Female infanticide in India

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Female infanticide in India has a history spanning centuries.[1][2] The dowry system has been cited as one of the main reasons for female infanticide and sex-selective abortion as many families who live in poverty cannot afford to raise the funds for a suitable dowry. The government has tried various approaches to help prevent the practice. The dowry system was abolished in 1961, in 1991 financial incentives began, and in 1992 the baby cradle scheme was launched.

In 1990 the census figures showed there were 25 million more men in India than women. The national government then made it illegal in 1994 to use ultrasounds to determine the gender of a child. But by 2001, the figures for the gender difference were up to 35 million more males than females, and by 2005 it was estimated at 50 million.[3][4] The numbers involved have led commentators to compare the deaths to genocide,[5][6] and Kalpana Kannabiran writing for India's Human Rights Law Network argues that infanticide and foeticide meet four of the five criteria as set out in the genocide convention.[7]

Studies have shown that female children are not only at risk at the time of birth, but are also at risk during infancy, with one author noting that there is a significant decrease in the sex ratio between birth, and up to the age of four. According to Balakrishna, between 1978 and 1983 "of the twelve million girls born each year, only nine million will live to be fifteen".[8]

Colonial period[edit]

An engraving from the early 19th century purporting to show infanticide committed by throwing an infant into the Ganges river.

The dowry system in India is one given reason for female infanticide; over a time period spanning centuries it has become embedded within Indian culture. Although the state has taken steps[a] to abolish the dowry system, the practice persists, and for poorer families in rural regions female infanticide and gender selective abortion is attributed to the fear of being unable to raise a suitable dowry and then being socially ostracized.[10]

In 1857, John Cave-Brown documented for the first time the practice of female infanticide among the Jats in the Punjab region. Data from the census during the colonial period and from 2001 propose that the Jat have practiced female infanticide for 150 years. In the Gujarat region, the first cited examples of discrepancies in the sex ratio among Lewa Patidars and Kanbis dates from 1847.[11][12]

In 1789, during British colonial rule in India, the British discovered that female infanticide in the state of Uttar Pradesh was openly acknowledged. A letter from a magistrate who was stationed in the North West of India during this period spoke of the fact that for several hundred years no daughter had ever been raised in the strongholds of the Rajahs of Mynpoorie. According to Marvin Harris, the reason for these deaths lay in the male desire to keep both land and wealth from having to be split between to many heirs. And that the male desire to retain their luxurious lifestyle was the primary reason for the killing of female children.[13] In 1845 however the ruler at that time did keep a daughter alive after a district collector, named Unwin, intervened.[14] A review of scholarship has shown that the majority of female infanticides in India during the colonial period occurred for the most part in the North West, and that although not all groups carried out this practice it was widespread. In 1870 after an investigation by the colonial authorities, the practice was made illegal with the passing of Female Infanticide Prevention Act, 1870 .[15]

According to Mara Hvistendahl, documents left behind by the colonial administration following independence showed a direct correlation between the taxation policies of the British East India Company and the rise in female infanticide.[16]

Post colonial period[edit]

In India, since 1974 amniocentesis has been used to determine the gender of a child before birth, and should the child be female then an abortion can be carried out.[17] According to women's rights activist Donna Fernandes, some practices are so deeply embedded within Indian culture it is "almost impossible to do away with them", and she has said that India is undergoing a type of "female genocide".[18] The United Nations has declared that India is the most deadly country for female children, and that in 2012 female children aged between 1 and 5 were 75 percent more likely to die as opposed to boys. The children's rights group CRY has estimated that of 12 million females born yearly in India 1 million will have died within their first year of life.[18] In the Indian state of Tamil Nadu during British rule, the practice of female infanticide in Tamil Nadu among the Kallars and the Todas was reported. More recently in a June 1986 cover story, Born to Die, it was reported by India Today that female infanticide was still in use in Usilampatti in southern Tamil Nadu. The practice was mostly prevalent among the dominant caste of the region, Kallars.[19]

Female foeticide in India accounts for a large part of the discrepancy in the sex ratio. The Indian Association for Women’s Studies reported in 1998 that 10,000 female fetuses are aborted yearly. An editorial in the Times of India gave a figure of 50,000 abortions of female fetuses yearly, while another study gave a figure of 78,000 killed between 1978 and 1983. The conflicted statistics in these studies show that this crime against women are an undetectable crime, and the numbers are indicative of genocide. The decline of the sex ratio is another indication of female infanticide and sex-selective abortion. The 1901 census showed a sex ratio of 972 females per 1,000 males. Following partition the ratio drops to 935 females per 1,000 males. As of 2005 it is estimated that 22 million women are missing in India, which had been estimated at 3 million while under colonial rule. [6]

State response[edit]

In 1992 the Indian government started the baby cradle scheme. The plan was to allow families to give their child up for adoption without having to go through the adoption procedure, no names are taken. The scheme has been given praise for possibly saving the lives of thousands of baby girls, but has also been criticized by human rights groups, who say that the scheme encourages child abandonment and also reinforces the low status in which women are held. [20] The scheme which was piloted in Tamil Nadu, saw cradles placed outside state run health facilities. The chief minister of Tamil Nadu at the time, added another incentive, which was to give money to families who had more than one daughter. In the four years following the programme's inception 136 baby girls were given over, but in 2000, 1,218 cases of female infanticide were reported, the scheme was deemed a failure and abandoned but the following year was reinstated.[21]

In 1991 the Girl Child Protection Scheme was launched. It operates as a long term financial incentive, with rural families having to meet certain obligations, such as sterilization for the woman. Once the obligations are met the state puts aside ₨ 2000 in a state run fund, and upon reaching twenty the girl may use the money, which now should stand at ₨ 10,000, to either marry, or go into higher education.[22]


The Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF) wrote in their 2005 report, Women in an Insecure World, that at a time when the number of casualties in war had fallen, a "secret genocide" was being carried out against women.[23] According to DCAF the demographic shortfall of women who have died for gender related issues is in the same range as the 191 million estimated dead from all conflicts in the twentieth century.[24] In 2012 the documentary It's a Girl: The Three Deadliest Words in the World was released. The documentary focused on female infanticide in China and in India.[25] Cultural anthropologist Barbara D. Miller, working in Northern India, noted that over a five-day period, only male children were being brought in for treatment, while not a single girl was brought to the hospital. She also wrote that on a home visit to check on a girl who had TB that the mother, after being told that it would be costly to treat her daughter as she had left it so long said, "Then let her die, I have another daughter", while her two daughters sat nearby, one of whom was crying having heard her mother's words.[26]

A report by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs in 2012 stated that India was the "most dangerous place in world to be born a girl". According to the report which studied mortality rates on children aged one to five over a forty year period revealed that in the ten years between 2000 and 2010 for every 56 deaths of male children, there were one hundred female deaths.[27]

In 1991 Elisabeth Bumiller wrote May You be the Mother of a Hundred Sons: A Journey Among the Women of India,[28] in which she describes vividly the practice of female infanticide,[29] with one woman interviewed equating infanticide with abortion, saying "instead of killing the child in the womb, I killed the child when it was born, if that is accepted, why can't I do this?".[30] Bumiller says in the chapter on female infanticide titled, No More Little Girls that the prevailing reason for the practice is "not as the act of monsters in a barbarian society but as the last resort of impoverished, uneducated women driven to do what they thought was best for themselves and their families."[31]

Gift of A Girl Female Infanticide is a documentary by Mayyasa Al-Malazi which was released in 1998. It explores the prevalence of female infanticide in southern India, as well as steps which have been taken to help eradicate the practice. The documentary won an award from the Association for Asian Studies.[32][33]


  1. ^ Although the Dowry Prohibition Act was passed in 1961 it had the consequence of young brides then being killed.[9]



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