MSc Development Studies alumna, Divyakshi Jain, explains why the recent trend in India’s female to male ratio may be portraying a partial and superficial picture of female discrimination. 

The data from Census of India in 2011 garnered much attention and was considered a sigh of relief as the sex ratio in India had improved from 933 women per 1000 men in 2001 to 940 women per 1000 men. This was also an important event as it marked a reversal of sex ratio trends in India. Yet, this reversal is illusive and portrays just the tip of the iceberg. While the current sex ratio trends indicate towards a future with reduction in missing women, yet they provide a partial and superficial picture.

To have a complete view of the worsening condition of the females and value attached to them, one must focus attention on the child sex ratio and the trends in child sex ratio at sub national levels.

Child sex ratio

The Indian Census of 2011 brought to forth the falling child sex ratio that fell from 927 to 919 female children per 1000 male children. Child sex ratio in India is often described as sex ratio of children under six years of age.  In the normal demographic behavior of the population, the child sex ratio in this age group would be balanced or would slightly favour female offspring. The manipulation in sex ratio can be done through various interventions including infanticide, feticide, amniocentesis and intentional neglect.  While these practices have been known to be practiced in India, yet the latest census data points towards a spread in their employment as well as an increased desire on parts of the parents/family to restrict the number of daughters.

Sub national situation

The aggregate Indian figures indicate towards a looming crisis, yet a sub national examination brings forth the true magnitude of the problem. The Northern, and North Western part of India, form the core zone of female discrimination, and are the main contributors of low child sex ratio in the country. Haryana and Punjab have child sex ratio as low as 834 and 846 girls per 1000 boys. The Southern India, as well as the regions with large tribal population including North East Indian states, maintain a child sex ratio higher than the national average.  But what is worrisome is the fall in child sex ratio in these states. An erstwhile North South divide seems to be diminishing, with a possible south India turnaround, as these states are starting to imitate a trajectory being followed by Northern and North Western States. Similarly, the diverse social groups, including the tribal and the scheduled caste population, who earlier had a near normal sex ratio, seem to be imitating the patterns of the major religion pattern, and have been witnessing a deteriorating sex ratio for its females.

While states like Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, in their aggregate under six age brackets have witnessed a slight increase in the sex ratio from 2001, but if one considers the sex ratio at birth, for these states, or neo natal sex ratio, it has worsened. On the other hand, the states leading the list for their detrimental sex ratio performance, have witnessed a slight improvement in their child sex ratios as well as sex ratios at birth. But this should not be taken as a proof of normalization of sex ratios in these states. It has to be considered in conjugation with the prevalent fertility behaviours as well as the cultural patterns and norms. Amongst a large section of Indian, Hindus in particular, having one daughter is desirable. But as evidenced through NFHS surveys and various research works undertaken in the field, any daughter beyond one is highly undesirable, and there are hardly any couples/families wanting to have more daughters than son. This situation, can be seen as normalization of sex ratios, if these states maintain to have total fertility rates of 2 or more, but if the fertility falls further, the desire to have more or at least one son, would force these parents to undergo increased daughter discrimination

The concern and future

  • The major concerns that the data for 2011 census put to forth are related to the future of demographic behavior in the country, and impact on the social position of the females as well as the security of females in the society.
  • The increased adoption of ideas, practices and cultural ethos of a particular region, throughout the nation and within different communities, would accentuate the problem of female survival, safety, security and gender equality.
  • As forced by exogenous impetus, the fertility rate continues to fall throughout the nation; it is imperative for the government and planning agencies to institute policies and drives to reduce the prevalent son bias in the society. The trajectory of many east Asian countries could form a good historical tool of analysis.
  • Any family planning or population control policy in India has to keep the prevalent gender bias as a key point under consideration, in order to prevent India from having a trajectory like that of China. Wherein, the coercive family planning led to gigantic surge in missing daughters of China.
  • Forming policies, focusing education or basic entitlements or economic aid for females is not sufficient. Social policy has to play a key role that aims towards bringing about an alteration in the attitudes towards girl child. This could not be fulfilled without coopting the various socio- cultural stakeholders in the society.

The road ahead for gender equality and rights in India appears to be full of hurdles. The solution to the many problems lies in bringing about an alteration with the perceived and socio-culturally determined values of girls. These practices and behaviours have developed over a complex history with multiple exogenous factors. Hence, the solution lies in a holistic approach that does not limit itself to provision of benefits and services, but is also constitutive of social change. There is no magic bullet that can provide a solution. The solution lies at multiple levels and within multiple arenas of socio-political life of the residents of the nation.

Divyakshi Jain was part of the LSE MSc Development Studies cohort of 2017-18. With a previous experience of working in NGOS for gender and child rights, she focuses on the provision of basic entitlement with a focus on India. She likes to engage specifically with issues pertaining to gender, marginalised communities and contemporary political and policy landscape of India with a socio-cultural lens.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.