Despite growing conversation regarding women's rights, gender equality, and highly publicized government schemes to fix India's skewed sex ratio, India continues to be one of the most unsafe countries for women, right from the moment they are born and sometimes even before that.
According to United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) 2020 State of World Population report, 46 million women went missing from India in the last 50 years. As many as 4.6 lakh are killed pre-natally due to gender-biased sex selection (GBSS).
Missing at Birth
In the past six years, central as well as state governments have rolled out several flagship schemes such as Beti Bachao Beti Padhao in efforts to stabilize the dwindling sex ration.
Data collected by the State of World Population (SWOP) Report 2020 by UNFPA, however, shows there are about 142 million "missing girls" across the world due to GBSS including both pre and postnatal sex selection out of which 46 million are from India.
The report also found that an average of 4.6 lakh girls (46,000) went missing at birth each year from 2013-17 due to pre-natal gender-based sex selection.
Despite laws against GBSS, two out of three missing girls in India are due to pre-natal sex-selective procedures. At 40 percent, India is the second-largest contributor to the global number of 1.2 million girls that go missing at birth due to pre-natal GBSS each year, beaten only by China that contributes 50 percent.
India also has a high number of post-natal female mortality which means one in five deaths of females below the age of five is due to gender-biased sex selection. At 13.5 deaths per 1,000 female births, India displayed the highest rate of excess female mortality in the world.
The SWOP report also cites the sex ratio at birth for the years 2016-2018 to be a dismal 899 girls for every 1,000 boys, Sample Registration System [SRS] Statistical Report 2018. The sex ratio fell below 900 in nine Indian states including Haryana, Uttarakhand, Delhi, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab and Bihar]
The number is in contrast with the sex ratio recorded by the 2011 Census of India which was 940 girls per 1000 boys.
Child Marriage and Gender-based violence
Not just GBSS, girls in India continue to be plagued by other gender-based atrocities such as child marriage, dowry, domestic violence as well as sexual abuse and violence.
As per data by the National Health and Family Survey, one out of four girls in India were married before the age of 18 in 2015-16. The report also showed that 26.8 percent of women between the ages of 20-24 were married by age 18.
The data on child marriages is particularly disturbing as child marriage is deeply linked to gender-based violence.
The NFHS survey, which was conducted among 8,000 women from five states where child marriage is prevalent, as many as 32 percent of girls who were married before the age of 18 were subjected to "physical violence at the hands of their husbands".
While the number remained low at 17 percent for women who were married post the age of 18, the data reveals that violence against women remained high even among non-child brides.
Analysis of the data revealed by the survey also showed that one out of four girls between the ages of 15 to 19 experienced sexual violence from her husband
The data pertains to five states including Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Rajasthan.
The data for child marriages varies from state to state. In Bihar and West Bengal, for instance, two out of three girls were married before 18 while one out of three girls became child brides in states like Jharkhand, Andhra Prades and Madhya Pradesh.
Preference for Boys
One of the primary reasons for the decreasing child sex ratio in India as well as sexist practices like child marriage remains the preference for boys. The shift toward nuclear families and persisting gender inequality also contribute to GBSS.
"Son preference and gender-biased sex selection have resulted in over 142 million girls missing globally and 46 million girls missing in India. This reality is grim and unacceptable and needs to change immediately," UNFPA India representative Argentina Matavel says.
"Change can only come about by transforming unequal power relations, structures and norms to ensure value for women and girls. We need to move towards a world based on principles of equality, autonomy, and choice," she adds.
The report notes that while pre-natal sex-selective procedures are more prevalent in urban societies with higher incomes due to the expensive technologies required to carry out such procedures, But with the advent of technology, pre-natal GBSS may slowly be spreading to lower-income groups.
Despite the grim numbers, not all is lost. The UN rpeort cites that "advances in India have contributed to a 50 percent decline in child marriage in South Asia. The education of women is also being seen as an important driver against gender-based ills such as child marriage. An analysis of large scale surveys including the SWOP report as well as NFHS surveys among others suggests that an increase of just one year of education in girls may increase the age of marriage by 0.36 years.
The coronavirus pandemic, however, threatens to undo much that has already been done toward improving gender equality and reducing gender stereotypes and prejudices. The UN report calls for a fresh assessment of challenges amid the COVId-19 pandemic that threatens women's reproductive health, agency, and independence in India as well as the child sex ratio. It also calls for continuing work on creating an environment of equality for girls and boys by focusing on providing equal opportunities for both. Doing so can help women gain agency which can further help in changing the perception of male preference in both rural and urban society.