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Sex Ratio and Population

What does the sex ratio of a country indicate?
When men and women have near equal chances for survival, there are bound to be near-equal number of males and females in society. In India, however, the female population is much lower than the male population due to higher mortality among females, particularly during their reproductive span.

The sex ratio in the Indian population has been falling consistently. From 972 women per 1,000 men in 1901, the sex ratio fell to 933 women per 1,000 men in 2001. This is a cause for concern as it is a telling indicator of the health and social status of women in society, which has a direct and immediate bearing on other key indicators like child mortality.

Sex ratio is also calculated for various age groups, the most important being 0-6 years. An adverse sex ratio here shows that less girls are being born compared to boys and so indicates discrimination against the female foetus - this could be at the time of conception, gestation or delivery. An adverse 0-6 sex ratio also reveals that socio-cultural factors are determining survival chances of the female.

Why is there concern about falling sex ratio in the 0-6 age group?
The fall in the sex ratio for the 0-6 age group is particularly worrisome as it points to increased incidence of pre-birth selection. The easy availability of sex selection procedures and the unethical practice of pre-birth sex selection are responsible for the current situation to a large extent.

The fact that some of the States which fare well on social and economic development indicators also have low 0-6 sex ratio calls for introspection. Six of the States that have recorded the steepest declines are from among the most economically developed ones. These States and Union Territories are Chandigarh, Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab. It is likely that the aggressive promotion of the small family norm without the required community interventions to change the preference for a male child, along with the easy availability of sex selective procedures, could be playing havoc with the birth and survival of female children.

What is being done to prevent sex selective abortions?
Sex selective abortions are illegal in India. The Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act, 1994, was enacted and brought into operation from 1st January, 1996, in order to check female foeticide. Rules have also been framed under the Act. The Act prohibits determination and disclosure of the sex of foetus. It also prohibits any advertisements relating to pre-natal determination of sex and prescribes punishment for its contravention. The person who contravenes the provisions of this Act is punishable with imprisonment and fine.

Recently, PNDT Act and Rules have been amended keeping in view the emerging technologies for selection of sex before and after conception and problems faced in the working of the implementation of the Act. These amendments have come into operation with effect from 14th February, 2003.

Under the Act, a person who seeks help for sex selection can face, at first conviction, imprisonment for a three-year period and be required to pay a fine of Rs.50,000. Medical professionals involved in sex selection can lose their registration and the right to practice, if convicted under the Act. However, officials admit that the Act is difficult to implement because sex selection happens within the confines of doctor-patient confidentiality.

Several Non-Government Organisations are active in fighting pre-birth sex selection. The issue is receiving attention of several health authorities which have begun monitoring clinics and hospital records for evidence of sex selection to mount action against them.

Does a decrease in the number of women enhance their position?
No. India remains a highly patriarchal society where women are marginalised and denied development benefits. The falling sex ratio is a reflection of the existing gender bias.

In some districts with low sex ratios, the adverse impact is already visible with many men not being able to find wives. Practices like polyandry are being reported, as also "bride price" and "bride selling" under which women are "bought"/ "sold" for a price. Thus, in the prevailing social context, a further fall in numbers will only lead to increased violence against women and denial of rights rather than empowerment.

What's wrong with preferring a male child?
Indian society has a marked preference for a male child, both for perceived economic and traditional reasons. Apart from being seen as the rightful and capable heir to family property and name as well as an important means to carry the lineage forward, sons are also seen as providing support to parents in their old age. A male child is also valued for the perceived final salvation of the parents through the performance of their last rites.

Girls are often seen as a burden because of the social evil of dowry that requires parents to spend large amounts on their marriage. Investments in a daughter are thought to be wasteful as she leaves for her husband's home after marriage, and often cannot share earnings with her parents.

Where such a preference exists, parents tend to make more investments in a male child than in the female child, be it on nutrition, health, education or a career. Such discrimination, overt or covert, is bound to limit development opportunities available to the girl child which further reinforces gender bias.

The obsession to have at least one male child places tremendous psychological pressure on women, with many undergoing frequent abortions following sex-determination tests. The felt need, indeed demand, for a male child is also an important trigger for domestic violence, with women bearing the brunt for their perceived "inability" to provide a male child. This is often used as an excuse for bigamy and desertion. Preference for a male child is clearly wrong because it devalues the female child and denies her basic rights for survival, growth and development. Further, male preference takes its toll on women's lives, reinforcing male domination and making it difficult to build a fair, just and equitable society. In such a skewed situation there can be no progress in empowering women to become equal members in society.

How is the preference for a son an impediment to population stabilisation?
Son preference is a major impediment to population stabilisation as it makes couples opt for larger number of children in order to ensure at least one male child in the family.

Son preference is evident in every State. However it is more pronounced in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Arunachal Pradesh. These are also the States with high population growth rates. The weakest son preference is found in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Goa, which are also the States that have achieved or are near achieving replacement level fertility. They also have better male-female ratio and higher female literacy levels. In richer States like Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat, couples are opting for smaller families but male preference leads to sex selection leading to adverse sex ratios.

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