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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 16 New Delhi April 6, 2019

Gender Discrimination and Violence against Women: Connecting the Dots of Declining Child Sex Ratio (CSR) in India

Sunday 7 April 2019


by Bijayalaxmi Nanda, Nupur Ray, Ritwika Mukherjee, Richa Jairaj

The following study is a part of an ongoing research project, “Declining Child Sex Ratio and Violence against Women: Examining Girl Child Discrimination in India”, under the Centre for Studies of Developing Societies (CSDS), Delhi, supported by the Indian Council of Social Science Research. Bijayalaxmi Nanda, the Project Director, is an Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Miranda House, University of Delhi (she is currently the Acting Principal, Miranda House, University of Delhi); Nupur Ray, the Co-Project Director, is an Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Delhi; Ritwika Mukherjee is a Research Associate and Richa Jairaj is a Research Assistant of the project.


There has been considerable research around violence against women in India and the literature on gender discrimination also abound. The integral link between the two issues can be examined in the context of the declining child sex ratio and its impact on surviving women. The stories of violence against women are not mythically woven around the passive role of women as victims. They are the lived everyday experiences of women.

As far as the declining child sex ratio is concerned, it reflects the gender balance in terms of numbers between girls and boys in the age-group 0-6 years. It is common knowledge that this ratio is skewed in favour of boys. The reason for this skewed ratio is the deep-rooted gender discrimination in the country which favours boys over girls in the context of fertility choices. The misuse of new reproductive technologies (NRTs) by flouting the laws of the country by medical practitioners has actively aided this form of gender discrimination.

In this paper there is an attempt to interlink the gender discrimination reflected by India’s Child Sex Ratio (CSR) with the violence faced by women using the data from the census and the National Family Health Survey (NFHS). The paper also reviews selected works linking CSR, gender discrimination and gender violence in order to examine how the issue has been framed within the narratives emerging from research, learning and activism. The paper finally strives to extrapolate the same connection through some reflections from the field (specifically Haryana) in order to provide a nuanced understanding of the same.

Exploring Child Sex Ratio and Violence against Women: Theoretical Inputs

The present study draws support from the existing literature on child sex ratio and thereafter integrates it in the light of violence faced by women within the construct of gender discrimination. The extensive body of work that exists on child sex ratio is difficult to compart-mentalise to a set of distinct categories because of the risks of isolating the factors that exist therein. Notwithstanding the issue of integration, the study attempts to categorise the existing literature into three broad categories.

Demographic Concerns

Sex selective abortions arising out of pre-natal sex selection of female foetus has been advanced to be the prime cause behind the shortfall of women and distorted sex ratios at birth. (Bongaarts, 2013; Guilmoto, 2009; Park and Cho, 1995) The parents’ preference for a son enables them to manipulate the gender of the child through new reproductive technologies; if not, women keep on bearing children until a male child is born. (Bongaarts, 2013) Countering behaviour of mothers have implications for daughters being born into large families. Son- preference-countering rules result in differentials in the expected number of boys and girls. (Yamaguchi, 1989) If family sizes are planned, then sons are usually born in small families and daughters come from larger families. The desire to have sons thus leads to unwanted daughters who, in turn, stand at the vulnerability from suffering discrimination and high risks of dying young. (Clark, 2000) Being born as a daughter can have two ramifications: a) sibling effect: which says that girls take births in large families; b) birth order effect: which implies that the birth of girls generally occurs early in the family. The sibling and birth order effect is stronger in regions with high son-preference such as South Asia, South-East Asia, North Africa, localised regions of north and west India. It is, on the other hand, lower in sub-Saharan Africa. But this does not imply that countries of sub-Saharan Africa are devoid of son-preference, as their contraceptive usage behaviour denoted evidences of son-preference. (Basu and De Jong, 2010)

Thus, juvenile sex ratios and son-preference may not tally with each other as the women’s need of procreation to have at least one son leads to many unwanted daughters thereby not affecting the sex ratio but rather the growth rate of the population. (Siedl, 1995) Having a surviving elder sister further poses threats on the surviving potentialities of the younger daughters as they are susceptible to neglect and exposed to societal manipulation leading to a concentration of excess female mortality relative to the other children. (Dasgupta, 1987) With the spurt of abortion clinics in South Asia, the existing practices of girl child discrimination like that of neglect and infanticide is being substituted or sometimes supplemented by pre-natal sex selective abortions. (Bongarts and Guilmoto, 2015; Muhuri and Preston, 1991; Rahman, et al., 1998; Shah and Cleland, 1993; Dasgupta, 1987) The effects of sex-selective abortions further get augmented as families start veering towards smaller family norms. This has been termed as the ‘intensification effect’ which states that the decline in the number of children is paced faster than the decline in the number of sons which keeps little space for daughters to be born. Earlier unwanted daughters of lower parities were subjected to excess mortality; this now gets replaced by the intensification effect. (Dasgupta and Mari Bhat, 1997)

Sex-selective abortions can enter into the system through two ways: first, through the use of abortion depending upon the gender of the surviving children; and second, to eschew the birth of a particular gender in a family. It has been found that the use of abortion has negative link with the number of sons. This is primarily attributed to differential stopping behaviour that leads to the accumulation of daughters in the hope for sons. Hence, such families come under the purview of stopping behaviour rather than sex-selective abortions. On the other hand, for households having lower fertility, the sex ratio at birth shoots up (males/females) as they consciously plan for children and abort children of unwanted gender. (Arnold, et al., 2002) Since many of the communities in South Asia have higher fertility rates, it has been estimated that eliminating gender pre-ferences completely can lead to the decline of fertility rates by around eight per cent that can play a substantial impact on the population growth rate as a whole. (Mutharayappa, et al., 1997)

Discrimination Concerns

The roots of gender discrimination are linked to patriarchal influences in many Asian and sub-Saharan countries, although excess female mortality, especially in South Asian countries, arises due to under-nutrition and malnutrition unlike the sub-Saharan region. (Klasen, 2007) Son-preference, inferior status of women and low female survivorship go well with each other, and even though it was geographically confined to certain regions and communities, in contemporary times it spread to other areas and groups as well. (Agnihotri, 2003) This puts us to the question as to why women in India in some parts enjoy greater survivorship than the other parts. The north and north-west include the States of Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi, Rajasthan, Jammu and Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. These regions are characterised by low female-male ratio that fits into the Boserup’s framework of area characterised by plough cultivation demanded by less female labour. (Boserup, 1970, Bardhan, 1974) The linkages between low female labour participation and low sex ratios have been extended in later studies. The low involvement of females in farmland and social structures characterised by dowry, patrilocal exogamy and relative seclusion of women caused unfavourable survivorship of younger girls. (Sudha and Rajan, 1999) Ties of low cultural worth, as determined by patrilocal marriage systems, and low economic worth, associated to low involvement of females in the workforce, have resulted in excess females over male mortality. (Kishor, 1993) Female infanticide arises out of ‘pride and purse’ meted out by the necessity of hypergamous marriages and exorbitant amounts of dowry passed away intergenerationally during marriages. (Miller, 1980) The northern region is dominated by cultivators, mostly of Punjab and Haryana, comprising two cultivating castes, Jat Sikhs and Jat Hindus, which have different religious identity, but identical cultural practices, noted for female infanticide. (Dasgupta, 1987) However, some exceptions can be noted to women’s subordination and low sex ratios in north India. Miller (1980) pointed out that the kinship structure of the Himalayan region is more akin to the south which is also characterised by higher female labour participation and higher levels of female literacy. Himachal Pradesh (Chamba district) had once shown favouritism towards girls in allocation of food resources, but has now shown a turnaround registering a fall by 14 points in sex ratio at birth constituting 924 girls for every 1000 boys. (NITI Ayog, 2018) However, just as Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand were exceptions to the rule of north Indian social development and low sex ratios, some regions of the southern State of Tamil Nadu exhibits contortions to the southern model of progressive sex ratios such as Salem, Madurai and Dhramapuri districts. (Venkata-chalam and Srinivasan, 1993) Female infanticide is not widespread in Tamil Nadu, but practised by a specific caste, notably, Kallars, who have traditionally performed the heinous act and were also noted in giving huge dowries in marriages. Suggested to its increasing female infanticide, dowry inflation, hypergamous marriages and strong son-preference and in effect contributing to excess female mortality, Tamil Nadu may chart their course in a different line, adopting the ‘Punjab way’ in low female-male ratio. (Basu, 1999)

Violence Concerns

Shortage of women has resulted in the crisis of marriage among men across the country. Importation of brides from regions with a beneficial sex ratio became popular in the north- west part of the country to fill the inadequate supply of girls in the marriageable age-group in those regions. However, lives of such women, who are imported due to circumstantial pressures, are not the same compared to the within-region brides as the cross-region brides often suffer from restricted mobility, overwork in farms and domestic work and often fall prey to physical and sexual abuse meted by both male and female members of the family and the larger society. (Ahlawat, N. 2016) Besides, these women are kept in vigil by the male members of the society who are copious in supply, a contributing factor that further curtails their mobility, although no causal link between intimate partner violence and adverse sex ratio can be corroborated. (Bose, S. 2012) Relationship control behaviour and intimate partner violence may also result due to childhood experiences of gender norms. Participation of men in regular household chores led to shaping of equitable gender values among men and women. Experience to poverty and economic stress led to men perpetrating greater violence than men who experienced less economic stress. Similarly, women, who have been exposed to childhood financial strains, found it unreasonable to resist violence perpetrated by their partners. (Nanda, P. et al., 2014)

An excess supply of men results in exacer-bating violence in the society as a whole and not just violence against women. Sons are valorised in land-hungry States of the north as a protector of land and prevention from family struggles and local political strife. Thus, violence in family and society seem to impact continued son-preference in the fertile riverine belts of Uttar Pradesh. (Oldenburg, 1992) However, the causal link between violence and adverse sex ratio is not easy to define. Societies could turn violent due to the absence of females which generally have a soothing effect over men or the inherent violence of unmarried men unable to settle marriages due to shortage of women. Another possible link between them could be the patriarchal values in which the society is set. (Dreze and Khera, 2000) Bearing sons has been touted as a refuge from domestic violence and abusive behaviour in marital homes. However, the frequency of abusive behaviour doesn’t change much with the birth of sons, because domestic violence constitutes a sum-total of everyday life crisis instigated not only the husband but other members of the family as well. (Fernandez, 1997; Visaria, 2000) This becomes an evidence of discontinuity set in the patriarchy-linked violence theories since son-favoured regions are considered the forerunners of spousal violence. Departure from this notion can be noted in the works of a set of researchers who found that women’s autonomy need not ameliorate spousal violence and observed that the southern States of India have higher incidence of spousal violence and empowering women through generation of productive work opportunities may indulge in stated wife- battering. (Menon and Johnson, 2007; Eswaran and Malhotra, 2011) Kaur (2017) has studied the link between child sex ratio and violence against women and come to the conclusion that there is no causal connection.

Measuring Gender Discrimination against Women in Younger Ages

Child Sex Ratio (CSR) is a robust indicator measuring gender discrimination among younger cohorts. Besides, Sex Ratio at Birth (SRB) has also captured attention among demographers following the widespread occurrence of sex-selective abortions and with the spread of ultrasound and amniocentesis leading to millions of missing female births. (George, 2002; Arnold, et al., 2002; Jha, et al., 2006) However, in reality, whether SRB speaks for pre-natal sex selection has been pulled off to contentious debate. Dubuc and Sivia (2018) recently argued that SRB may not be a reliable indicator to unmask pre-natal sex selection; rather the sex-selection propensity, adjusted to the effects of fertility bias, better explains the trajectory of sex-selection practices in India. Studies by Mary John et al. (2007) have also explored the gender discrimination and declining child sex ratio connections.

Seen generically, both CSR and SRB spits out gender discrimination, differences lay to the recall period and the age-group under consideration. The census of India defines a child, who is less than seven years old, ideally to bring the literacy counts at par with international practices. This delivers the vantage point of leveraging the sum-total of discrimi-nation faced by a girl child. The useful and most reliable source of the data is the census which undergoes a complete enumeration of people across the country, although estimates for some of the smaller States and politically/territorially-charged States are subjected to uncertainty. (Guilmoto and Rajan, 2013) Apart from census, numerous other large-scale household sample surveys conducted at the pan-Indian level, that cater variables of socio-economic interests, furnish information about such demographics by crossing the age-group. One of the ways that limits the analysis from such surveys is the spatial granularity of the sample. CSR can be disaggregated to district level with the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) which covered 601,509 households in 2015-16. In contrast, with the National Sample Survey (NSS) and India Human Development Survey (IHDS), the level of disaggregation is limited only upto the State as the household coverage is not as extensive as the NFHS.1 The NSS 68th round (2011-12) covered 100,957 households while the coverage of IHDS in 2011-12 had only 42,152. Whereas the census covers every household in the country culling information of every child born during the years 2003 and 2009 as its 0-6 age-cohort in its 2011 dataset. Hence the granularity of Census data is much finer reducible at the village/ward level. Unlike CSR, the age-cohort of SRB is one upto one year from the period of birth and the available sources are Sample Registration System (SRS), Civil Registration System (CRS), NFHS and the Census, all excepting SRS,2 providing estimates upto the district level.3 However, none of the sources arrive at a uniform estimate, even though the level of traction lies at a narrow range. (Refer to Table 1)

The CRS apparently portrays poor correlation with the rest of the data sources, the level of discord being highest with the NFHS. In fact, even with the Census one could see a divergence with the CRS over time. This is astonishing as both of them are based on relatively large number of births. The CRS data may be subjected to reporting bias and also fraught with registration issues in the BIMARU States. These issues can be safely eluded through the NFHS and SRS, both based on direct record sample surveys. The recently published CRS data (2016) show that the otherwise favourable States (Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu) in terms of female discrimination have registered a stark decline and is bottomed below the national average unlike the data released in SRS and NFHS (2015-16). The diminishing survival chances of females conveyed by both the indicators is rather unsettling, notwithstanding the improvement registered by States in the north and north-west which are supposedly situated in the hotspot of patriarchy in India.

State of Gender-based Violence in India

Violence against women has been recognised as an impediment for women’s liberation and well-being as it jeopardises the fundamental rights for a peaceful and dignified life. Increasing violence against women is epitomised as a major public health concern and operates through multifaceted contextual, socio-cultural and political processes. (Heise, 1998; Heise, et al., 1999) The United Nations defines violence against women as ‘any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life’. Using population and health data from over 80 countries in 2013, the WHO reported that one in every three women has been the victim of physical or sexual violence by the intimate partner. In most cases, the family is the main perpetrator; however, other forms of violence are also channelised by members beyond the level of the family and community. Violence against women is also largely invisible particularly in developing nations because of the signification attached to physical violence; it remained until the late half of the 20th Century when the feminist movements rose and there was worldwide cognisance of recognising violence as violation of human rights and women’s rights were also considered human rights. (True, 2012) India passed the Domestic Violence Act in 2005 recognising all sorts of abuse: physical, sexual, verbal, emotional and economic. This might be looked into as an apparent relief from the overburdening of cruelty cases under Section 498-A of the IPC, as ‘dowry related cases’ in pursuit of insuring quick functioning of the legal body. (Mukherjee, et al., 2001)

This paper sets out to quantify the different forms of violence using the sub-sample of 79,729 women who were interviewed for the domestic violence module by the NFHS in 2015-16 sieved after ensuring privacy and ethical guidelines laid down by the WHO. Violence perpetrated by the spouse and/or non-marital partner in terms of facing any one of the many forms of physical violence such as pushing, shaking, throwing something, twisting arm, pulling hair, punching, kicking, dragging, beating, choking, burning, threatening or attacking with weapon, evidently constituted the typical violence in concordance to many countries across the globe. (Garcia-Moreno, et al., 2006) The experience of torment is peaked at 30-34 years (14.4 per cent) compared to all other age-groups suggesting for higher incidence of violence during more matured fertile life-stages. In fact, with this recent database, the experience of physical violence by women with increasing age-group takes the form of an inverted-U curve with the effects of violence tapering at the younger and the older age-groups. This finding could certainly be an added contribution to older studies dating back to 1998-99 and 2002-03 which did not find any striking difference of experiencing marital violence according to age- groups (Sabarwal, et al., 2014) and some years later in 2005-06 which noticed the negative impact of age over spousal physical violence. (Bose, et al., 2013) Besides, violence faced by women also varied with location, the urban settings (24.6 per cent) reporting less prevalence of violence than their rural counterparts (31.4 per cent), except emotional abuse which takes precedence in urban settings, although physical and sexual violence, which is more prevalent in villages. Physical violence has become an offensive reality in India. Not only by the spouse or partner, women experience such violence being executed by other household and community members. Every seven out of 10 women in India have been victims of violence of any form resorted to either by the intimate partner, in-laws and extended household members or community members, according to NFHS-4.

Annual data on crime, discretely published by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) compiled from police records, allows one to have a micro-picture of crime against women (CAW) facilitating disaggregation to smaller areal units4 as well as enabling to expand the definitional scope of cognisable crime beyond domestic violence so as to include rape, molestation, importation of girls, trafficking, kidnapping, abduction, homicide for dowry, torture, sexual assault, among others. A special feature of this database is that it also lends an eye to the effectiveness of policing as recognised under the Special and Local Laws (SLL), in addition to the prevalence of the crime recognised as under the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Besides, inclusion of new crimes from time to time has strengthened the database, notwithstanding the surge in the growth rate of CAW in certain periods, such as between 1991-2001, when the growth rate of CAW shot to 33.9 per cent due to inclusion of crimes other than rape. Domestic abuse constitutes a lion’s share of all CAWs with a consistent rise of reported victims over the years, followed by assault on modesty, kid-napping and rape. Assault of any kind is rooted within the societal structure vesting outrage to the under-privileged, the risks gaining further momentum due to adherence to specific social, economic, territorial and political identities. As the legal fallouts of criminality falls indiscriminately on the victims than the abuser in India, crime statistics have been increasingly booked for reporting bias. This gets effectuated for women who have to pay a ‘patriarchy cost’ for defiling the customary roles of a ‘modest’ woman.

The NCRB does not restrict analysis of CAW to any particular age-group, unlike the NFHS which interviews women only in the repro-ductive age-group. Since, age-wise disaggre-gation is not available at the district level, the following analysis takes into its consideration two cognisable crimes recognised under the IPC that is expected to bear causal (though not consequential) linkages with the declining CSR in India: I) cruelty by husband and his relatives, II) dowry-murders. Before embarking on to the relationship, it might be useful to have a look at the regional picture of violence against women, as regions bear the footprints of culture that is inextricably tied to their status and position in the society. Identifying that the largest chunk of CAWs is taken up by one particular variable, that is, cruelty by the husband and his relatives,5 the regional analysis also seeks to limit only at this variable. For doing this analysis, the Location Quotient (LQ) method has been used; this helps to ascertain concentration zones of a variable beyond the stated average. The unit of analysis in this case being the district, the LQ method seeks to analyse its departure from the national average.

Pertaining to the ratio, when the value is equal to one, the district mimics the average situation in the country; less than one signifies less intensity of DV; and greater than one, calls for higher intensity of DV. Fig. 1 portrays the areal hotspots of domestic cruelty. In order to entail smooth comparison with the census (attempted at a later stage), the dataset takes into consideration data for the year 2011. A total of 633 districts out of 640 have been analysed here.6

Out of these districts, 254 form the core hotspots coming mostly from the west, south and a few isolated pockets in the east. Going by the registered cases, practically all of Gujarat, Rajasthan, northern bit of Maharashtra, parts of Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, entire West Bengal and districts from Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura have contributed to the highest incidence of DV in India. Very few districts depict very less adverse condition, such as the districts with LQ value in category one are mostly scattered across the terrain and no clear-cut spatial patterns emerge. However, the districts in the immediate vicinity of the hotspots, especially in the south-west and south, emerge as lubricating agents of connectivity between the hotspots. These stretches sometimes have extended across States, but dissimilar patches between States, lying on either side of the State boundaries, that do not mark this continuum, highlight the State effects at play leading to diverging outcomes, despite holding allegiance to a common culture.7 Such abrupt patches are noticeable across the borders of Rajasthan-MP-Maharashtra, Odisha-Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal-Bihar-Jharkhand-Odisha. Clearly, the regional disconnect calls for further State scrutiny of the cases registered.

Mapping Gender Discrimination and Violence against Women

Declining Child Sex Ratio (CSR) and associated linkages with Violence against Women (VAW) render interesting highlights. Measuring this relationship at a first cut lends support to the conventional wisdom. As observed from Fig. 2a and b, a negative association between the duo is observed. The negative relationship is stronger with a tighter confidence interval for Domestic Violence (DV). Departure from the expected relationship, such as in certain pockets of the south and east, where the CSR is above the normal but DV is high, lends a wiggling effect to the curve. The erratic distribution and wider confidence interval of dowry murders is attributed, in part, to the abysmally low incidence or reportage of dowry murders in India.8

A disaggregated picture allows to better extend this synergistic association. (Fig. 3) At one end is Delhi and Haryana with high incidence and exposure to spousal violence accompanied with adverse SRB, and at the other end lies Kerala, with comparatively lesser incidence and exposure to violence, also characterised by a favourable SRB. They fit rightly into the discrimination-violence link that we are unearthing. The experience of other States has been mixed. Some of the adverse sex- ratio states, for instance, Punjab, stand at a relatively precarious position.

The State has registered a decline in spousal violence, its incidence also being lower than the national average. Likewise, Rajasthan has experienced the country’s largest decline in spousal violence in 2015-16. Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu, both have favourable SRB, yet occupy a relatively anomalous position of violence exerted upon by the spouse.

Risks of witnessing spousal violence are exacerbated due in part to the family’s intended desire for male children. One way in which violence may help to explain excess male population is by pressing demands for male births during pregnancy. According to NFHS-4, 25.52 per cent ever married women, who terminated their pregnancy, also faced violence during pregnancy. Instances of such nature aggravates for currently pregnant women who had only daughters (as seen in Fig. 4) in comparison to women bearing only son and both sexed children. Non-pregnant mothers, who have at least one child, could possibly elude the immoral behest on excuses for giving birth to a future male child. Hence, experience of violence by them shows a variable picture with different sex composition of children.

Causal analysis might be pertinent at this stage in order to locate pathways for establishing the association. The substantially increased risks of violence stem from the rising number of men and the ominous consequences they are usually accompanied with. The role of male-biased sex ratio leading to different kinds of violence has been underscored in the past (Oldenburg, 1992; Hesketh, et al. 2011; Bose, et al. 2013), although no concrete evidence could be drawn. Fig. 5 portrays the residuals derived from the OLS model taking cruelty by husband and his relatives as the dependent variable and CSR as the independent variable. It can be observed that the model does not consider certain factors whose effect is negative in some of the regions and positive in the others. Except for certain pockets, represented by yellow tinge, the model in most cases have over-predicted or under- predicted incidence of domestic violence in order to bear any causative linkages with CSR. However, regions that have reported a high incidence of domestic violence show up largely as positive outliers in the residual plot, which could be attributed to the high reportage of crimes in these areas.

Narratives of the Women’s Movements 

In the 1980s writings on the women’s movements had classified sex-selection as violence against women. The autonomous women’s movement in India specifically marked its arrival by setting in context the understanding on violence against women. Most writings on the womens’s movement during that period delineated the various campaigns against violence against women. (Khullar 2005) The campaigns ranged from the campaigns against rape, dowry, sexual harassment and ‘female foeticide’ (the women’s movement has over time rejected the terminology of female foeticide and replaced it with sex-selective abortion/gender- biased sex selection). The feminist discourse highlighted that the negative consequences of declining child sex ratio go way beyond just the scarcity of women. Areas of low sex ratios tend to be more misogynistic and those with higher sex ratios tend to allow for greater female independence and dignity. Low sex ratios also result in seclusion, disinheritance of women from property, low female literacy rates, poor health, low employment rates, and an increased incidence of domestic violence. Conversely, high sex ratios lead to more secure inheritance rights, independent incomes, higher literacy rates, better health and better opportunities for political participation, at least in local level politics. (Kishwar, 1999) Thus, Madhu Kishwar and others argue that sex-selective abortions work to perpetuate and worsen the problem. This is largely a ‘culturally conditioned choice rooted in certain economic and political power relations within family and the community’. (Kishwar, 1999, 86) For many women the dread of having a daughter results from numerous sources: they may not want their daughter to have the same life they or their mothers had, having a daughter may degrade their status in the family, making them vulnerable to abuse, or the family unit sees a daughter as an economic burden because of the necessary dowry for marriage and limited employment available for women. (Kishwar, 1999) While the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act 1971 framed the abortion decision purely between the woman and her medical practitioner, a women’s right to abortion is very restricted and is typically a family decision.

However, the movement’s introspection led to a reframing of the understanding on the declining child sex ratio. The reframing was seen as essential in the context of abortion. The terminology of female foeticide was considered as reflecting the language of pro-lifers, those who believed in foetal rights and this came into conflict with womens’ rights. Now, there is an increasing understanding that violence and discrimination need to be separated and why the need to be separated, in this particular case. (Nanda 2018)

The overlap over the right to abortion in this case led to feminists being divided over choice and the issue in terms of campaign against sex-selective abortion. Earlier campaigners in the women’s movements emphasised on the negative choice exercised in the case of sex-selective abortion. However, in order to tide over this dilemma the law against sex-selection was kept separate from the law on abortion in India. The PNDT Act, which became a Central legislation in 1994, is against sex determination leading to sex-selective abortion. The law was further amended to be extended to reproductive technologies used at the pre-selection stage which is sex-selection. It is now known as the Pre-Conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques Act (Prohibition of Sex-Selection), that is, the PCPNDT Act. While the movement was able to come to a consensual standpoint that sex-selection and sex-selective abortion are anti-woman, they disagreed on the need for legal intervention. The law, it was felt, if implemented, will need to push abortion services under-ground and inaccessible.

Nivedita Menon, one of the major voices against the legal campaign, argued that it was contradictory to have such a law since one cannot override a general right to abortion and then limit it in the case of sex-selection. However, other members of the women’s movement like Veena Mazumdar have consistently advocated for keeping these two issues separate and thereby focussing on sex determination. Their main proposition, therefore, was sex-selection and sex-selective abortion fall within the rubric of gender discrimination and must be seen as against the rights of women and not reflecting empowered and informed choice. (Nanda 2018)

Feminists in India are pro-abortion; for some abortion is mediated on the basis of legality and its reasons. Secondly, owing to an enormous prevalence of sex-selective abortion in India that has been taken up by various feminist forums and civil society groups, the issues related to MTP are now inextricably intert-wined with the PCPNDT Act and feminists find themselves on either side while debating around abortion. Two broad strands could be identified amongst feminists in India. One perspective is represented by feminists who are pro-abortion but also strongly against sex-selective abortion. Feminists like Geeta Sen, Vimla Ramachandran, Leela Visaria and others have debated for a right to safe and easy access to medical abortion while critiquing abortion on the basis of sex determination. Sex-selective abortion has been critiqued by almost all feminists in India since it is believed that it is a form of gender discrimi-nation. However, there are some feminists who have not completely agreed on the idea of sex-selective abortion as only gender discrimination. Kalpana Kannabiran has seen this as genocide thereby giving it a definition of absolute violence. (Kannabiran: 2011)

Manjula Padmanabhan, while examining the issue, has argued that actually sex-selective abortion may be a feminist action of rejection of a society that does not accept girls. (Padma-nabhan, 2008) The disability feminist activists like Anita Ghai have questioned the women’s movements’ concern for abortion of female foetuses while not questioning the sex determi-nation of terminating foetuses which suffer from forms of disability. (Ghai and Johri : 2008)

Within feminists, among those who believe in abortion rights, the more pro-active ones actually believe that the feminists’ emphasis on countering sex-selective abortion has led to difficulties for women to access safe abortion. It has resulted in abortion services going under-ground and the monitoring of women’s preg-nancies as a suggestion which is a violation of women’s privacy and bodily dignity. There is an overlap between abortion and sex-selective abortion, especially when it comes to information.

While the MTP Act was passed in the context of the population policies, and exists as a limited medical right, its availability is still an important concern for the women’s movement. Critical attention has been provided to keep the laws of MTP and PCPNDT separate and provide a nuanced discourse. The rift in the women’s movement continues to generate debates and these debates deepen the discourse and provide a nuanced understanding. They also provide tools to go beyond the issues to be able to engage with women’s rights in terms of bodily autonomy, integrity, privacy and rights. (Nanda 2018).

Voices from the Field

Fieldwork in two sites in Mahendragarh district provided us an understanding about the demographic and social changes leading to a more complex marriage and fertility choices. Discussions with government officials and political representatives of the district as well health functionaries illustrated the context. We present our findings in a narrative format. These findings are of our pre-testing of the field. Our data was collected through in-depth interviews, FDGs, group discussions. Our main objective was to address the connections of demographic behaviour with the socio-cultural milieu. Our research team comprised of the authors of this paper, research associates/ interns of field work. The qualitative interviews explored the following areas:

  • ideal family size and sex-composition;
  • male and female education;
  • gender roles and attitudes;
  • knowledge about sex-selection and sex-selective abortion;
  • decision-making and economic roles of women;
  • understanding and extent of gender violence.

The length of the interviews was determined by various factors including those of one-and-a-half hours. The interview documents were in English and Hindi. The participants included Panchayati Raj Institution members, women sarpanches, police officers, health officers, community development officers, Asha workers, ANMs, women survivors of violence (18-35). We interviewed around 200 people in all. There were 17-18 key informants that included Asha workers, medical practitioners, police officials and women sarpanches. The ethical protocol concerning the confidentiality of names, consent form to share the views of informants, a briefing on the project was followed.

The Field:

 Our field work started with a pre-testing at Anantpura, a population of 2000 people in the semi-urban district of Behror, Rajasthan as the first subjects of study.The interviews started with the sarpanch who represented (the head of Panchayat) Anantpura, was well-educated with a double masters’ degree. All three respondents began on an optimistic note that the status of the girl child has changed for the better, and unlike before, her birth is now celebrated in the community. Awareness about the various schemes and economic incentives of the Central and State government, especially the scheme of ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’ was reiterated. Stress was laid on the rising education among girls, and those among them who had cleared the civil services from the region. They attributed their claim of reduced domestic violence in their villages to educated women who ‘knew what to do, and did not need to be instructed’. Though none of the respondents said so vocally, they suggested that domestic violence against women was justified in the inability of the young bride to take proper instructions from the mother-in-law. The reduction in the number of girls was accepted and also indicated by their response that a number of women from other parts of India had been married into the region due to paucity of girls. The practice of dowry was also rampant, and inter-caste marriages were a strict taboo, in spite of government incentives regarding the same. The dynamics within marriages have undergone a change. Men who are employed (even if from a lower social class) could marry a woman from a higher class within the same caste group, whereas unemployed males found it difficult to find local brides, and married women from different regions. The otherwise orthodox community, however, did not object to the caste of the bride who came from outside the State (usually trafficked or sold or arranged through mediators) as she was seen as acquiring her husband’s caste. The vulnerability and dependence for the survival of women (brides) bought from other States was reframed to project women as more adjusting and docile. Marriage within the same ‘gotra’9 in the village was strictly forbidden.

The other significant interaction was organised with the local Anganwadi women at the Sarpanch’s house. The household was well- furnished with modern amenities. There were five women in the family, and one girl child. Two of them worked at the Anganwadi, one had completed her graduation, and one, the daughter-in-law, who had covered her face with a veil (ghoonghat) during our visit, was pursuing her B.Ed studies. The responses of the Anganwadi workers were particularly guarded as they claimed no knowledge of abortions taking place among pregnant women in the village. One contrast from the earlier respondents was that they accepted the occurrence of domestic violence within households. The main factors cited by them were alcoholism and unemployment among the youth in the village. The women also admitted with no explicit concern over the rise in the number of brides being bought from the other States, in the last one year. They believed that girls bought from other States for marriage readily accepted a subordinate position in the family, thus more acceptance to physical and verbal violence from family members. Conversations revealed that there was no proper system or awareness around the follow-up of medical care of the woman after child birth. There was also an attempt to put the blame on elderly women of the family for oppression and violence—mental and verbal—on the younger daughters-in-law. Thus men were projected as playing no role in the domestic issues and decision-making around the number of children/sex of the child etc. However, patriarchy seemed evident in all its forms. The tacit support of men in the perpetuation of the violence of elderly women (especially mothers-in-law) against daughters-in-law was invisible even to the victims of violence.

Beti Bachao Beti Padhao:

The other field selected for a pre-testing visit was Mahendragarh in Haryana, a district having the worst child sex ratio in the State, but not the worst levels of extreme violence. During our interaction with the Chief Medical Officer, he mentioned that since the last NFHS survey, the CSR rates have improved manifold (958 in June 2018). He himself had handled 24 cases of the PCPNDT Act violation, three of those against quacks and 21 against registered medical practitioners and institutes. However, he further added that sex-selective abortion is rampant. To avoid being caught, families of pregnant women resort to alternate methods such as approaching local quacks or unqualified doctors for abortion thus risking the woman’s life. The upper-class families, however, take the women to other States to get them checked.

While sharing with us the benefits of the PCPNDT Act, he also mentioned that each of the raids comes with its own set of problems and difficulties. With every raid, quacks and doctors performing illegal abortions are becoming more vigilant and hence the task to nab them becomes that much more difficult. He narrated to us that once he received a tip where a quack was conducting illegal tests and abortions in a small van in the middle of a field. He went on to mention that during the raid, the risk is much more when decoys are involved.

The CMO cited many faults within the Act itself that does not protect those implementing it. He complained that the doctors who call out those conducting illegal sex determination and sex-selective abortions remain at jeopardy within their fraternity and the society. He cited the incompetence and lack of sensitivity of the judiciary and other law-enforcement agencies towards it and said that the Act might benefit if brought outside the purview of the judiciary. The ones violating the Act are often powerful, and the machinery cannot bring them to justice. He also stated that there were no social movements or NGOs acting upon that issue in the region. Two women officials said that it is the people from the lower economic strata involved in the post-natal neglect of the girl child, especially if she was the second child and onwards. Thus with a meek acceptance of the first girl child, the second girl child was unwanted and carried maximum chances of getting aborted. As one woman lamented, ‘The richer classes can afford the very expensive, sophisticated methods of pre-birth termination.’ Moreover, family planning worked against the girl child, as within the two-child norm, the preferred one child was the male child. All respondents claimed that the government schemes had at the very least increased awareness, and led to an increase in reporting cases of violence among women.

Health officials were eager to share the success of the ‘Beti Bachao and Beti Padhao’ programme and also told us about the local DCPs’ initiative of the ‘Wall of daughters’ celebrating local female achievers to inspire girls and women of the village. However, one could see the pushing of a utilitarian argument to ‘save’ girls and thus justify their very existence in the society.

Perception on Violence against Women:

The last visit was made to a women’s police station in Narnaul, Mahendragarh. There were two sets of people interviewed here: first, women, with a survivor of violence pursuing a case of domestic violence perpetrated by her husband and in-laws. Second were women officials like Station House Officers and Assistant Sub-Inspectors.

Interactions with women survivors of violence at the thana were highly informative. The first respondent here was a survivor of extreme domestic violence related to dowry. She had been married to a family of a lower class than her own in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. It was apparent that the man’s family had arranged the marriage only for her and her family to meet their financial needs. The survivor and her family tried to negotiate initially, but when matters got worse, they sought legal solutions. She was carrying her three-month-old daughter delivered at her natal home with all the delivery and care expenses borne by her parents. With extreme pain and disappointment she told us that until now, neither her husband nor anyone from his family has come to see her daughter even once. From her responses, one could understand that her husband’s family was a particularly abusive and violent one, not just upon women, but even upon men married into it.

The second respondent at the police station was a woman employee. She stated that education among girls has made them conniving and immodest, and the rise in reported cases of violence was not at all a true picture. She also stated that when a woman or a girl files a report of violence, her first response would be to find the fault of the complainant herself. She also acknowledged that the marriage of women from other parts of India into Mahendragarh was rising. The fact that most women survivors of violence at the station were accompanied with their fathers also showed some positive signs of care and support from maternal family when the daughter was subjected to violence after her marriage. Conversations with women officials (Station House Officer and Assistant Sub-Inspectors) at the station were most revealing and useful for our hypothesis. They mentioned that there had been an increase in the incidence of domestic violence in the village while at the same time an increase in the reports being filed. Dowry was not the only factor for domestic violence thus opening up the possibility of other factors like the birth of a girl child/financial dependence/ addiction to alcohol into the picture. There was also a clear indication of more violence against women with the only girl child. She further pointed to a very significant aspect, often neglected, and that was the increasing prevalence of mental violence at the hands of the husband and in-laws. Verbal taunts, abuses and emotional abandonment were common for women who had not been able to ‘conceive a male child’ to their family.

The Station House Officer expressed grave concern over the reduction in the number of girls (decrease in child sex ratio) in the village that had led to two negative consequences: increase in the number of girls being trafficked from other States for marriage and the increasing unemployment and alcoholism amongst the young men in the village leading to their violent behaviour. This revelation became very crucial for our study as it showed the clear conse-quential relationship between the decline in child sex ratio and increase in violence against women. She also observed that education remains the only hope of women in the village to lead their girls to a brighter future. Thus there was general acceptance both amongst men and women of the village that girls should be educated. However, there is no awareness or will to connect this education further with employment/career growth/financial independence of women in future. As a result there was some positive enhancement in the value of the girl child but that abruptly ended once she acquired the status of a wife in another home. The declining sex ratio in the region of study was apparent from records as well as the paucity of women for marriage from the community. The claim of the high rise in CSR in Mahendragarh as compared to the picture presented by the data from NFHS-4 would need further comparison for a comprehensive view. The stigma against committing a gender-based crime has risen, due to education and awareness, but the blame still resides upon the woman. Authorities responsible for the reporting of crimes too seemed to hold such a prejudice, and this might impact the final output of the rise or fall in the number of cases of crime, or even if there is an overall rise, in the composition of the reported crimes.

Research Findings

Our interview findings corroborate that son-preference continues in different forms and may express itself in sex-selection and sex-selective abortion. While the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao campaign had brought in an awareness about the significance around the value of girls, it has a utilitarian purpose. While most admitted that daughters need to be educated and felt that they provide better care for parents, they reiterated the importance of sons for patrilineal rights and other purposes. The shifting of patriarchal values was at a superficial level. The cultural context of marriage and dowry, exogamy and stereo-typing of a ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ woman had not changed. The individual agency of women in marriage is still unimaginable. The broad boundaries of religion, caste and class had to be followed. There were open conversations about justifying honour killings in cases of same gotra marriages. Education for both men and women were important for their marital prospects. In short, the daughter-in-law should focus on household work and maintain the gender- balance in family composition. While education was valued for women more than before, it did not entail a sense of gender equality in terms of societal norms and practices. Gender-violence was prevalent and almost all respondents had either faced or heard of gender-violence. The nuanced connection between sex-selective abortion and child sex ratio (CSR) and violence could be noted from certain critical conver-sations where women admitted to being survivors (mahila thana officers, health officers, women survivors) suffering stigma and prejudices around daughters.

Two significant observations have emerged that are crucial to our study:

Trafficking of girls for marriage—lack of education and employment among men along with deficit of women in the region—has impacted the marriage prospects for men. The procuring of women and girls for marriage from Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, West Bengal and so on for marriage was to make up for this deficit. Meeting such women also revealed to us the causal connection between CSR and VAW. These women are preferred now due to their passive nature (as they lack the agency being away from natal families as well as being bought through a bride price) and since they are seen as docile and submissive. The extent of violence was gauged from interviews with other women in the region who agreed unanimously that these outside women faced more violence.

Another important finding was that in the households having fewer women (three brother-in-laws and one bhabi10) there seemed to be far more isolation and perceived violence against women. Alcoholism was found to be another contributing factor to the increasing violence.

Government functionaries celebrating the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao campaign by projecting some local role-models etc. fail to meet the core objective, which is to change the patriarchal mindset of the society and also the need to engage very vociferously on eliminating violence against women and creating a balance in the Child Sex Ratio. Domestic violence issues were seen separately from girl-child discrimination which was viewed in terms of sex-selective abortion. While family support to women survivors seeking legal redressal for domestic violence had increased, the idea of domestic violence is still normalised. The distinction between the status of the daughter and daughter-in-law is a crucial one and government policies and programmes must essentially delve into it.

Recommendations and Suggestions

Though the project is at its initial stages, a pre-testing of fields at Anantpura and Mahendragarh provided us with a broad interconnection with the decline in the child sex ratio and violence against women. Based on the field analysis elaborated above, we propose a few recommen-dations and suggestions:

• We need to look at the context of inter-sectionality—that is, caste, class, region and gender interconnections that implicate these issues.

Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, a flagship programme by the Union Government is appreciated for emphasising on the education of girls and thereby enhancing the value of the girl child. However, there needs to be a deeper understanding and approach towards implementing this programme in terms of actual interventions in breaking the patriarchal norms and structures. It must engage the people’s participation and active role to bring about ground level changes.

• The status of women in family after marriage needs to be addressed in terms of protection against violence, financial independence, property rights, fertility choices etc.

• The unemployment and its connection to alcoholism needs to be addressed by authorities to provide better opportunities for the young men in villages.

• Need of training for women members of Panchayats to avoid proxy representation by their husbands and better decision-making. The ANMs and Asha workers need to be carefully selected and trained. Monthly meetings should be held by the Sarpanch with the Asha and anganwadi workers to share updates and concerns regarding violence, health, services and others matters pertaining to women and girls.

• To ensure that the PCPNDT Act is implemented as per the law and ensure penalties to those involved in the wrongful practices, the state should provide adequate support and resources in terms of people and finance to the concerned officials. Regular meetings should be held among the stakeholders to discuss strategies and share grievances.

• Further research on this issue as well as an active involvement of the women’s movement in the field is necessary. The state must also develop synergies with academia, gender- experts, grassroot groups and the women’s movements to counter gender violence and gender discrimination.


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1. NSS in its thick surveys mostly focus on working age population. So, the possibilities of having a child in the household is subjected to randomness. Some argue (Siddhanta and Agnihotri, 2003) that the age group for child sex ratio should be expanded to 0-14 years with the NSS data.

2. SRS can be disaggregated only upto the State level.

3. The SRS is based upon 157,626 births at the national level, CRS is based upon 21.8 million births in 2011, Census- 21 million live births preceding the survey and NFHS 265,653 live births five years preceding the survey (Rajan, et al., 2017).

4. Breakable to district and million plus cities

5. Which is constituted as domestic violence (DV) variable.

6. Prepared after merging multiple points belonging from the same district, that is, rural-urban location and separate police station records have been combined to form the district aggregate.

7. This is in complete contrast to the distribution of CSR which shows a clear north-west south-east regional divide of girl child discrimination reflective of the cultural norms and economic practices of son preference.

8. In every lakh married women in India two were subjected to dowry murders in 2011, based on NCRB.

9. Gotra meaning lineage.

10. Elder brother’s wife.

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