India bans sex tests to save 'missing daughters'


New Delhi

In some corners of India, mothers are forced by poverty to kill their newborn daughters. Some suffocate them or daub poisonous oleander on their tongues. In the western deserts of Gujarat, a baby is taken from her mother and abandoned in a house until her crying stops.

Until 1 January, parents could dispose legally of unwanted girls by abortion. But the government has announced a ban on tests to determine whether an expectant mother is carrying a boy or a girl.

Indian authorities now forbid the use of such diagnostic tools as amniocentesis and ultrasonography in deciphering a foetus's sex. This came 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 has fallen to 93 women for every 100 men, but in some regions there are fewer than 85 women per 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 its patients to report back if they had undergone abortions and, if so, whether the foetus was a boy or a girl. Social workers discovered that, for every aborted male, there were 1,000 aborted females.

Female infanticide was banned by the British in India as far back as 1870, but the practice persists. A girl is considered a burden because families must usually pay a huge dowry to marry her off. Often, poor families will fall into debt for years to provide the bicycle, television set, silk saris and gold jewellery that are a bridegroom's minimum demand.

At the upper end, a graduate from the elite government training school can command a starting dowry of more than pounds 30,000. And the newspaper advertisements for clinics that carry out selective abortions are unabashed: "Why not spend 500 rupees (pounds 9) for a sex test now, and save yourself lakhs later?" (A lakh is 100,000 rupees).

It is not only the poor who resort to female infanticide. Unicef contends that in Haryana and Punjab, two rich farming states, the ratio is about 87 women to 100 men. Travellers to India are often struck by the scarcity of women. Few are to be seen in trains, in the bazaars or toiling in the fields.

Traditionally, villagers think that having daughters is a waste of money and food, since they grow up, marry, move away, and are unable to provide for their own parents. "Having a daughter is like watering your neighbour's garden," is one proverb. But even among many middle-class families, sons are preferred to daughters and are generally better treated. A study by a Ludhiana teaching hospital showed that out of every 100 children admitted, 84 were boys. When girls were finally brought for treatment, parents had waited until their daughters were near death.

Social workers say that although the new ban on sex tests is a step towards ending girl-only abortions, it could be impossible to police. Amniocentesis and ultrasound have a multitude of other diagnostic uses and both are widely available in thousands of clinics. A spokesman from one British family planning organisation working in Delhi said: "Some abortion clinics don't screen women that carefully on why they want to terminate their pregnancy. I'm sure the sex tests will go on, but in the backstreets.''

Development experts insist that only when Indian families learn to honour the female child as much as sons will the situation improve. Until then, it will be always be difficult finding stationery shops in India that sell congratulation cards for the birth of a new daughter.