India accounts for nearly one third (46 million) of the world’s 142 million missing women over the past 50 years, according to the State of World Population 2020 report, released on Tuesday by UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency.
According to the UN agency, India has the highest rate of excess female deaths, 13.5 per 1,000 female births, suggesting that about one in nine deaths of females below the age of 5 years may be attributed to postnatal sex selection.
“China and India—together account for about 90% to 95% of the estimated 1.2 million to 1.5 million missing female births annually worldwide due to gender-biased (prenatal) sex selection," the report said adding that globally the number of missing women has more than doubled over the past 50 years.
Between 2013 and 2017, about 460,000 girls in India were missing at birth each year. According to one analysis, gender-biased sex selection accounts for about two thirds of the total missing girls, and post-birth female mortality accounts for about one third, the report said. “Missing females" are women missing from the population at given dates due to the cumulative effect of postnatal and prenatal sex selection in the past, the UN agency added.
Preference for a male child manifested in sex selection has led to dramatic, long-term shifts in the proportions of women and men in the populations of some countries. This demographic imbalance will have an inevitable impact on marriage systems. In countries where marriage is nearly universal, many men may need to delay or forego marriage because they will be unable to find a spouse, the report said.
As far as the education and marriage of women in concerned, the report said that in India, 51% of young women with no education and 47% of those with only a primary education had married by age 18. “Meanwhile, 29% of young women with a secondary education and 4% with post-secondary education were married before 18," it said.
The report points out that successful education-related interventions include the provision of cash transfers conditional on school attendance; or support to cover the costs of school fees, books, uniforms and supplies, taking note of successful cash-transfer initiatives such as ‘Apni Beti Apna Dhan' in India.
At the global level, the report said that this year, an estimated 4.1 million girls will be subjected to female genital mutilation. Today, 33,000 girls under age 18 will be forced into marriages, usually with much older men. Also, an extreme preference for sons over daughters in some countries has fueled gender-biased sex selection or extreme neglect that leads to their death as children, resulting in 140 million “missing females."
Some harmful practices are waning in countries where they have been most prevalent. But because of population growth in these countries, the number of girls subjected to them will actually rise in the coming decades, if urgent action is not taken, the report warned. “Harmful practices against girls cause profound and lasting trauma, robbing them of their right to reach their full potential," said UNFPA Executive Director Dr Natalia Kanem.
Women activists in India have said that the drivers for India’s “son preference" and subsequent “daughter aversion" are poverty and socio-cultural biases against girls and women. “While pre-natal determination was made illegal over 25 years ago, there are still many cases of gender-based sex selection reported that indicate that the enforcement needs to be strengthened," said Poonam Muttreja, Executive Director, Population Foundation of India (PFI).
“The bias against the girl child is further perpetuated by fears and financial insecurities pertaining to dowry as well as lack of safety and vulnerability to sexual violence. This further leads to girls being relegated to the status of being 'unwanted’ that causes neglect and apathy towards their education, health and well-being," she said adding that we need a societal shift in attitudes which hold a different yardstick for women and this is only possible through targeted social and behaviour change communication interventions.