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INDIA: Sex Selection on the Rise Despite Stricter Law

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, Jul 12 2011 (IPS) - When Sujatha’s husband learned that she had conceived just five months after they got married, he became agitated over what he called her “ill-timed pregnancy”. To worsen her husband’s anxiety, a test to determine the sex of the foetus showed she was carrying a girl.

Sujatha, a public school teacher, and her husband, a civil engineer – who asked that their full names be withheld – are from well-off and educated families in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of the southern state of Kerala. Yet they dared violate the law, approaching doctors at the Sree Avittam Thirunal Hospital for an abortion; they were granted one within a month.

The law prohibits Indian couples from selecting the sex of their unborn children, and from discriminating against female foetuses. Abortions are legal only for certain reasons, like when the mother is ill and pregnancy would endanger her life, or when a foetus is found to be severely handicapped.

But even with these laws in place, educated urban couples like Sujatha and her husband are opting for sex-selective abortions, thus causing a decline in the female population.

Sex determination tests have spurted across the nation, despite efforts to strengthen the Pre- Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PC & PNDT) Act, the law against the misuse of pre- natal tests for sex selection.

Indian health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad told reporters in New Delhi that the central supervisory board on the PC & PNDT Act has been reconstituted to prevent widespread sex determination tests.

Azad said the Medical Council of India (MCI) “should urgently ensure that guidelines for accreditation of training and experience are put in place quickly.” The government has asked the MCI to implement a tough accreditation system for institutes that give training on the use of ultrasound machines, while considering the increasing trend of fraudulent institutions that use bogus certificates.

The health departments of the different states have also started cracking down on illegal sonography centres and fraudulent maternity clinics.

The Indian parliament enacted the PC & PNDT law in 1994 and amended it in 2003. Sources in the central health department said that between 2003 and March this year, 805 cases had been filed against doctors for violating the law, resulting in 55 convictions.

“The Indian socio-cultural psyche prefers a son to a daughter. This belief is very strong in northwest India, including Haryana and Delhi, where sex selection tests are very common,” Dr. V. Raman Kutty, a health activist and professor at the Achutha Menon Centre for Health Science Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, told IPS.

“Advances in medical science have aided the popularity of these tests. The metros are the major centres for the tests with sophisticated laboratories. However, amniocentesis and ultrasound are available even in the clinics of small towns and cities,” he pointed out.

A study led by Dr. Prabhat Jha of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Global Health Research and published in the British medical journal “The Lancet” estimates that up to 12 million selective abortions of girl foetuses had occurred in India in the past three decades.

Sex-selective abortion was rare in India during the first half of the 20th century, but the availability of ultrasound machines has made sex determination easier, leading to an increase in the frequency of such tests.

Experts observe that the abortion law in the country, called the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, has many loopholes that save violators from penal action.

Dr. Sunny Sebastian, a health expert in Mumbai, told IPS that “in the present system, the doctor and patient can do abortions for wrong reasons. A survey conducted in Mumbai revealed that both doctors and patients do not heed legal warnings and have done abortions in advanced stages of pregnancy after discovering the foetus was female.”

Sex selection is taking its toll on the population. The 2011 Census data found a decline in the number of girls in the zero-to-six age group, reflecting a steady decline in the child sex ratio (CSR). In 1981, there were 971 girls for every 1,000 boys; in 2011, the number of girls dropped to 914.

The data revealed that CSR has declined in 431 districts, but improved in 149 districts of the country.

While citing the new census data, Azad said there were 7.1 million fewer girls than boys. “In 2001, this gap was six million. This means around 3.1 to six million girls have been aborted in the past decade.”

Activists say preventing female foeticide is a serious challenge before Indian society and that the economic factor plays a key role in the change in CSR.

Durga Lakshmi, a social activist and lecturer in Metca Institute of Teacher Education at Varkala, Kerala, told IPS that the financial wellness of a family determines whether it will decide to have a girl child or not.

“Through empowerment, strengthening of rights, campaigning against vicious practices and ensuring strict implementation of law, society can wipe out sex selection and abortion of girls. Economic distress is the basis for smaller families preferring sons. Daughters are thought to be an economic burden in poor families,” she said.

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