Indians prefer boys

Despite modernization, many Indians continue to have sex-selective abortions. What's more, the trend seems to be growing.

By Catherine Price

Published April 15, 2008 3:50PM (EDT)

Dammit. I was getting fired up to comment on the Whiz Biz commercial. (Was anyone else very confused about what that woman is doing in the YouTube freeze frame embedded in the post?) But then I read a tip from a reader about this article from the AP titled "Modern India Still Prays for Boys," and felt obligated to write about it instead. (After all, I don't have that much to say about the Whiz Biz besides a) that commercial is weird and b) I kind of want one.)

The headline pretty much sums up the article: Despite India's modernization and its changing social mores, many Indian families still prefer boys to girls. "There's more money here, and more education. But it's still in the back of everyone's mind: 'I must have a male child,'" one obstetrician in Morena is quoted as saying. "The money doesn't change that."

What's more, families aren't just praying; they're having sex-selective abortions. The article says that by 2001, researchers claimed that ultrasound and sex-selective abortions had resulted in between 20 million and 40 million "missing girls" -- and the situation doesn't seem to be improving. The British medical journal the Lancet reports that up to 500,000 female fetuses are being aborted every year; in a recent study, the group ActionAid found rural areas in Punjab with only 500 girls for every 1,000 boys, and "communities of high-caste urbanites with just 300 girls per 1,000." Sex-determination tests have been illegal in India since 1991, but since ultrasound tests are simple and non-invasive, there's little evidence left behind (and few people are prosecuted to begin with).

The practice is particularly difficult to stop because families' preference for boys has deep cultural roots: Boys don't require dowries, they stay home after they get married, and they're allowed to light their parents' funeral pyres (Hinduism forbids girls from doing so). If you want to stop sex-selective abortions, you have to redefine gender roles. Last I checked, that's not usually easy to do.

You'd think that modernization and wealth would help, but that's not the case. Instead, while many Indians become richer and more educated -- in other words, as certain parts of India's culture change -- the gap between the sexes is widening. Several potential reasons put forth by the AP: "India's growing middle class means far more people can afford ultrasound tests. Increased urbanization means easier access to the machines. And as family sizes drop, the pressure to have boys intensifies."

So there you have it: Your depressing news for the morning. It's enough to make me rewatch that Whiz Biz commercial, just to distract myself.

Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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