Kate Darnton

Where are the baby girls?

It’s illegal in India to determine the sex of an unborn child. But parents who don’t want daughters get around the law.

By Kate Darnton
September 1, 2010

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I WOULD like to know the sex of my unborn child. In America, that’s a straightforward procedure: When you’re around 20 weeks pregnant, you go to your obstetrician’s office, where an ultrasound technician squirts a puddle of cold jelly on your belly, skates a transducer probe over the top, and tells you if she can spot a willy or not.

In India, it’s more complicated. For starters, it’s illegal.

According to a 1994 law meant to discourage parents from aborting baby girls, any doctor who identifies the sex of a fetus will be struck off the medical register and face a hefty fine and up to three years in prison. A pregnant woman who undergoes tests to detect the sex of a fetus risks imprisonment and fines, too.

On my first visit with my new OB, a stern lady clad in a dark blue sari, I offered a big smile and asked whether I — you know, open-minded American that I am — might be able to find out the sex of my child.

“Sure,” she smirked. “If you fly to Singapore.”

There are ultrasound shops all over Delhi, where I live. Many would be indistinguishable from the other bodegas in the local markets except for the legally mandated signs that declare, “Here prenatal sex determination (boy or girl before birth) is not done. It is a punishable act.” Long lines of pregnant ladies wait outside.

When you go in, you don’t have to fill out an insurance form, but you do have to sign a form that states, “I do not want to know the sex of my fetus.” You must also write down the number of children you already have and the sex of each child.

Well, there go my chances, I thought. I already have two daughters. What ultrasound technician would tell me that I’m facing what in Delhi is a maternity nightmare: a third girl child?

Turns out, a lot of them. Activists estimate that sex selection is a $100 million business in India. If you’re willing to pay, you can find out the sex of your baby. You just go to the right clinic. The ultrasound technician will respond in code. “Celebrate with sweets,” he might say, meaning that a son is on the way.

The market for ultrasound equipment in India is vast and growing, and manufacturers have moved aggressively to satisfy it. The latest models are so cheap and portable, a sonographer can throw one in his trunk and drive out to rural areas to scan the villagers at about $8 a pop. Cheap ultrasounds help explain the persistent gender imbalance plaguing India. The British medical journal The Lancet reported in 2006 that over the last 20 years there have been 10 million missing female births in India. That’s half a million girls per year. In some parts of India, fewer than 800 girls are born for every 1,000 boys. Some of India’s wealthiest areas, such as Punjab, suffer the worst sex ratios. I was shocked to learn that in my high-rent neighborhood of Southwest Delhi, the latest census puts the imbalance at 854 girls per 1,000 boys.

According to activist Sabu George, the most educated families tend to have the least number of children. And “smaller families come at the expense of girls.” If parents are going to max out at one or two kids, they’ll make sure they get a son.

But why the desperation for baby boys?

First of all, men earn more. Also, India has no universal pension system; sons are expected to provide for their aging parents. Under India’s inheritance practices, sons inherit the family business and the family wealth.

By contrast, daughters are money pits. Girl children require extra protection, cost extra money, and eat the family food, only to be given away to another family when they marry. The cost of that wedding is traditionally borne by the bride’s family. And then there’s the dowry — the money that a bride’s parents must pay the new in-laws. Among the wealthy and educated, this might be enough cash to start a business or buy a car or an apartment. Among the less educated, it might be cattle, jewelry, household appliances.

Regardless of caste or class, dowry — which is just as illegal as gender selection — is no joke. Back in July, my local paper reported that there had already been 66 registered cases of dowry deaths in Delhi this year. That means that each week in the capital region, at least two brides are murdered because their families are not coughing up enough cash to satisfy the in-laws.

I heard about a popular old advertisement: “Spend 500 rupees now and save 50,000 rupees later.” Translation: The typical ultrasound costs around $10, but a dowry will run you $1,000. Illegal though gender-selective abortions may be, there is a network of OBs willing to perform them. Or you perform the abortion at home. My local pharmacy sells blister packs of mifepristone and misoprostol, the two-pill punch that allows you to miscarry without any suspicious side-effects, for 467 rupees. That’s $10 to get rid of an unwanted girl. No prescription necessary.

All this cheap new technology (high-tech ultrasounds, chemical abortions) mixed with old customs means a gender deficit that could haunt India for decades. Certain areas of northern India such as Punjab and Haryana have seen a growth in bride trafficking. Farmers from Punjab may travel as far as Kerala in southern India to find their brides.

In the United States, we may be seeing the opposite trend. Writer Hanna Rosin has pointed out that Americans who use high-tech biology to try to pick a baby’s sex ask more often for girls than for boys. Rosin ties this to the rise of a modern, postindustrial economy that is “simply more congenial” to women than to men.

So maybe there’s hope for girls in India? As the Indian economy hurtles forward, isn’t it inevitable that more women will enter the workforce in higher-paying jobs, proving that they, too, should be valued?

One recent morning, I opened my Hindustan Times to find the following headline splashed across the styles section: “Rich Delhi Couples Travel to Bangkok to Ensure Male Heirs.” The new money may be flowing, but old cultural mores in India are as ingrained as ever.

Kate Darnton is a writer and editor living in New Delhi.

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