Aug 012012

“It’s official – India is the most dangerous place in the world to be a baby girl,” The Times of India reported recently.

According to a new report produced by the United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Sex Differentials in Childhood Mortality, the Times writes that “an Indian girl aged 1-5 years is 75% more likely to die than an Indian boy, making this the worst differential in child mortality for any country in the world.”

india and china gender discrimination

Mortality levels in childhood have declined in recent decades in most countries of the world.  Nearly everywhere the rate of female infant and child mortality is falling faster than male.

The only two countries where more females are dying in infancy than males are China and India.

In the developing world, there are 111 male deaths for every 100 female.  In India, 56 male infants die for every 100 female.

The UN report states that preferences for a son and declining fertility significantly impact on the health and survival of girls in both India and China. Sex-selective abortion and post-natal discrimination still result in an excessive number of female deaths, no more so than in the north and north-central regions of India.

personal experience

In 2006 I traveled to a remote area in the Garhwal region of the Himalayan foothills, Uttarakhand. It became clear that the gender discrimination highlighted in the UN report, though hidden from most of the world, was prevalent in every village I visited. Compelled to raise awareness about the challenging issues I encountered, I wrote and published Rising from the Dust.  Below is an extract from Chapter 12, “Going Downhill Fast”, which highlights these concerns.

At this point in my adventures I was volunteering at SASA Academy, a mountain community school near the tiny village of Dhung. The people in the region refer to themselves as Pahari, meaning “of the hills”.

Some of the figures I’ve quoted are based on the 2001 Census. I had hoped that the release of the 2011 Census figures would present a more positive picture.  I fear this is not the case.

The UN report asserts that the plight of girls in India and China should remain in the global spotlight. I agree. Until the female mortality trends change significantly, it is vital that we continue to raise public awareness about this crucial issue.

Rising from the Dust: Going Downhill Fast

SASA academy

“At about four o’clock most afternoons I met Rajeev and Sandeep, two of the teachers, outside the school. We would then walk several kilometres to visit a number of homes in the neighbouring villages. The primary purpose of the calls was to collect information about prospective pupils. SASA Academy enjoyed a good reputation and, because it offered the best education in the area, places were over-subscribed. A simple selection process was therefore required.

My role entailed gathering answers from a specially written questionnaire about the parents’ background, the size of the family, their monthly income and their attitudes towards family planning. Thankfully, I wasn’t required to assess whether or not a child should be offered a sponsored place. That unenviable responsibility lay in the hands of Shailender and the teachers.

The notion of an Academy with selection criteria possibly conveys a misleading impression of the school. “Academy” is a term used extensively throughout India to describe many kinds of educational establishments, irrespective of size or quality of learning.

Means-testing at SASA was purely an administrative exercise, the key criterion being whether or not an older sibling already attended the school. If they didn’t, a child stood more chance of receiving a place herself. The rationale was simple: if one child per family received an education, the whole family benefited. Although siblings were not necessarily precluded, it was prudent to spread the limited resources between as many families as possible.

mountain life

As I waited for Sandeep and Rajeev on the Ghamsali road one afternoon, I scanned the view across the valley. From this vantage point I could see many of the hill-strewn hamlets in which the children lived, accessible only via steep, rocky paths that became dangerously muddy the moment it rained. A network of trails led off the main arterial tracks, short-cuts forged over decades to ease the walk between houses.

Though the rain, having fallen persistently for several hours, had caused the temperature to drop by a few degrees, the skies were beginning to brighten as we set off. Distorted mountain reflections bounced off the puddles. Thin wisps of cloud, hovering over the valley, occasionally obscured the terraces of wheat and rice from sight. We followed the tracks up and down for about forty minutes, frequently stopping to have a chat with parents or relatives of children attending the school.

‘Who was that?’  I asked after Rajeev had exchanged pleasantries with a man carrying a plastic crate.

‘That was the uncle of Vinay in Class Three,’ he replied, ‘his brother runs the little store opposite the school.’

A few minutes later, a girl skipped past.  She waved coyly.

‘You know her?’

‘Oh, yes.  Her sister is in Class Two.’ Everyone, it seemed, had a connection with SASA Academy.

As we approached a group of houses, a lad, darting around the corner, caught my elbow. Looking up, he grinned awkwardly. He and his friends were playing tag in the chowk, the open courtyard outside the cluster of corrugated-roofed stone buildings.  In the far corner two young women were husking rice by alternately pummelling two thick wooden poles into a shallow, bowl-shaped hollow in the flagstone called an ukhal. The muted thud of their coordinated efforts scattered the air with dust from the smattered shells.

vinita and her family

Making a fleeting appearance, a little girl greeted us then disappeared into one of the houses shouting excitedly in Garhwali.  Evidently we were expected.

After a few moments, three women appeared. One of them carried a straw mat and three blankets which she spread over the stone step in front of the doorway. Typifying the inter-cultural mix of clothing styles worn throughout the area, her waist was wrapped, sari-like, with a traditional thick cloth. On her upper body, however, she wore a more westernised maroon blouse and woollen cardigan. Dark eyes, shining out from a wheatish facial complexion, exemplified her characteristically Garhwali open features. A turquoise scarf, woven around her head, trailed onto her shoulder and a bronze nuth ornament pierced her nose.

This was Sulachana, the mother of the little girl who welcomed us. Smiling tentatively, she indicated for us to sit down. She then murmured softly to the younger of the other two women, who promptly disappeared back into the house. The eldest woman, cradling a small baby, hovered at a distance.

‘The girl who spoke to us is named Vinita. Her family are wishing her to attend the school,’ explained Sandeep, ‘but first we must assess their needs to see if she is deserving a sponsor place at SASA Academy.’

The family’s needs were quite evident as far as I could tell.  Apart from the street kids in Vijayawada, I‘d never encountered such poverty: nine people lived in a three-by-five metre house with no sanitation or running water.

Not unlike a Garhwali version of Chinese whispers, we worked through the survey. Sitting on the stone step, I asked a question in English which, translated by Sandeep into Garhwali, was put to Sulachana. After a brief discussion with other members of the family, she replied to Sandeep. He translated her response back into English which I then modified into answers that made written sense. The process was quite laborious.

Bright, chatty Vinita, pronounced Vin-ee-tah, was the fifth of seven daughters. ‘What are their names?’ I asked Sulachana.

‘Lalita, Ponita, Sunita, Anita, Vinita, Mina and Pinki,’ Sandeep translated from Garhwali, ‘aged between fifteen years and twenty-three days.’ The older woman, Sulachana’s mother-in-law, was carrying Pinki, the baby.

‘No boys?’

‘No,’ she replied expectantly, ‘not yet.’ With seven daughters and the obvious longing for a son, it seemed insensitive to pursue the survey questions relating to family planning.

‘Is this information relevant to whether or not Vinita should be offered a sponsored place?’ I asked Rajeev.

‘Not directly.  But it is helping us to understand discrimination attitudes in these villages.’

‘Is this a problem?’

‘Generally in India, yes.’

‘And here?’

‘That is what we are trying to find out. Our role at SASA is not to educate the child only, but to support the whole family.’

gender discrimination

The pressures to produce a son are embedded in social, cultural and religious practices that are widely accepted as the norm throughout the land. Because India doesn’t have a social benefit system, the responsibility invariably falls on the eldest male to provide for his parents in their old age. The birth of a son also ensures that the family’s dynasty will continue to the next generation. The birth of a daughter, however, presages extreme financial hardship, sealed on the day of her marriage. Due to the continuing practice of the dowry system, large sums of money, property or goods are paid to the groom’s family. It’s something that many parents seek to avoid, often by appalling methods.

The 2001 Census data indicates that between 22 and 37 million females are “missing” from India’s population, that is, their potential existence has been eliminated. Some argue that this is due to natural changes in the demographic. It’s more likely, however, that female infanticide, a practice that has existed for centuries, and foeticide, a rapidly escalating social evil, are the predominant causes.

Of the twelve million girls born in India each year, one million do not see their first birthday. A third of these deaths occur at birth.

The most recently available figures suggest that around half a million female foetuses are aborted annually.

As scientific procedures for detecting the gender of a baby in the womb improve, so the situation worsens, especially as early diagnostic methods are becoming more accessible in rural India through the use of mobile ultrasound scanners.

garhwal region

Traditionally, the Garhwal region does not have a history of either female infanticide or foeticide. Discrimination against girls is not evident. Or so it has seemed until fairly recently.

The 2001 census sparked a widespread debate on the issue by revealing a net decline in the number of girls born in the area between 1990 and 2000. It was once assumed that contraceptive failures were the primary reason for sanctioning abortions for the purpose of family planning. Now it is acknowledged that this may not have always been the case.

Quantifying the magnitude of the problem, however, is difficult. Though the practice has not infiltrated all the hill villages, there are indications that female foeticide is on a covert increase in the region. The copious demands of this staunchly patriarchal society place a tremendous burden on families with one girl child, let alone seven.

Thankfully, not all parents succumbed to these pressures. Gender discrimination, for many, was not an issue. I chose not to ask Sulachana about her beliefs. The sight of seven healthy daughters, I hoped, was a positive indication of how she may have responded.”


“India deadliest place in world for girl child”

“Sex Differentials in Childhood Mortality”, United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2011

“Impatient Optimists: The Deadliest Place to be a Girl”

Kelly, Annie, “Disappearing Daughters”, ActionAid and the International Development Research Centre (IRDC), 2008

Mullins, Julie, “Gender Discrimination”,

Pratham, “ASER 2006 – Annual Status of Education Report (Rural)” and “ASER 2007 – Annual Status of Education ­Report (Rural)”, Pratham, New Delhi

Shukla, Rajesh, “India Science Report”, NCAER, 2005,

Singh, Dr. Meeta and Vasu Mohan, “The Rise of Sex ­Selection in India”, IFES

UNICEF, “The State of the World’s Children, 2006”

Child Rights and You is an Indian NGO that catalyses change in the lives of underprivileged children in India by restoring their rights.

CHILD’s Trust exists to make a difference in the lives of underprivileged children.  Based in Basingstoke, Hampshire, it has been a registered charity since 1999.

KHW – India is a childcare and development organisation. Based in Rajpur, Uttarakhand, it is the Indian affiliate of Kinderhilfswerk Global Care, Germany.

SASA (Save and Share Association)established in the late 1990s, addresses educational and community development needs among young people and adults in Mountain Communities, Uttarakhand.  More info: