Origin of Female Foeticide: Understanding the Root Cause


“It’s a girl! Get her aborted. We can’t afford to have a girl.” These statements sound very familiar to Indians. Girls are killed even before they’re born and this has been going on for years. As per the latest data from the UN, India’s sex ratio stands at  924 females per 1000 males. This value has improved a lot over the years but the practice of shamelessly killing unborn girls is still undertaken in some shady places. 

When we hear about female foeticide, there’s a lot more than we know. Origin and history is a story in itself. Just like every other issue in society, it did not happen in a day or two. So, let’s try and find out how and why female foeticide became a sort of identity mark for India. 

What Is Female Foeticide?

Female foeticide is the process of finding out the sex of the foetus and undergoing abortion if it is a girl. This single sentence explains it all! It is prohibited by law but sadly, it is still practiced. 

Here is a brief history of how this practice started in India. 

Prevalence of Female Foeticide in North India 

Looking up at the history of North India, it seems that sex selection prevailed here since times immemorial. It basically means that a particular gender is preferred over the other. This was practiced in the form of ‘son-preference syndrome’ at that time. There were several reasons behind this. The major reasons were: 

  1. The social norm that all girls should marry

  2. Male-centered marriages

  3. Concept of dowry

These reasons lead to female infanticide, i.e. killing of newborn girls right after birth. It was justified as a ‘sympathetic move’ as it ‘saved’ the little girls from the cruel world and the family from ‘unnecessary expenses’. 

Even today, it is seen as something ‘too expensive’ to have a daughter. The family is supposed to invest in their girl’s education and then marry her off lavishly along with a handsome dowry. And this is the exact reason why sons are preferred over daughters. They stay in the family so it seems wise to invest in their education and they’ll also be the source for a dowry when they get married. 

Spread to South India

South India initially was not familiar with the concept of female foeticide. This was because the concept of marriage was so distinct here. In South India, girls could either marry amongst close kin or within their native village. Although the nature of marriage was patriarchal, the groom’s family paid an amount to the bride’s family upon marriage. This was called Stridhan and was paid as compensation because the bride’s family would lose a productive member. 

But the onset of the 1950s saw an increasing heterogeneity of education and wealth. Consequently, finding a suitable match within the family or the native village became increasingly difficult. Daughters started moving away from their native villages after marriage and that’s how dowry clutched the society in the south as well. It was first practiced by the Brahmins, and later by all other casts just to imitate the ones in higher levels of the societal hierarchy. 

Analyzing Class and Caste Dimension 

In India, it is very commonly observed that caste and class hierarchy are very similar and are often used interchangeably. The ones higher in caste are higher in class. And relating hierarchy to female infanticide, it was seen that it was more common in the higher castes and classes than the lower ones. 

Back then marriage between equally well-off families made sense as there were mutual benefits attached. But as the sex ratio wasn’t healthy. So all wealthy grooms would not find good matches within the same caste or class. Due to this, wealthy boys started marrying girls from lower classes or castes. Hence, such marriages were seen as an opportunity to lower caste parents to aid the mobility to higher castes and classes. This magnified the practice of female infanticide in the upper classes and castes. 

But with time, this practice was also taken up by the lower castes. Sanskritization is the phenomenon that contributed to this. Sanskritization was the imitation of traditions and behavior of the lower castes in an attempt to be absorbed into these groups over time. Independence blurred the caste and class lines to some extent but there are still existent though. 

Read more about Sanskritization

Female Infanticide to Female Foeticide 

Amniocentesis is the technology used to detect abnormalities and foetal infections. But its use can be extended to determining the sex of the foetus. This technology came to India in the 1970s for future use. But no one predicted how it would be used to kill unborn girls. The technology became popular almost instantly and was privatized majorly for sex-determination of the foetus. 

After several years, the government finally responded to the malpractice by passing an Act in 1994. Some state governments gave a ridiculous argument against this that the abortions will help control the booming population. But finally, in 1994, the government at that time passed the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act (PCPNDT). 

The Bottom Line

The practices of female foeticide and female infanticide have been practiced for centuries in India. Due to several other reasons, our country is labeled as ‘the most dangerous place for women’. Unfortunately, we have been living up to this label before it was given. Not only for fully-grown women, India is not even safe for the unborn baby girls. 

But there’s nothing that we can’t change. Haryana, India’s state with the lowest sex ratio, has shown a significant improvement since 2012. Not just Haryana, India’s overall sex ratio has also improved. This shows that we’re moving forward. Although the progress is slow, we’ll reach a much better place soon. 

Not just female foeticide, the number of rape cases is also a reason why India is tagged as ‘the most dangerous place for women’ by the world. Check out this beautifully written article on Understanding Rape Culture in India

Written By - Neha Kundu

Edited By - Kashish Chadha

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