Mumbai: India’s child sex ratio—defined as the number of girls per 1,000 boys up to age six—continues to be on the wane in the second fastest growing major economy, tripping aside conventional wisdom that gender inequality declines as the economy improves.

Girls hold certificates stating their new official names during a renaming ceremony in Satara. Almost 300 Indian girls known officially as Unwanted have traded their birth names for a fresh start in life. Given names like Nakusa or Nakushi, they grew up understanding they were a burden in families that preferred boys in Maharashtra state. (AP)

“We have growth and economic progress on the one hand and on the other hand you have a society that is killing girls in the womb," Bhagyashri Dengle, executive director of Plan India, a non-governmental organization, said during a discussion on cultural economics in India in Mumbai on Sunday. “In terms of women and children, there is still gross discrimination that has been happening in India."

Session moderator Rajni Bakshi said that in Mumbai, the lowest sex ratio was “in the most affluent areas, in Malabar Hill and Colaba...", whereas in “tribal areas" outside the city, “the child sex ratio is just fine. It’s as nature would have it."

“For maybe 20 years we assumed that as people become more educated and more modernized, these traditional fixations with the male child would decline," she added, unapologetic that the session veered into the realm of gender inequality from its intended topics of consumption, philanthropic patterns and societal norms. “You’d think that prosperity would improve social indicators; but why are the tribal areas doing better on the gender issue."

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The sex ratio in the more affluent island city part of Mumbai was 838, compared with suburban Mumbai’s 857 and Thane’s 880.

Abortions based on gender is illegal but India has never seen a prosecution based on a violation of the law, Dengle said, because it is often up to family members and friends to report a violation. “The law is 20 years old and the problem is getting worse," she said.

Speaking on the sidelines of the session, Dengle said a predilection for boys in affluent and middle class families is often based on the desire to protect the accumulation of wealth.

In an interview after the session, Bakshi, a fellow at Gateway House, a Mumbai think tank, concurred, saying that for many parents on an “aspirational treadmill", having fewer children is more compatible with the “projection for their own prosperity. Maybe you are doing well enough, but you don’t want two children because you won’t be able to afford to send both of them to an American university. They’re making a calculation and if they’re only going to have one, (they) seem to prefer a boy child".

Mario Marconi, a panellist for the session, one of the smaller and least attended events on the second day of the forum, suggested gender equality in India suffers due to the nature of philanthropic giving in the region.

Charities in Asia concentrate their energies on pressing basic needs such as education, accessibility of healthcare and alleviation of poverty at the expense of gender issues, which can monopolize charitable giving in the West, said Marconi, managing director, head of philanthropy services, UBS AG.

Nikhilananda Saraswati, spiritual head of the New Delhi-based Chinmaya Mission, the panel’s token spiritual voice, said a sense of gender equality must begin at home.

India has some robust schools but “more important is informal education. If the gender biases are not removed in our homes, they cannot be removed by formal education", he said.

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