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India’s gender balance tilts but huge challenges remain for women.

For the first time in more than three decades India’s gender ratio appears to have tilted in favour of women.

According to the fifth National Family and Health Survey (NFHS), which studied some 650,000 Indian households between 2019 and 2021, the country now has 1,020 women for every 1,000 men.

The results represent a shift: India’s last census in 2011 found there were 940 women for every 1,000 men.

Officials at the federal ministry of health and family welfare claimed that successfully curbing sex determination tests and female foeticide had succeeded in restoring India’s demographic balance.

“Looking at the outcome we can say that our measures for women empowerment have steered us in the right direction,” said Vikas Sheel from the family welfare ministry, which released the NHFS report last month.

Demographers said the survey indicated that India was no longer a country of “missing women”, a term used in 1990 by the Indian-born Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen. He wrote that 37 million Indian females had been killed before or immediately after birth due to centuries of societal and cultural biases against female offspring.

A United Nations report in 2014 said that India’s dwindling female population had reached “emergency proportions” and was the primary cause for the rise in the number of rapes and other sexual crimes against women in the country.

But despite the good news regarding the restoration of Indian female numbers, the survey revealed that the gender ratio at birth was still at 929 girls for every 1,000 boys, indicating that public preference for sons still prevails. And there are vast other challenges.

Bread-winners

Traditionally girls in India have been considered an economic liability as, unlike boys, they are not deemed bread-winners for their families, especially in rural areas,where the bulk of India’s largely indigent population of more than 1.3 billion live.

Moreover dowries – which were legally outlawed in 1961, but the law was never seriously enforced – have to be disbursed by even the poorest families of females at weddings in keeping with established practice. These families also face pressure to organise lavish marriage ceremonies, often by taking large loans that take a lifetime to pay back.

Refusal to pay dowries has led to bride harassment, including beatings and starvation until the money and goods are produced. In some terrible instances brides have been forced by their husbands and in-laws into flammable nylon saris, doused with paraffin and set alight.

Although stringent laws were enacted in 1986 to thwart such horrific acts they remain common. The National Crime Record Bureau in Delhi recorded 6,966 dowry-related female deaths across India in 2020, averaging 19 each day.

Female activist lawyer Malvika Rajkotia said these statistics were conservative as many dowry deaths, including bride-burning cases, either go unreported in rural areas and small townships or are registered as suicides or accidental deaths by corrupt officials.

A shortage of females has spawned a “bride crisis” in the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, where thousands of young men of marriageable ages have failed to find wives. This has led to some families “buying” brides from poorer states such as Bihar and Bengal in the east in the hope that, in turn, they will produce male offspring.

Foetus scans

In addition, female rights activists say many families who want only boys repeatedly abort female foetuses after having sex determination tests. Although such tests were banned in 1994, they still persist.

Dr Ish Pal Ghai, a former government doctor in northern Punjab state, said many families in the region solicited laboratories to employ ultra-sound machines to conduct these foetus scans for large sums of money.

The picture for Indian males is very different: in a predominantly patriarchal society they are viewed as assets, looked upon as providers and carriers of family names. In the country’s predominantly Hindu community only sons can perform the last rites at their parents’ cremations to ensure rebirth; daughters are barred from doing so.

The NFHS report also disclosed that India, the world’s second most populous country after China, was no longer facing a population explosion as its reproductivity rate had dropped considerably below “replacement fertility levels”.

But India’s population is not expected to fall for another 30 to40 years as more than 30 per cent of its citizens are between the ages of 10 and 30 years and in time they will have children of their own. Two years ago the UN projected that India would overtake China’s population by 2027.

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