New Delhi (CNSNews.com) - Religious leaders in India have joined the battle to protect female babies in their mothers' wombs, because legislation has failed to protect them in a society that displays a preference for sons, sociologists said on Wednesday.
The killing of preborn female babies in the country has grown to such a degree that the ratio of women to men is no longer in line with global trends.
India's 2001 census figures show that the country's 1.027 billion population is now broken down into 933 females for every 1,000 males, down from 972:1,000 in 1991.
In many parts of the world, including the U.S., Europe and Japan, females outnumber males by 3-5 percent. In India and China, by contrast, males outnumber females by 6-8 percent.
Sociologist Rakesh Kapur of Delhi University said modern technology has helped a patriarchal society kill unwanted baby girls while still in the womb.
"The reason these sex ratios are so skewed today is not primarily because people are drowning their daughters [after birth]. It is because they are having ultrasound tests, seeing that it is a girl, and deciding to abort it. This technology allows for a prevalence of female destruction unprecedented in human history."
Even though the use of an ultrasound machine to determine sex, and sex-selective abortions are illegal in India, the number of "missing" girls has risen dramatically since ultrasound devices were introduced.
The Indian Medical Association said it estimates about five million baby girls are killed in the womb in India every year.
"This implies that there are some 20-25 million 'missing' women in India. Some were never born. And the rest die because they do not have the opportunity to survive," a U.N. report said.
Religious leaders are now speaking out against the phenomenon.
Female feticide is a crime against humanity. People forget that to carry on with life, a girl child is a must," said Swami Jayaendra Saraswatiji Maharaj, one of Hinduism's most revered figures.
Maulana Mufti Mukaram of the Fatehpuri mosque in New Delhi said Islam does not allow feticide. "The detection of the sex of the unborn child has to abolished to end this criminal practice," he said.
The religious leaders blamed the practice on the misuse of advanced medical technology and called upon the country's medical fraternity to end it.
Sociologists believe the appeals from religious leaders could go a long way in curbing the trend as they wield significant influence over the Indian masses.
They warned that a continuing fall in the male-female ratio could lead to grave social imbalances.
"Women are forced to abort their female fetus owing to family pressure and the practice of dowry is responsible for this," said Rajiv Gupta, a sociologist with Jawaharlal Nehru University.
He was referring to the widespread practice of Indian men demanding huge sums of money and gifts from the bride's family during marriage. While a son stays and brings wealth into a family, a daughter leaves, and costs her family a considerable sum before she does so.
Vibha Parthasarthy, head of India's government-funded National Commission for Women said the "unholy alliance" between technology and tradition had to be broken.
Satish Agnihotri, a population policy expert, noted that the phenomenon of son preference had reached alarming proportions in India's most prosperous states, rather than the more "backward" ones.
Social scientist Pravin Visaria explained this trend by saying tribal women enjoy greater equality with men than do those in Hindu castes.
"Despite tremendous social, political and economic advantages enjoyed by India's caste Hindu population, their record when it comes to prejudices against women, remains the worst," Visaria said.
"In sharp contrast, the least discrimination against girls exists among the marginalized and impoverished tribes."
Anti-female prejudices are not as blatant among predominantly urbanized and well-educated Jains and Christians. The deficit of women is the lowest among the Christians and the highest amongst the Sikhs. The Buddhists also report lower deficit of women than the Hindus and Muslims, Pravin said.
The banning of sex determination tests helped deny people a tool facilitating sex selective abortions, but it did not change social attitudes, experts say.
The banning merely made the tests costlier as they went underground and are now being conducted with the connivance of a society that still believes a son is a must for a family.
"You cannot legislate against attitudes," observed sociologist Dhar. "Only better education and a rise in standard of living can force the society to change its attitude towards the girl child."