A new report by India’s finance ministry estimates that a cultural preference for boys has led to 21 million “unwanted” girls in the country.
Sex selective abortions, in which parents decide terminate pregnancies when they find out that they are having girls, are a well-reported phenomenon in India (the country has outlawed such procedures, but they have been known to happen anyway). As the BBC explains, however, the new report outlines a different way that parents ensure they have sons: They keep having babies until a male child is born.
The authors of the report caution that this practice, though “gentler” than sex-selective abortion, can lead to female children receiving less food and schooling than their brothers.
The report also found that 63 million women have gone “missing” from India’s population due to factors like abortions and — because more care is given to boys — disease, neglect and malnutrition.
There are a number of reasons behind the cultural preference for boys in India. Male children are not expected to pay dowries when they marry, for instance. And while women are legally able to inherit property and businesses in India, tradition dictates that these legacies are handed over to sons.
This preference for male children seems to exist across socio-economic classes; as The Washington Post reports, the new research compared data from 1999 and 2011, and found that sex ratios in various states have worsened, even as incomes improved. The gap is particularly wide in the Punjab and Haryana, where there are 1,200 boys under the age of seven for every 1,000 girls.
“Perhaps the area where Indian society — and this goes beyond governments to civil society, communities, and households — needs to reflect on the most is what might be called ‘son preference’ where development is not proving to be an antidote,” the survey suggested, according to the Post.