Jhajjar, Haryana: Fifteen-year-old Aarti Ahelawat waits patiently for the midday meal at the government senior secondary school in Chhuchhakwas, a village in Haryana’s Jhajjar district. Her younger brother goes to the privately run Paramount Senior Secondary School a few metres away, and doesn’t have to wait for the free meal.
“Mother fed him a sumptuous breakfast,” says Ahelawat, who left home hungry.
Ahelwat’s story and rampant female foeticide explain why Jhajjar has the worst child sex ratio in the country (the number of girls for every 1,000 boys among children till the age of six), according to the census that was released last week.
Social dilemma: Sunita, who hails from Jharkhand, with her one-month-old daughter. A skewed sex ratio in Haryana is forcing many young men to look for brides outside the state. Photo: Pradeep Gaur / Mint
Jhajjar reported a child sex ratio of 774 compared with the national average of 914 and the state average of 830.
Jhajjar’s experience is not unique. It is only an extreme manifestation of a larger national trend that cuts across class and the rural-urban divide.
The census numbers also raise questions about the effectiveness of policies that have, in the last decade, tried to reverse the decline in the child sex ratio, which became apparent in Census 2001.
Researchers and activists say the skewed ratio is the reflection of a deep-rooted social prejudice and will require a strong response.
“Though it is illegal, most people get ultrasound tests done to determine the sex of the baby, and if it is a girl, they go in for abortions,” said Santara Devi, chief of the village council of Dariyapur village, also in Jhajjar district, referring to a law banning sex selection. “But nobody says it openly these days, unlike in earlier times.”
India’s Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, 1994, prohibits “sex selection, before or after conception” and prevents expectant parents from using pre-natal diagnostic techniques to find out the sex of their baby.
A teacher at a government school in Dariyapur echoes Devi’s sentiments.
“People getting ‘ultrasounds’ to determine the baby’s sex is a norm. There is nothing wrong with it,” said Raj Kumar, who teaches mathematics. “Boys, after all, are boys, and they are the ones who carry forward a family’s legacy.”
Kumar has one son. He said his wife had a “miscarriage when she was carrying a girl”.
With the availability of portable ultrasound machines, the technology to identify the gender of the foetus is now more easily available across the country.
“There has been no improvement in the condition of women in Jhajjar and other adjoining areas. With advanced sex-determination techniques, foeticides have become even more common,” said Manoj Solanki, who runs the Association for Social Research and Action, a non-governmental organization. “Girls are still considered to be a social burden and practices like dowry are responsible for such thinking.”
Analysts and researchers say the ratio has become skewed because the girl child that is born is discriminated against, pushing up the mortality rate in the 0-6 age group.
The infant mortality rate for boys is 64 per 1,000; it is 73 per 1,000 for girls.
“Female infanticide is fairly uncommon now. But apart from sex-selective abortions, what happens is how the girl child is brought up—it makes her more vulnerable to diseases and death,” said the principal of a big government school near Azadpur village, also in Jhajjar district.
Although the lady has worked in the area of women’s empowerment and awareness, she wanted to remain anonymous.
“For instance, most boys who come to school are well-fed, while the girls seem to be starving and waiting eagerly for the midday meal. Then again, boys are given better medical treatment, nutrition...while the girl child tends to be ignored,” she said. “One must remember that children in the 0-6 age group are very vulnerable to sickness. All this leads to a higher mortality rate for girls, and hence, a skewed child sex ratio.”
The problem has been exacerbated by a decline in fertility rates, which normally comes with improved economic conditions.
According to the 2011 Census, the number of children in the 0-6 age group has fallen from about 163.8 million in 2001 to about 158.8 million now—an indicator of declining fertility.
However, the census also points out that the decline is greater for the girl child. While there was a decline of almost three million among girls, the decline among boys was only a little over two million.
“There are two main causes of skewed sex ratios in places like Jhajjar. One, foeticide, and two, dipping fertility rates,” said activist Sabu George, who works in the area of women development and empowerment. “With economic development and prosperity, the preference for a small family has increased, and along with it the desire for a boy child has been further enhanced.”
George, too, claims female infanticide is rare and limited to some very “difficult areas”.
An example of the small family phenomenon can be seen in Khetawas village, where most couples prefer to have two children, or even one child. Of a population of around 2,200 in the village, only 900 are women.
“People are now becoming more aware of the benefits of small families, and hence, are limiting themselves to one or two children,” said village council chief Malta Devi. ” Because of that, the demand for a boy has increased even more. So when a couple has a boy as their first born, they undergo surgeries to ensure they can’t conceive again.”
“We had two boys and then I got an operation. Why should I risk having any girls now? We don’t want so many children,” said Hemlata of Khetawas.
The social repercussions of this phenomenon of the missing daughters are already apparent in Jhajjar.
In the conservative Jat-dominated Mathanhail village, the skewed sex ratio is forcing many young men to marry from outside the state.
“The main problem of less women is we are finding it difficult to get our sons married, ” said 50-year-old Krishna, whose two sons in their 20s have been unable to find suitable matches. “So we have to now get girls from Bihar, Jharkhand, Bengal, Orissa.... This is leading to further cultural problems.”
Naresh, who uses only one name and married Sunita from Jharkhand two years ago, said: “I faced a big problem. There were no women. I couldn’t get married till I was over 30, when we got Sunita from another state.”
They now have a one-month-old daughter.
“I got married around two years ago and have managed to now learn the customs and language,” said Sunita. “But it is very different here as compared to where I am from. I have to cover my face. It wasn’t so strict there. It is more conservative here.”
Both Sunita and Naresh say their daughter will be treated differently.