Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi implored his country to stop killing unborn girls, warning in a speech on Thursday that the practice would have serious consequences for the subcontinent, which has seen a steady decline in the number of girls born, even as some social indicators, such as maternal mortality, have improved.
Despite being banned in India, sex-selective abortion is a growing problem in the country. India's sex ratio — the number of girls born for every 1,000 boys — dropped from 964 in 1971 to 918 in 2011, according to United Nations and Indian government data. Human Rights Watch said the statistics point to “the failure of laws aimed at reducing sex-selective abortions.”
Modi has not proposed new legislation, but he did launch a new campaign on the issue, called “Beti Bachao Beti Padhao” (Save the Daughter, Teach the Daughter). He announced it at a public event before a largely female audience in Haryana — the state with the lowest ratio of female to male births. He told the women gathered there that they must resist pressure from family and society to abort girls. "The prime minister of the country is begging you to save the lives of girls," Modi said. "We have to change our thinking and stop believing that boys are superior to girls. We should change our mentality."
India's skewed sex ratio, which is particularly pronounced in sections of the country’s northwest, reflect India’s deeply patriarchal society. Daughters are often seen as a financial liability because of the practice of dowry, in which a bride's family gives property or money to her husband's family upon marriage. The practice was outlawed in 1961 but still widely continues.
Last year, the United Nations warned that the gender imbalance in the country had reached emergency proportions. The government has identified 100 districts where there are only between 837 and 875 girls born per 1,000 boys, and Modi's new campaign will emphasize the enforcement of existing laws against sex-selection in those districts. Modi also urged doctors to stop performing gender-based abortions.
India's Pre-Conception & Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act of 1994 bans sex-selection techniques, including the use of pre-natal ultrasound scans to determine the sex of a fetus, and imposes a sentence of up to five years in prison. Nevertheless, enforcement of the law is poor, and sex-selective abortion is widely available. A 2011 study in the British medical journal The Lancet found that up to 12 million Indian girls had been aborted over the last three decades in India.
"Whatever policies we have been following need a complete review because we have not been able to arrest the decline of the child sex ratio,” a former top official in the Indian civil service, G.K. Pillai, said in 2011. “Whatever steps have been put in place in the last 40 years has had no impact on the ratio.”
The program will also emphasize improving educational opportunities for girls and will include a media campaign featuring Bollywood star Madhuri Dixit.
Al Jazeera and wire services