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Disappearing daughters: a Punjab shocker

London, June 21: The ratio of surviving girl children to boys has fallen to an all time low of 300 to 1,000 in parts of Punjab, with higher caste families identified as being the most active in getting rid of unwanted daughters.

This is one of the disclosures in a new report, Disappearing Daughters, based on research done jointly in north and north-west India by ActionAid, a charity and NGO that has been working in the country since 1972, and by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

The report, which will be presented at a UK parliamentary reception of the all-party group on population, development and reproductive health on Monday, says: “Most shocking of all are the figures for high caste urban Punjabis, at just under 300 girls for every 1,000 boys.”

The report also reveals that in four of the five sites surveyed, the proportion of girls to boys has declined even further since 2001.

Many of the anecdotes quoted in the report make grim reading.

In Morena, one of the poorest rural districts in Madhya Pradesh, for example, one man, Kirpal Ojha, was left with four daughters, aged 5, 9, 10 and 12, when his wife died. Now only the youngest is alive because the others somehow fell “ill”.

When Kirpal’s second wife gave birth to two daughters, neither survived because the woman’s mother-in-law forbade her from providing any medical assistance to the babies.

The mother-in-law ensured the younger daughter did not survive by stuffing tobacco into her mother.

But now all is well after the birth of a son.

ActionAid and IDRC’s research reveals that, despite policies to address girls’ rights and public information campaigns, sex-selective abortion and neglect are on the increase.

Although using of scanning devices as an aid to get rid of female foetuses is illegal, doctors, nurses and other medical practitioners are routinely violating the ban, performing abortions and benefiting financially, the report says.

Some justify the abortions by arguing it is “social duty” to kill daughters because otherwise they risk facing discrimination all their lives.

Laura Turquet, women’s rights policy officer at ActionAid, said: “The real horror of the situation is that for women, avoiding having daughters is a rational choice. But for wider society, it’s creating an appalling and desperate state of affairs.”

It is estimated that around 10 million female foetuses may have been aborted in India over the last two decades and according to the Lancet over 500,000 are currently being aborted every year.

The development of India as an economic power has not changed the preference for sons over daughters.

Turquet warned: “Tackling this complex issue means taking immediate action around enforcing the law against using ultrasound for sex selection and improving access to health care and education in poorer areas. In the long term, cultural attitudes need to change. India must address economic and social barriers, including property rights, marriage dowries and gender roles that condemn girls before they are even born. If we don’t act now the future looks bleak.”

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