University of Oxford

Gender Imbalance in India:causes and Consequences

Madan Mohan .L*

India is one of the countries across the world which has the lowest and the declining gender ratio. It is in general 933 females against 1,000 males as per 2001 census. If it is compared with the global sex ratio and the sex ratios of other countries, particularly the Asian countries, it is the lowest (Table 1).

India is the only exception among the major nations of the World. Its gender ratio remains unfavourable to females and it consistently declines with some fluctuation during the successive censuses (Table 2).

The census data indicate phenomena; variations in the state level sex ratios in India ranging from 861 in Haryana to 1058 in Kerala (Census 2001, Figures at a Glance: 92). If we look at the overall ratios in Indian states, we find improvement in almost every state and union territory during the decade 1991-2001, but the sex ratio of the child population in the age-group 0-6 years has consistently declined (Table 3).

The decline in the sex ratio of the total child population in India is much faster than the overall sex ratio of the total population in India. This decline can be observed over a large number of states and union territories (Table 4).

A very sharp decline and the larger gender imbalance due to the shortage of female children can be observed in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Chandigarh, Gujarat, Delhi, Uttaranchal, Goa and Delhi as compared with Sikkim, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Jharkhand and Orissa, where the gender ratio is quite above the overall ratio in the age-group 0-6. In fact, the number of states and union territories (UTs) and their shares of population below the national average sex ratio have increased and, on the other hand, their number and their shares of population above- the national average sex ratio have declined.

In the four major states of U.P., Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, the sex ratio declines and remains below the national average of 927 in the age group 0-6 but in Bihar it has declined from 1991 to 2001, although it remains above the average. U.P. has a number of districts having sex ratio below 850. There are many districts of Rajasthan, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh and highly urbanized districts of Mumbai, Calcutta, Delhi and Chandigarh which also fall in this category.
The huge amount of shortfall and the increasing trend into it show the seriousness of the matter. The continuance of female foeticide, infanticide, female discrimination, high maternal and female mortality persists in India and worsen the sex ratio. The measures to improve the sex ratio to restore gender balance: remain least effective because of the; mind-set constructed by the patriarchal values.

The male in general and the male child in particular have privileged position in the patriarchal family tradition. In the beginning of the establishment of the patriarchal joint family tradition during the post-Vedic period, Manu writes that according to this tradition, the fulfillment of dharma, the inheritance of family property and the performance of family sraddha can be done only by the father who is the head of the family and after him only by the eldest son because it is the male child along who is by birth endowed with economic, religious and spiritual merits (Kapadia 1972: 222). It is here that the gender inequality and eminence of the male person originates in the patriarchal tradition.
This ideology fortified the family and the family imposed it on its members and consolidated it through indoctrination into the sacred, sacramental and economic values of the male in general and the male child in particular, who is the heir in making in the family heritage. This reflects a binary opposition to the principle of gender equality. As a result, the necessity to obtain a son, preferably the first male child for inheritance, for marriage and for procreation became an inevitable social necessity. Thus, this necessity became the most cherished desire of the parents. The sacramental values of the male child gradually became so acceptable that it slowly superseded the sacramental value of the female child whose birth ensures the fulfillment of kanyadan (the gift of virgin) to bring punya (or merit) to the parents.

There have been efforts to break the binary opposition and provide space for the female membership in the joint family and equal share in the patrimony (family properly) among the female and male descendents, but in spite of this, the female exclusion, discrimination, arid subordination has continued because the patriarchal values have gone1 deeper into human mind that the male child alone has the spiritual merit and he alone can perform the funeral rites to bring peace to the deceased parents and make them immortal. This is the privileged position in the spiritual heritage bestowed upon him alone and it is through him alone that the deceased parents can achieve salvation. It is here that the social basis of gender inequality and iniquitous gender discrimination germinate. This inequality tends to be much stronger than the economic basis of gender inequality because liven if the economic equality is achieved in the family property and in the economic sphere outside the family, the religious, spiritual and ritual status of the male child, particularly the first male child remains higher than the female child.

The study conducted by the Christian Medical Association of India in selected government and private hospitals in the National Capital of Delhi indicates (The Times of India, 16 July 2005) that when the first male child is born, there is no discrimination against the next child even if it happens to be a female baby, and in that case, the gender ratio remains as high as 959 female children (0-6 years) per 1,000 male children, but when the first female child is born, the second female birth is discriminated against for want of a male child, and in that case, the gender ratio declines to 542. In case when both the first children are female, the ratio is shockingly as low as 219 female babies per 1,000 male babies. The only reason for this is the importance being given by the parents to the patriarchal value of gender preference traditionally handed over to the society and internalized into the individual mind.

The Indian family without children is not considered a family, and if among the children, there is no male child, the family becomes restless which makes the family violent and oppressive instead of being a democratic and welfare institution. The occurrence of sex selective abortion (female foeticide), female child abuse, female infanticide, marital discord and maltreatment of women are examples of family violence (Nongbri 1995: 32-33; Buch 1997: 41-49).

We expect an inverse relationship between the occurrence of female foeticide and the socio-economic development. The National Family and Health Survey (NFHS-1998-99: 120), reports that the desire to have more male children is higher in rural (37%) than in urban (22.6%) areas, although the majority of rural (85.5%) as well as urban (75.6%) population wants to have the balanced sex ratio of children. But to have at least one surviving male child in the family is like their basic social necessity in both the rural and urban areas. There are reasons for this. The Indian economy is still predominantly agrarian labour-intensive feudal. The desire to have the male child is governed by the logic of expected economic utility of the male child.

The level of education in Delhi is quite high. Its literacy level is as high as 82 per cent which is much above the national average of 65 per cent. But the sex ratio of Delhi is as low as 868 which is much below the national average sex ratio of 933 and it is still much below the WHO’s prescribed sex ratio of 950 girls per 1,000 boys. Further, the data at the micro level suggest that the urban posh colonies and affluent enclaves have much higher gender imbalance This indicates that such colonies with people from higher educational and socio-economic backgrounds have much greater gender preference and much lower sex ratio than their rural counterparts in f areas (Table 5).

The urban areas are more advanced, educated and predominantly nuclear in terms of the family size. The nuclear family is a broken structure of the patriarchal joint family but ideological continuity between them remains intact The forces of modernization have affected the structure of the joint family and given rise from the same lineage to the growth of nuclear or small-scale joint families which may function even without property but on the line of the same lineage. This means that joint and nuclear families are ideologically not different from each other. In spite of structural changes, ideological continuity manifests into the nuclear family. The members of the nuclear family even if they live at a distance and may not own family property in common, identify themselves as members of the same patrilineal group. Very often, they visit their lineage family members, participate in family rituals and ceremonies, provide financial and other kind of help, and cherish the same sentiments, norms and values. Both the joint and the nuclear families look like a cultural unit, united by similar cultural norms (Dube 1997:3). It is all because of the kind of family socialization and indoctrination which take place in the family and strengthen the patrilineage kinship based values which provide no scope for any deviation from the family’s normative order and heritage (Karve 1952; Desai 1964; Kapadia 1972; Dube 1974,. it is the cultural continuity rather than the structural change that mailers more nuclear family is actually ideologically patriarchal nuclear family it type of small patriarchal joint or an extended unitary family type structure which is also also fortified by patriarchal values.
The socially conditioned use of the advancement in science find technology tends to enhance the increasing trend in female foeticide. Tilt-rampant misuse of sex determination technology devised by science shows the continuance of a feudal patriarchal mentality of the people. It has aggravated the problem of gender imbalance and denied the right to female baby unborn. The identification of the sex is done with the motive to abort the female fetuses.

The doctors who campaign in favour of the legal ban and against the misuse of prenatal diagnostic technique themselves in violation of the regal ban, use the technique to identity the gender and abort the female foeticide in their own nursing homes. This is done with the approval of and financial support by the family without being disclosed to the public. Their clinics are well protected by powerful lobby in association with influential persons

In the state of Tamil Nadu, the birth of a girl is taken as inauspicious, a liability and a burden on the family’s purse and resources, while the birth of a male baby is considered as auspicious and an asset to the family. Therefore, the births of the female and the male babies are actually the questions of purse and pride. The system of hypergamy creates the problem of purse on account of dowry, expensive marriage and ceremonies at the time of the marriage of the girl. This shows a typical patriarchal mind-set. Therefore, the destruction of the female baby is considered a cultural necessity. At the birth of the female baby, a ritual known as dudhpilao is performed. This ceremony has become a custom to be performed if need arises. This ritual symbolizes a signal given by the parents to destroy the female baby through various methods. One of them is to drown the female infant in a pit or a vessel filled with milk. Such practices have taken place in Salem district and other areas in Tamil Nadu. Also, in some areas of Rajasthan and Bihar and other parts of the country such a practice is a custom. The Rajput, an upper caste, is known for practicing this custom. The Indian census considers this custom as a contributory cause of more deaths of female infants, adversely affecting the sex ratio.

Among the Christians and the Muslims, the sex ratio is relatively higher. There is no such social practice of female foeticide and infanticide among them. This is one of the reasons of no decline in the size of their population but the population of Hindus has declined. This decline was 25.1 per cent during 1981-91 and 20.3 per cent during 1991-2001 with the relative difference of 4.8 per cent decline among them. The Christian population remains almost constant but the Muslim population in India increased by 34.5 per cent during 1981-91 and 36.0 per cent during 1991 2001 with the relative difference of 1.5 per cent increase among the Muslims as against 4.8 per cent decline in Hindu population. This decline may be contributed to the alarming decline in the gender ratio among the Hindus. We observe that the sex ratio among the Hindus, and also among the Jains and the Sikhs, who are also counted as Hindus is the lowest as compared to other religious communities (Table 8).
However, If we examine it across the region, we find that the child sex-ratio among the Hindus of Punjab and Haryana is much lower. It is as low as 821 among the Hindus of Punjab and 816 among them in Haryana but among the Hindus, Jains and Muslims of Kerala, the sex-ratios are as high as 1058, 996 and 1082 respectively. Kerala is an exception in this regard. The patriarchal value of gender preference is not important at all in the state of Kerala because the state has traditionally been under the influence of matriarchal values. There are important sections of population like the Nairs of Malabar in Kerala, the Khasis and the Garos of Assam and the areas of the north-eastern zone where the matrilineal family systems are common, the pro-female gender-ratio exists. In such a system of family, the matrilineal descent follows female line. The sex ratio of Assam, Nagaland, Mizoram and Tripura is higher than Kerala and much higher than the national average (Table 4).

In addition to the male preference, the second attribute of the patriarchal ideology linked with the gender preference is the set of interrelated values attached with the status of women, their subordinate position, their exclusion and discrimination, their marriage as a necessary sacrament and the heavy expenses on their marriage (including dowry). These are very closely linked with the decline in the number of female babies.

In spite of the changes in the system of inheritance (Hindu Succession Act, 1956), male members of the family still have the right as heirs to the coparcenary ancestral property. The Act of 1956 remains ineffective in spite of the female entitlement to share ancestral property. Thus, we find that in the patriarchal social order, there are two hierarchically arranged social groups: (1) the primary group of property-owning male patrikin endowed with higher socio-economic and ritual status; and (2) the secondary group of property less female patrikin endowed with lower socio-economic and ritual status in the family’s social hierarchy. The patriarchal ideology prescribes sex segregation, female dependency, high value to female virginity, ritual inequality and the cultural norms like gotra, lineage, class, caste endogamy, exogamy, early female marriage, distribution of privileges by ascription, etc. Such ideological prescriptions are the bases of a hierarchically arranged structured form of gender inequality and the social division between the male and the female patrikin of the patriarchal system. The family socialization was so perfect that both the male and the female patrikin used to live in harmony, fulfilled their obligations, shared and cherished the same patriarchal values. The social division traditionally created tends to have been widened today by the forces of modernization.
The legislative measures to increase the age at marriage are not much helpful because the religious values attached with marriage to be solemnized at the attainment of puberty are not undergoing significant change. The problem of early marriage is now not only socially but also economically created, because the social poverty coupled with economic poverty complicates the problem of early marriage of girls. Now the problem is being complicated more by the kind of womanly hormonal changes taking place due to the impact of modernization. The girls are now under increased exposure to the media, westernized culture and education, closer interpersonal relations and open family environment. They have now improved nutrition and healthcare, liberal approach to life and more exposure to childhood obscenity. Such changes tend to increase early arrival of puberty among them which may start at 10 or 11 years of age rather than its arrival at 12 or 13 years of age a decade ago. The arrival of puberty at early ages was also observed in the 1970s in western societies (The Times of India, 24 August, 2005). The coming down of the average age at puberty would make the girls becoming women faster during adolescence. It would develop more anxiety among the parents and more sex abuse among the girls. The parents may either take corrective measures to cope with the bodily changes and protect the girls from sexual abuse or they may pursue the idea traditionally handed over to the Indian society to marry them young. The modern changes might reinforce the patriarchal approach to early age at marriage for girls and that would be injurious to the sex ratio.

Another contributory factor of declining gender ratio related directly to the status of female child in particular and women in general is the lower nutritional status of women in a patriarchal family, causing considerable deaths of female children in the age group 0-6 years. This can be explained in part by the gender discrimination in the patriarchal order manifesting into the quality of food intake and health care services provided by the family to male and female children (Dube 1997: 137, 43). The lower socio-economic status of women and the consequent lower nutritional status is a function of patriarchal ideology. The women work a lot but their work is least recognized. They eat the least and the last in terms of quality and quantity of food. Such a gender-based discrimination causes gradual and serious physical deficiency among women and female children. India’s maternal mortality rate continues to be about 540 per lakh live births. The National Family Health Surveys (1992-93 and 1998-99 and UN.TCEF, 1998: p.11) have reported that it is because of the social basis of gross nutritional and medical neglect of female babies that the post-neonatal mortality among them is 13 per cent higher than male babies. In the backward rural areas, the mortality of female infants is as high as 86 per thousand live births. The United Nations Children’s Fund reports (UNICEF 2004: 57) that 8 out of 10 pregnant women suffer from anemia and maternal and child birth related problems. Further, the UNCIEF reports (2005: 17) that about one-third of all babies have low weight at birth and more than half of female children are malnourished due to female entrenched prejudices and sheer neglect. The World Health Organization reports (1999) that about five lakh women die world wide every year due to pregnancy and childbirth related causes. The maternal mortality rate among them is the highest in the South Asian region.

What we observe that the patriarchal value of gender preference, assigning differential social status to the male and the female children in the family’s social hierarchy, giving greater importance to the materialistic value of marriage operating from beneath the sacramental consideration in marriage and associating strong religious sanctions for marriage, lower age at marriage for girls and the dowry have now come much closer to each other in playing t. joint role in promoting higher incidence of female foeticide, as well as infanticide and dowry related deaths. This has caused a serious danger to the restoration of gender balance in India. The declining trend in the sex ratio might encourage polyandry and it might escalate if the patriarchal values continue to exert their influence on Indian society. This influence has to be counteracted by various formal and informal agencies of learning and strong legislative measures have to be taken by the government to control the trend of gender unbalance in India.

Table 1
Sex ratio in selected countries, 1998-2000
Countries Sex-Ratio (females
per 1,000 males)

World 986
Russian Federation 1,140
Japan 1,040
USA 1,029
Brazil 1,025 Nigeria 1,016
Indonesia 1,004
Bangladesh 953
China 944
Pakistan 934
India 933
Source: World Population Prospects, United Nationsl998-2000

Table 2
Sex ratio in India, 1901-2001
Census Year Sex-ratio (females per
1,000 males
in the total population;

1901 972
1902 964
1921 955
1931 950 1941 945
1951 . 946
1961 941
1971 930
1981 934
1991 927
2001 933
Source: Census of India, 2001.

Table 3
Sex ratios in the total population and in the population of
children in the age group 0-6 in India, 1961-2001
Year Sex ratio in the Sex ratio in the total child
total population population in the age-group
of 0-6 years

1961 941 976
1971 930 964
1981 934 962
1991 927 945
2001 933 927
Source: Census of India, 2001.

Table 4
Decline in the sex ratio in the age-group 0-6 in Major Indian
States and union territories, 1991-2001
Major Indian states and Sex ratio in the
Union territories age- group 0-6

1991 2001

Himachal Pradesh 951 897
Punjab 875 793
Chandigarh 899 845
Haryana 879 820
Uttar Pradesh 927 910
Uttaranchal 948 906
Rajasthan 916 909
Bihar 953 938
Jharkhand 979 966
Orissa 967 950
West Bengal 967 963
Madhya Pradesh 946 917
Gujarat 928 878
Maharashtra 946 917
Karnataka 960 949
Tamil Nadu 948 930
Kerala 958 963
Assam 975 964
Goa 964 933
Delhi 915 865
Sikkim 965 986
Nagaland 993 975
Manipur 974 961
Mizoram 969 971
Tripura 967 975

National Average 945 927
Source: Census of India, 2001

Table -6
Sex ratio in selected colonies in Delhi, 2005

Selected colonies in Delhi Sex Raito
Rural Urban

PreetVihar 850 780
Punjabi Bagh 885 840
Vasant Vihar 887 857
PatelNagar 937 866
Haus Khas 925 882
Defence Colony 987 883
Delhi — 868
India’s Sex ratio: 933 to the total population.
Source: The Times of India, 3 August, 2005.

Table -6
Sex ratios among different religious communities, 2001
Religious To total To total child population
communities population in the age-group 0-6

Hindus 931 925
Jains 940 840
Sikhs 893 786
Buddhists 953 942
Christians 1009 969
Muslims 936 950
Others 992 976
National average 933 927
Source: The Times of India, 8 September, 2004.

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