Raka Ray on sex-selective abortions in India

Raka Ray (AB Bryn Mawr 1985, PhD University of Wisconsin-Madison 1993) is Professor of Sociology and South and Southeast Asia Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the former Chair of the Institute of South Asia Studies and the Department of Sociology. On April 20, 2017, she spoke with Caroline Willian CMC '17.

Photograph and bio courtesy of Dr. Ray.

First, can you explain what sex-selective abortion is? How common is this in India? 

Sex-selective abortion is simply an abortion after a woman does a test to find out the sex of the fetus. A woman can take an ultrasound test or have an amniocentesis test, which is more invasive. After learning the sex of the fetus, if the result is not the preferred one, then she has an abortion. Sex-selective abortion happens much more if it’s a girl, but it could be either. 

It is difficult to know how common it is. I think even one is unacceptable. I don’t like questions that involve numbers. It makes sex-selective abortion seem less grave depending on the number. It’s a problem in and of itself, the fact that it happens at all. That said, there are different estimates. Keeping in mind that India is a huge country, some say it was zero in 1971 and then it became 6 million in the 2000s. I don’t know what data gets you at this. What I do know is that about 2 to 4 percent of pregnancies end in sex-selective abortions. They overall statistics are hard to come by, because it is technically illegal. 

Now, why does it happen? There isn’t any one answer, but it is a combination of three things. The first two are most important — political economy and culture; the last is something called path dependency. First, consider the political economy: India is a country where women’s labor force participation is really low. Women aren’t valued as much as men and so women become a burden. Women don’t yield money, they cost you money. Second, there is a cultural dimension: It is for cultural reasons that women don’t work outside the home. At some level, India is a largely agricultural country, and it still is. So, rural women still are working outside with men. But as soon as it is remotely possible, as soon as they reach a certain standard to living, women exit the workforce. So the female labor force participation chart looks like the letter J. Poor women work and the most well-off women may work. But in the vast middle, women do not work. This tendency has resulted in women being devalued.

There’s another reason I want to mention before path dependency, which is the concept of dowry, which adds to the economic burden of women. When I was a young feminist doing my PhD, and I was working with feminist groups in Bombay, I actually saw signs that said “pay 5,000 rupees now rather than 50,000 rupees later,” which meant, get the test, get an abortion if it’s a female, because otherwise you’ll have to pay 50,000 in dowry. It was on billboards! This was before it became illegal. It’s basically saying, if you have a girl, you’re going to be broke, so may as well fix the problem from the beginning.

“Path dependency: is the third factor, and it is this: when something becomes available to you, and you know people who have done it, it become more conceivable for you to do it. It becomes “a thing” so to speak. Also, there aren’t many sex-selective abortions for the first child. It’s when they are about to have the second child and the first child is a girl, they may respond “oh my god it has to be a boy, I only want two children.” So then they’ll do the test and have the abortion if the first child is a girl. In communities where this happens, they know that this is a possibility. They know that it’s illegal. But they know who the doctors are and the private clinics that will do it. It requires a certain amount of information. If I just wanted to have a sex selection test, I wouldn’t know where to go. These places are secret. It’s illegal. Women cannot do it in a public hospital so they have to go to a private hospital. It is expensive and you have to know the name of the doctor who will do it. So there has to be a certain culture of this already happening that exists prior to one’s desire to do this.

Under which circumstances is sex-selective abortion most common? Is it more common in urban or rural areas? In wealthy or poor families?

My hunch is that it happens more in urban areas since these technologies would be much more readily available in urban areas. In terms of class, even though it happens in all communities, rich and poor, the evidence is that upwardly mobile, better-off families do this, not the very poor. This is because family size is more important as you’re upwardly mobile. As people transition from poor and rural to middle class and urban, the implication of having kids changes. When a person is poor and living in rural areas, additional kids mean additional working hands on the farm. Later, when a person switches to urban life, children are not working hands but mouths to feed. They become an economic burden. So, urban and upwardly mobile people want to limit their children and they are more conscious of the economic costs of having a girl. She’s not going to be a working hand and there is the dowry. Also, in the really rich areas of the urban population where the dowries are absolutely massive, a son’s marriage can mean a lot of money for a family’s business. In the case of a daughter, a family has to give the dowry.

Sex-selective abortion has created a gap in the male-female gender ratio. How big is this gap? At which age cohort is the gap widest? Are there notable regional differences?

Sex-selective abortion is not the reason for the sex gap — it existed before. It existed for the very reasons that I already mentioned: a mixture of political economy and culture. In the past, children would be born and would be left to die out of neglect. Now, because of technology, those children aren’t even born. I want to be clear: the gap was not created by the abortions. It is a result mostly of neglect. This is especially true in the poorer areas. The boy is valued more, fed more, and taken to the doctor more. The largest gap in the sex ratio used to be between infants from 0 to 5 years old, but now the gap is more due to girls not being born. The normal ratio is 983 girls are born for 1000 boys, but in India it is 933 per 1,000. China, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and several other countries have had these ratios, but government policy overturned them. Therefore, these things can in fact be overturned. 

There could be a sex ratio imbalance in a country for many reasons depending on the context. For example, in the Middle East the imbalance doesn’t seem to be due to sex-selective abortions. Instead it might be due to the fact that men move to the Middle East. So when you count the population, there are many more men. To understand the influence of sex-selective abortion, you must look at the child sex ratio. In India, the ratio was 919 to 1000 in 2011 (from ages 0 to 6). In 2000, it was 927. That’s bad news: in India it’s not about migration, it’s about either neglect or selective abortion.

Furthermore, there are regional differences. The southern state of Kerala has the best sex ratio, and Haryana has the worst.

What problems arise from the gender ratio gap? Have we seen the worst of them already, or is the worst yet to come as the age cohort with the largest gap reaches adulthood?

In India, I happened to be there when all the discussions about sex selective abortion were occurring and how to prevent them with law. There were lots of focus groups and discussions with communities. Some people had this idea or hope that, maybe if there were fewer women they would be more valued. In other words, a scarce commodity is more valued. People were actually struck by that argument! But we soon realized that no, a scarce commodity is only valued when it becomes scarce when it was already valued to begin with. If it was not valued at the beginning, it is not going to become suddenly more valued. 

Keep this in mind. If there are three women to do the work, and now there’s one, she has more work put on her. Fewer women have to carry more of the burden. The men aren’t saying, oh, let me take on more of the domestic responsibilities. Further, especially in places like Haryana that have a savagely macho culture, they are starting to have to import brides from other parts of the country. You can imagine how vulnerable these women are. They’re probably poor women from other parts of the country that have limited resources. They know nobody and they may not speak the language. I think that, in some villages, where they really have few women left, people will say that men will build a life without women, and never learn to value them, so they aren’t seen as people. There’s no way to have a wholesome relationship. Then foreign women are brought in to breed, and it’s impossible for them to be valued.

Are rates of sex-selective abortion worsening or improving in India?

It’s worsening. Sex-selective abortion is a sign of modernity, not tradition. You may assume that these people are very traditional, so they choose this, but it is precisely the urban, upwardly mobile, savvy people who are having these abortions. It’s an ugly face of modernity. It didn’t exist before. We sometimes think of modernity as a happy solution, but modernity brings, especially with technology, its own issues. It’s harder to kill a child who is smiling at you than it is to have an abortion. And technology has introduced that possibility. 

What policies or regulations have been put in place to prevent sex-selective abortion in India? How effective have these policies been?

The main thing that was put in place was a 1994 law, the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, which forbade parents from checking the sex of the fetus. Abortion is still legal, so that’s allowed. However, a woman can only take these tests that reveal sex if the doctor says she needs them for the mother’s health or the child’s health. There must be a specified problem. That said, it was only possible to make the legislation apply in reality to public hospitals. It’s much more difficult to crack down on private hospitals and it happens in little, hole-in-the-wall, private clinics. It’s practically impossible to regulate them. 

I understand why the law was written the way it is, but there are two problems. The first problem is that it is hard to find out who does these tests. The second problem is that everybody is considered guilty: the doctor and the woman. But the woman may or may not want to do it. Her husband or mother-in-law might want it. I remember activists were saying when they passed this law: do not put the blame on the woman. She could be the last one who wants this but has no choice. She is being punished twice: she had to get this abortion and lose her child, and now she’s going to prison for it. But they lost on that, so now the woman is held accountable. The whole woman's family is held accountable, actually, her husband’s held accountable, everybody’s held accountable, but you know, so is she.

With the way in which technology has proliferated, I wouldn’t be surprised if you could have text messages about where these private clinics are, which doctors will do it, and other discreet forms of evidence. 

Finally I should mention that if it were really a woman’s choice, why is the government cracking down on it? I’m a woman, I’m pro-choice. If I were to decide to do this, maybe nobody should tell me not to. That’s a very interesting philosophical position. Under those circumstances, choice is not necessarily an individual thing. Choice is structurally shaped. Only people who have some control over their life can have a choice. It’s a thorny philosophical question.

What further actions do you believe the Indian government should take to address this issue?

I said the main cause was the fact that women didn’t work outside of the home. The approach needs to be two-pronged. Cracking down and creating greater enforcement is one way, but the other is treating the root cause. The way that other countries did it was by creating more gender equality. If women are no longer considered an economic burden, then they are more culturally valued. When I was in Bombay, they celebrated something called Children’s Day. On Children’s Day, they had this huge program where they had little girls with posters saying “Mama, why am I less worthy than my brother?” This program was to get parents to understand the effect on children. It was a consciousness raising campaign to think about girls as being just as valued. It is changing and more and more people are seeing girls as valued. More girls, in this new global economy, have the capacity to get jobs and so there is a shift in the cultural valuation of girls—not in the sense of “oh, girls are wonderful creatures and should be worshipped” but “girls are smart, can have good economic sense, can be good workers, and so on.” 

You asked, “what action do you think the Indian government should take?” However, a government does not take action unless it’s pushed. Therefore the most important factor is the social movements that pushes the government to act.

Caroline Willian CMC '17Student Journalist
Featured Image By Jan Bockaert (DSC01244) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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