Laws have been passed in India to prohibit sex-selective abortion. But a broader campaign is needed to address this and other harmful practices that are rooted in a cultural preference for sons and influenced by social and economic factors.
The ratio of women to men is a powerful indicator of the social health of any society. In socially and economically advanced societies, sex ratios are favourable to females. In India and other South and South-East Asian countries, however, the ratios have been reversed. In 1901, for example, there were 972 women in India for every 1,000 men. By 2001, the ratio had dropped to 933 women for every 1,000 men—a strong indication of sex-selective abortions and other harmful practices.
In India, family and social pressures to produce a son are immense. In most regions, sons are desired for reasons related to kinship, inheritance, marriage, identity, status, economic security and lineage. A preference for boys cuts across caste and class lines and results in discrimination against girls even before they are born.
Though some regions of India have a history of female infanticide, declining sex ratios are now also attributed to the use of new technologies for sex selection. There are no firm statistics at either the state or national levels on sex-selective abortion. However, a study by UNFPA concluded that sex-selective abortions from 1996 to 1998 in the northern states of Haryana and Punjab accounted for an estimated 81 per cent and 26 per cent of total abortions, respectively.
Following a campaign by health and human rights activists, legal measures to ban the use of prenatal diagnostic techniques for sex selection were first passed in the Indian state of Maharashtra in 1986. Similar efforts at the national level resulted in the enactment, in 1994, of the Prenatal Diagnostics Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act. Though the law became operational in 1996, it proved difficult to enforce.
A breakthrough occurred in 2000 when concerned health activists filed public interest litigation in the Supreme Court on non-enforcement of the act. As the legal issues were being sorted out, advocacy on the issue continued to grow. Among the advocates were United Nations organizations, including UNFPA, UNICEF and WHO, who were working alongside international NGOs and India's Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. Together and in support of national partners, the UN agencies mobilized resources to build media interest and concern, create networks, sensitize the health system, train partners, conduct research, support civil society groups, and develop literacy and training materials. These efforts were bolstered by the provisional reports of the 2001 census that highlighted the increasing differential between the sexes. That, along with the earlier UNFPA study, helped generate a climate of concern among policy makers, the media, religious leaders and women's groups.
Many joined hands for speedy passage of amendments to the new act, which would give “teeth” to the bill. The amendments were passed in 2002, and the new law now prohibits determination and disclosure of the sex of the foetus, outlaws advertisements related to preconception and prenatal determination of sex, and prescribes punishments for violators.
UNFPA jointly with national partners has been an active advocate for the bill, training parliamentarians on population and related issues and sponsoring numerous public-awareness campaigns through the media. It also supported regional workshops for the sensitization of medical officers designated to implement the act at state and local levels. One of UNFPA's most important roles was participating in a broad-based coalition formed in 2001 to combat sex-selective abortion. In addition, UNFPA headed a core group of nine partners that formulated a national advocacy strategy on the issue. The strategy, which seeks to address the structural issues underlying gender discrimination, was accepted by the Government of India and is expected to be adopted and operationalized by state governments. Though it is widely acknowledged that eliminating the practice will require a concerted, long-term effort, a positive start has been made.
Legal action b y itself is not enough to eliminate harmful tr aditional pr actices. To be ef fective, legislation should be part of a broad and integrated campaign that involves opinion makers and custodians of culture. In the case of sex-selective abortion, the campaign should also address structural issues underlying gender discrimination, in particular a widespread preference for sons.
The effective dissemination of research findings can bring controversial issues to national attention. In India, research informed an understanding of sex-selective abortion not only as a cultural issue, but one with social and economic dimensions.
Confronting harmful practices that are national in scope can best be addressed through a broad coalition of actors, each of whom can bring their own expertise in creating awareness and moving the issue forward.