31/01/2018 2:47 AM IST

India's 'Unwanted' Girls Number In The Millions, New Report Finds

Widespread preference for sons drives families to keep having babies until a male child is born.

Saumya Khandelwal / Reuters
A little girl wrapped in a shawl waits along with her mother at a railway station in New Delhi, India, on the cold winter morning of Jan. 3, 2018.

Indian families’ traditional preference for sons over daughters has led to the existence of millions of “unwanted” girls in the country, a new government report estimates.

Many parents eager for boys continue to have children until the desired number of sons are born, according to a report released Monday as part of the finance ministry’s annual economic survey. A lot of daughters are born during this process, too. The report estimates that these “unwanted” girls number more than 21 million. As they grow up, they often receive poorer nourishment and less schooling than their brothers.

Despite those “unwanted” girls, India’s male-to-female sex ratio at birth still tilts significantly in favor of males. And it hasn’t improved even as incomes rise. The skewed ratio crosses socioeconomic classes. Even families in wealthier Indian states show a preference for having sons. 

“The challenge of gender is long-standing, probably going back millennia, so all stakeholders are collectively responsible for its resolution,” the report’s authors write. “India must confront the societal preference ... which appears inoculated to development.” 

Cathal McNaughton / Reuters
A young girl sells balloons by the Yamuna River on the last day of the Ganesh Chaturthi festival in Delhi, India, on Sept. 15, 2016.

For India as a whole, the sex ratio at birth is about 1,108 males per 1,000 females, the report states. In two higher-income states, Punjab and Haryana, the sex ratio for those between infancy and 6 years of age is even worse: 1,200 males per 1,000 females. The natural sex ratio at birth is about 1.05 males for every female, according to the report.

How has the male-to-female ratio been skewed in India? Tests to determine the sex of a fetus are illegal in India, but families still test and then procure sex-selective abortions. The authors estimate these abortions, in conjunction with the country’s higher mortality rates for female children, have led to a gender gap of about 63 million women, whom they classify as “missing.”

And yet the researchers also found that India had improved on several indicators of gender equality, including women’s education and women’s power to make decisions in their households. 

“In some sense, once born, the lives of women are improving but society still appears to want fewer of them to be born,” the authors write.

Mukesh Gupta / Reuters
A school girl gets her face painted in the colors of India's national flag before taking part in the country's Republic Day celebrations in Jammu on Jan. 25, 2018.

The report suggests several possible reasons for India’s preference for sons. Male offspring perform important religious rituals for their parents. Property is often passed down within the male line, while women are traditionally expected to move in with their husbands’ families, taking their labor with them.

Sending a young woman to her new husband with a dowry has been illegal in India for decades, but many families still practice this custom. This means the birth of girls represents an extra financial burden for their parents.

The authors of the report urge Indian society as a whole to reflect on this cultural preference for sons ― especially with the growing evidence that when women acquire greater personal agency and participate equally in the labor force, it can boost the economy of an entire country.

“The intrinsic values of gender equality are uncontestable,” the authors write.