Children: Parents are paid to have the daughters India lost

India has 40 million fewer women than it would have, if the sexual balance had been left to nature. What has happened to this population the size of that of England and Wales? Most were aborted; many were killed after birth. An anxious government now plans to reward couples for having daughters. Peter Popham asks if it can change the course of a horrifying battle of the sexes.

The Indian government chose yesterday, Mahatma Gandhi's birthday and a national holiday, to launch a modest 720 million rupee (pounds 12.4m) scheme to give the daughters of the nation's poorest families hope of a better start in life.

Families throughout the country earning less than 11,000 rupees (pounds 190) per year and who produce a daughter will be rewarded with a payment of 500 rupees - rather less than pounds 9. They will also get financial incentives to encourage them to send their daughters to school.

The reasons the government has stepped in are brutally simple. The arrival of a daughter can be a financial disaster. A male heir is needed to carry on the family name. A girl, by contrast, is considered "another family's wealth", and the demands for a big dowry, though forbidden by the Anti- Dowry Act, can often ruin poorer families or those with several daughters.

The dowry threat induces many families to forestall the problem in more or less barbaric ways. In parts of poor states like Bihar, there are still said to be midwives who specialise in strangling girl babies at birth. Elsewhere women go to respectable clinics for the amniocentesis test: ostensibly used to test for genetic defects, but in India almost invariably to check the baby's sex. If it's a girl, abortion often follows soon afterwards.

The government says that in a study of 8,000 abortions carried out after amniocentesis in Bombay, 7,999 of the foetuses were female. In this way India's traditional imbalance between the sexes has got worse: in 1901, there were 972 females for every 1,000 males, but 90 years on there were only 927. Three years ago sex determination tests were banned by law, but they continue unabated.

Supposing the daughter makes it out of the womb, her prospects are still poor compared to those of her brothers. In the countryside, even if boys go to school the girls are likely to be kept behind to help in the house - which helps to account for the fact that female illiteracy is 60 per cent, while male is 35 per cent.

The woes continue into adulthood, with the dowry burden and related terrors: the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) reported recently that 5,000 Indian women every year are burnt to death by their in-laws in retribution for their families' failure to provide sufficient dowry.

However, the government scheme is flawed because it is in the poorest parts of the countryside, where it could do most good, that corruption is rife and the money is likely to end up in the wrong hands. Even if it goes to families with baby girls, there is no way of ensuring that it is the baby girls who will benefit. Boys, it is still almost universally believed, matter more.

It is nevertheless a first step: the first time after years of worthy talk that the Indian government has put a little money where its mouth is. "In India we've been talking about the girl-child for a decade, about the necessity of upliftment," said Vanita Nathani, director of a private organisation involved with gender issues in poor villages near the capital. "But this is the first time the authorities have pledged money."

Historically the position of women in Hindu society was grim, from uncertain birth to a fiery death in sati on the funeral pyre of the lord and master. Sati was abolished in the 19th century (though a case of an attempted sati was reported in Rajasthan just last week). But in many other respects the position of women has hardly advanced at all. "If a boy is born, there is happiness," said the government's advertisement launching the scheme in today's Hindustan Times. "If a girl is born, there is sorrow."

Against this great wall of prejudice and discrimination, the government's new scheme could well have all the impact of a peashooter. But women who work on the girl-child problem in poor communities gave it a cautious welcome yesterday. "If the money reaches the people it's meant to reach in the interior," said Vanita Nathani, "it will be useful. In a city like Delhi, 500 rupees means nothing. In the interior it is significant. But it's only a step. We also need a proper educational infrastructure in the interior, proper schools and teachers and incentives to motivate people to send their children to school."

But for these good things to happen, the first battle has to be won in the womb.

The missing millions

The Indian government announced a ban on tests to determine whether an expectant mother is carrying a boy or a girl after census-takers recorded an alarming drop in India's female population. World-wide, for every 100 men, there are 105 women; in India, the average fell to 93 women for every 100 men.

Unicef, in a recent report, stated: "There is perhaps no more shameful statistic than the fact that some 40 to 50 million girls and women are 'missing' from the Indian population." One Bombay hospital that carried out sex tests on foetuses asked patients to report back if they had undergone abortions and whether the foetus was a boy or a girl. Social workers discovered that, for every aborted male, there were 1,000 aborted females.

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