(Angus Reid Global Scan) Natasha Moore – The launch in India of the Decade of the Survival of the Girl Child in early March coincided with the first arrest and conviction of a medical practitioner accused of revealing the sex of a female fetus and offering to abort it.

Under a law introduced in 1994, diagnostic scans used to determine the health of a fetus are permitted in the country. However, using these same tests to reveal the sex of a fetus is prohibited in an attempt to control incidences of female feticide.

Although providing assurance that the law has some functionality, the recent arrest and conviction underscores an epidemic that increasing evidence indicates may have caused the deaths of ten million girl children over the last two decades.

An extensive study, jointly conducted by the Centre for Global Health Research in Canada and the Institute of Medical Education and Research in India, reveals that the sex of a first born affects the survival of subsequent children. In particular, where a first born is a girl, incidences of female feticide increase markedly. That this was reflected across regions, religions and education categories indicates the systematic practice of female feticide in the country.

In an agrarian society such as India, gender has important familial repercussions. A boy child provides an extra labor resource and the family benefits from the dowry gained at marriage. A girl child however, is a liability and the dowry that must be paid for her marriage can cripple a family.

The implications of this practice are now beginning to impact Indian society. Sex ratios over the past century have shown significant decline. National census reports indicate a ratio of 972 females to every 1,000 males in 1901, reducing to 927 females by 1991. In notably affluent areas like Haryana, the ratio is considerably lower with 861women for every 1,000 men.

In a population of over 1 billion people, some may remark the absence of 10 million over the course of two decades is somewhat innocuous. However, when this is directly related to a particular group—a group that normally makes up more that half the population—the situation becomes deeply concerning.

After two decades of female feticide, a very particular group of women—those of marrying age—are in short supply. Increasingly, women are trafficked as brides to fill the void. A woman of marrying age can be bought and sold for between $109 U.S. and $730 U.S., and will be sold many times over or live as a wife to two brothers, or a father and son. Abuse, rape and murder are common, and reports indicate rising crime and violence against women at the hands of unmarried men.

As the abortion debate rages in the west, the world is faced with a deeply divisive issue. Reproductive freedoms are a critical vestige of woman rights and are fiercely protected. There is however, a fundamental distinction between the decisions made by women about their bodies and a socio-cultural practice that has its foundation in the suppression of the female gender. Interestingly, one makes the news while the other continues as a silent killer.

The Decade of the Survival of the Girl Child will do little to change a socio-cultural tradition that continues to regard women as second class citizens and actively encourage their elimination. That it will work positively to educate, empower and employ women across India cannot be disputed. How it changes the very social fabric of a culture in which it is the educated and wealthy who are increasingly practicing female feticide is a most pertinent question. On this issue, women’s activism needs to address not only individual capacity but, more importantly, the social stigmas that underlie cultural traditions.