3. j. von hettlingen

    Not all Indian families share these feudal thoughts, or else Indira Gandhi wouldn't have been around! Let's hope that India doesn't miss the path to modernity.

    August 17, 2011 at 5:25 am | Reply
  4. manolosculo

    In a culture where parents maim their own children to make them more proficient beggars does this come as a surprise to anyone in the world?

    August 17, 2011 at 12:57 pm | Reply
    • Semper Fidelis

      How can we judge India when our so called 'civilized 'societies have 60+ Million abortions under our belts; and that's without Russia and China!

      As for maiming their children – look up the details of 8 common methods of abortion [including 'partial birth' abortions that take place right up to the moment of birth at 9 months.

      Gendercide and termination sound so much more civilized than murder.

      August 17, 2011 at 5:20 pm | Reply
  5. Sandy Krawitz

    Putting a cap on how much a wedding costs in India would be ineffective. Dowries in India have been illegal since 1961, yet dowries are more common today in some states, such as Kerala, then they were when the law was passed. This is a prime reason why over 50 million women and girls have been killed in India.

    Instead, Mother India must begin celebrating its beautiful daughters for the gifts they are: through education, the media, and the words of spiritual leaders. In addition, people must be linked with existing programs that financially help families to keep their daughters. It goes without saying, during these days of Anna Hazare's protests, that such programs must be kept free from corruption and graft so that lives are saved instead of the wrong pockets stuffed.

    Sandy Krawitz
    Society for the Protection of the Girl Child

    August 17, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Reply
    • Semper Fidelis

      You are right Mother India should be celebrating both genders as the gifts you rightly call them. Al our children are our treasures of today and our hope for tomorrow.

      With more than 60 Million abortions in the West [this doesn't include India, China or Russia] it would be wonderful if everyone looked on a baby as you do. Thank God Poland is banning abortion, Some States in America have done the same. Even Russia has banned misleading adverts concerning the side effects for women.
      I wish you well in your work. Bless you.

      August 17, 2011 at 5:31 pm | Reply
  6. markjuliansmith

    Foundation Text=Ethics=Ideas=Motivation=Action For and Against Other.

    Identify and change the Foundation Text or Change Nothing – In this case also note the following:

    The greater the relative independence of citizens within any societal construct the greater the reduction of violence projected internally and externally required to maintain the societal structure.

    It would appear to me maintaining genocide against half the population is not going to lead to harmony but as in China will lead to increased violence internal and external.

    August 18, 2011 at 2:04 am | Reply
  7. Joseph Padamadan

    "Interestingly, the state of Kerala, whose people adhere to matrilineal inheritance...."
    WOW !!!
    It was 200 years ago and practiced only among Nair community in Kerala. Ignorance has its dance!

    May 31, 2012 at 6:58 am | Reply
  8. Debop Yassoa

    Sweet web site, super design and style, really clean and utilize genial.

    July 4, 2012 at 8:57 am | Reply

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