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How many more ‘missing’ daughters will India have?

Read time: 5 mins
How many more ‘missing’ daughters will India have?

Photo by Sharath Kumar Hari on Unsplash

Study predicts a whopping 6.8 million deficit in the females born in India by 2030.

“I am Nakusa, an unwanted daughter of India,” said the little girl who narrowly escaped death. In India, a vast majority of girls encounter the grim reality of gender-based discrimination right from birth, or even before. Due to the deeply rooted patriarchal culture still prevalent in numerous Indian societies, millions of girls, every year, are deprived of life, and if born, experience neglect, or abandonment from the family.

Since the 1970s, sex-selective abortions and female infanticides have contributed to the imbalance in sex ratio at birth— the ratio of the number of girls and boys born in a given period. This imbalance has resulted in a large number of missing female births— the shortfall in the number of girls born relative to the natural expected number. Studies have identified that between 1990 and 2016, the total missing female births in India were about 15 million, and the annual figure is expected to remain above 3 million every year until 2050.

Now, a new study projects that between 2017-2030, India may witness an upsetting total of 6.8 million missing female births. The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE by researchers from Saudi Arabia, France, China, and Austria, projects the sex ratio at birth, state-wise, considering India’s unique demographic diversity. It uses public data from previous surveys, the India Sample Registration System and state-wise sex ratio at birth estimated between 1990-2016 by an earlier study.

“Our model-based and data-driven sex ratio at birth projections provide what is likely to happen in the sex ratio transition given the past and current state-level situation,” says Dr Fengqing Chao, the leading author of the study. She is a researcher at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), Saudi Arabia.

Across the world, three factors are known to contribute to sex-selective abortions, which result in a skewed male-female ratio—a strong preference for sons in many communities, the fertility rate of women, and the access to technology where the sex of a foetus can be selected. In the current study, the researchers have considered the first two factors in their model to predict the numbers for the next thirteen years starting from 2017. The researchers were unable to include the third factor, accessibility of sex-selection technology, in the analysis due to the lack of reliable data.

The study predicts a whopping 6.8 million ‘missing’ female births, as compared to male births in India for the years 2017-2030. It found widely different trends of the sex ratio at birth in the various states across the country. Out of the 21 states with high quality birth data from the Sample Registration System, the study projects that 16 will have an imbalanced ratio, with the highest imbalance seen in Haryana, Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Punjab, Delhi and Rajasthan. Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in India, is projected to have the most missing female births, accounting for almost a third of the total number. Maharashtra and Rajasthan, with a share of about 10% each, follow next.

“Northern states, in general, have a stronger preference for sons and hence a more severe imbalance in the sex ratio than the southern states. However, our study brings new insights on the levels and trends in the projected sex ratio. The effect of the decline in fertility varies across states, which is new in the research area of sex ratio studies in India,” says Dr Chao.

The study closely analysed the sex ratio at birth variations in four states—Punjab, Assam, Kerala and Uttar Pradesh—where the figures show interesting trends. Punjab, where gender bias is high and the sex ratio is tilted towards males till the early 2000s, has shown a gradual decrease since then. The proposed model predicts that this decline will continue until 2030. Assam, where the sex ratio between males and females were almost equal until the 1990s, gradually swayed towards males after the 2000s and it would slightly increase in the coming years, says the study. In Kerala, by the early 2000s, the sex ratio at birth was below the national average, indicating a good number for females. The study predicts that this balance is expected to be maintained in the coming years. Uttar Pradesh, the top contributor to the ‘missing’ female births, could be a bright spot and see some improvement in future.

When the researchers analysed the accuracy of their model, they found it to be high based on the data in the recent past. They claim that their approach could be a better alternative than those used in previous attempts, like the National Commission on Population (NCP) of India, which relies on simple linear extrapolation without accounting for the potential effects of contributing factors like the fertility rate of women.

The findings of the study have implications on policy-making at various levels to target regions that fare poorly in the male and female birth ratios. The researchers emphasise the need for support measures to combat gender bias, along with better identification, monitoring and education.

“The first step is to provide a plausible projection of what the imbalanced sex ratios could be based on all available evidence using a statistical method. It is only after we have a good understanding of what to expect and how likely the situation can become, policies and programs can be the most effective,” signs off Dr Chao.

This article has been run past the researchers, whose work is covered, to ensure accuracy.