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Female genocide? The missing women and girls of India and China

Image from the 50 Million Missing campaign against 'female genocide' in India. Image:Pam Kelso (designer), Fernando G. Aguinaco (background) Hervé Blandin (foreground); Flickr/rita banerji. Over two million women and girls go missing in India and China every year. In both countries, excess deaths occur at all stages in the lives of women under 60. Pre-birth discrimination is the principal cause in China.

The figures come from a major report by the World Bank, the 2012 World Development Report on Gender Equality and Development (press release).

The World Bank attempted to calculate what the gender ratios in low and middle-income countries would be if, having taken into account their overall health environment, they were otherwise like high-income countries.

It found that nearly 4 million girls and women go "missing" each year due to pre-birth discrimination or excess mortality after birth. Nearly all (85% or 3.3m) were in China, Sub-Saharan Africa and India.

The worldwide total is only slightly lower than in 1990. In India, there has been some progress: although an estimated 856,000 girls and women went "missing" in 2008, in 1990 the figure was 1.25 million.

The Bank report said that missing girls at birth reflected overt discrimination and was a particular problem in China and North India but was spreading to other parts of India. The 2011 Indian census shows that the number of female births to male has dropped to 914 per 1,000 from 927 in 2001.

Although sex-selective abortion is illegal in China, China's legislature scrapped an amendment in 2006 that would have made it a criminal offence. China's Xinhua reported in August 2011 that China had launched an eight-month campaign "to significantly curb non-medical sex determinations and sex-selective abortions".

China and India account for 19 out of 20 missing girls at birth (1.1m and 257,000 missing girls, respectively, in 2008).

However, a 2011 Lancet study, Trends in selective abortions of girls in India, found that the figure for India might be significantly higher. It found that the ratio of girls to boys in families where the firstborn was a girl was an estimated 836 per 1000 boys in 2005. The number of selective abortions was estimated to have averaged between 310,000 and 600,000 per year in the 2000s, up substantially on the 1980s and 1990s. The increase was most noticeable in wealthier households and among better educated mothers. The total number of selective abortions of female foetuses was estimated to be 4-12 million over 30 years.

Child rights group Plan International has picked a baby girl, Nargis Kumar, born in Uttar Pradesh on October 31 as the seven billionth member of the world population. It was a symbolic statement to draw attention to sex-selective abortion and India's skewed sex ratio.

There were approximately 7.1 million fewer girls than boys aged 0–6 years in the 2011 census. The gap was up from 6 million in 2001 and 4.2 million in 1991.

Globally, significant numbers of excess deaths occur among girls under five. The World Bank said this is "a result not so much of discrimination as of poor institutions that force households to choose among many bad options, particularly regarding water and sanitation." However, the 251,000 excess deaths of girls under five in India in 2008 was 40% of the world's total in that age group. It was 203,000 in sub-Saharan Africa and 71,000 in China.

Maternal mortality and HIV/AIDS were the main cause of excess female deaths among women of childbearing age. Among women aged 15-49, there were 228,000 excess deaths in India and 751,000 in sub-Saharan Africa in 2008. There has been a huge increase in excess female mortality in sub-Saharan African countries with a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS.

India's high death rate was noted in the report: "despite stellar economic growth in recent years, maternal mortality is almost six times the rate in Sri Lanka." Trying to get married can also be fatal: the National Crime Records Bureau 2010 Crime in India statistics published on October 27 puts the number of dowry-related deaths at 8,391 in 2010.

Female infanticide (killing infants after birth) was found to be around 25,000 per year in the State of Kerala alone, according to a study by the Achutha Menon Centre for Health Studies. However, hard numbers on infanticide may be difficult to obtain, for obvious reasons. Some researchers think that infanticide is in decline. "In more recent years infanticide has probably been replaced by use of ultrasound," according to Dr Prabhat Jha, Professor of Health and Development University of Toronto Canada, and author of the 2011 Lancet study above.

India's 50 Million Missing Campaign

A report in the International Herald Tribune several years ago suggested that there may be a shortfall of as many as 50 million women in India. The following year, the 50 Million Missing campaign (pictured) was founded by writer and gender-activist Rita Banerji.

The Campaign argues that discrimination is the root cause of India's excess female deaths at all ages, saying that India's high maternal mortality rate, for example, is linked to early child marriage and repeated pregnancies and abortions of female fetuses.

The excess deaths are described as female genocide. Last June, Banerji defended the use of the phrase: "Females are being killed in India at every stage of life, before and after birth, only because they are female" (emphasis in the original). She has also categorised all the pre- and post-birth excess deaths as homicide.

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