Research by demographers reveal the magnitude of the abnormally high rate linked to gender discrimination against young girls in some regions of India. It shows a nation geographically divided over this phenomenon and identifies the major socio-cultural factors related thereto.
The scale of postnatal gender discrimination against young girls has been highlighted in some regions of India by an international team(1). « For the first time in India, we have quantified the excessive deaths of women on a local scale, explains demographer Nandita Saikia(2). Le phénomène coûterait la vie à 239 000 d’entre elles chaque année, essentiellement dans les grands États de la plaine du Gange, au nord du pays. Our research shows an abnormally high death rate in young girls aged 0 to 5 ». It is believed that this phenomenon claims the lives of 239,000 girls each year, essentially in the large States of the Ganges Plain, in the north of the country.
Expected mortality and actual mortality
To identify this excessive female infant mortality, in a country with no civil registration system, scientists have developed a sophisticated two-stage methodology. First of all, they assessed the mortality of boys and girls, based on the 2011 Census. Questions posed to women within this framework, about the number of children they have, the proportion and gender of survivors, provide a fairly accurate overview. They subsequently estimated the expected mortality for each gender, by comparing the Indian situation with that of 46 countries with equivalent conditions in terms of development and population dynamics. Young boys are biologically fragile and their level of mortality is naturally high, which is found almost everywhere. “The comparison between expected and actual mortality in India reveals a 1.85% difference to the detriment of young girls, points out Christophe Guilmoto, demographer with 'IRD. This imbalance can be directly attributed to gender discrimination against them”. This discrimination can take the form of a lack of care for girls – vaccination delay, reduced or late visit to a doctor in the event of illness, or even food deprivation.
Economic underdevelopment and high fertility
Thanks to the fineness of the scale selected, the scientists who examined the statistical data of the country’s 640 districts take it a step further. “We extracted valuable information on spatial structuring and the major factors associated with this discrimination, states the researcher. Not surprisingly, the most affected areas are the regions where family systems are least egalitarian. In addition, we identified a clear correlation on a local scale between the phenomenon and economic underdevelopment, preference for boys(3) or high fertility”. While the first two factors seem to logically contribute to the socio-cultural mechanisms which lead to this discrimination, high fertility is more surprising. To explain its link to the mistreatment of young girls, the researchers postulate that it occurs because of the populations’ inability to determine the gender of their progeny in advance. The couples accumulate the number of births until they have a boy, to whom more attention and care will be given than to his sisters…
“As the fourth daughter of my parents, who wanted a son because of societal pressure, these results resonate particularly strongly with my personal experience, reveals Nandita Saikia, demographer at New Delhi’s JNU University. But I was fortunate enough to be born in Assam, Northeast India, a region where women’s status is relatively acceptable, and I was not discriminated against in terms of access to food, care or education. While clear progress has been made in some regions, including mine, India still has a long way to go to achieve gender equality. Our research can contribute to raising awareness of this issue”.
1. Christophe Z Guilmoto, Nandita Saikia, Vandana Tamrakar, Jayanta Kumar Bora, Excess under-5 female mortality across India: a spatial analysis using 2011 census data, The Lancet, Volume 6, No. 6, e650–e658, June 2018
2. Center for the Study of Regional Development, School of Social Science, SSS III
Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
3. Notably assessed on the basis of the difference in the school education given to boys and girls.