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Female Demographic Disadvantage in India 1981–1991: Sex Selective Abortions and Female Infanticide



Using evidence from a number of sources (including the 1981 and 1991 censuses of India, prior research, and NGO reports), this article examines whether bias against girl children persists during periods of development and fertility decline, whether prenatal sex selection has spread in India as elsewhere in Asia, and whether female vs. male child mortality risks have changed. The authors present estimated period sex ratios at birth (SRBs) calculated by reverse survival methods along with reported sex ratios among infants aged 0 and 1, as well as sex ratios of child mortality probabilities (q5), from the two censuses. The findings show an increase in ‘masculine’ SRBs and persistent (or even worsening) female mortality disadvantage, despite overall mortality decline, due to selective neglect and the spread of female infanticide practices in some areas. Research and reports indicate the increasing use of prenatal sex selection in some regions. In India, preference for sons appears to be undiminished by socio-economic development, which interacts with cultural sources of male bias. The increased masculinity of period SRBs in some areas, together with persistent excess female child mortality and female infanticide, creates a ‘double jeopardy’ for girl children. Legislation curbing prenatal sex determination and policy measures addressing societal female devaluation have had little impact, suggesting that female demographic disadvantage is unlikely to improve in the near future.