In India, Ratio of Young Women Will Drop Sharply, Study Says


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Women in Bihar, India, this month. A recent government report has found that the ratio of women to men in the country will continue to decline.

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Atul Loke for The New York Times

NEW DELHI — The ratio of women to men among India’s young people, which has been low in India compared with Western nations for decades, will drop further in the coming years, the Indian government reported recently.

For young people ages 15 to 34, the number of women for every thousand men will drop from 939 in 2011 to 898 in 2031, the report says, using projections from the World Bank. That decline outpaces the more modest drop in the sex ratio among the general population in the same period of time, and indicates the continuing practice of sex-selective abortions, experts say.

“Traditionally, Indian society always preferred male; now they have the means to make it more skewed by using infanticide and abortion,” said Mitter Sain, a director at the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, who helped to prepare the report, published in March.

Evidence of the abortion of female fetuses emerged strongly in the 1980s and has continued since then, in part because of the introduction and proliferation of ultrasound technology. The sex ratio in the general population dropped to 927 in 1991, census data show, and has rebounded slightly since.

“If you look into the sex issue among children being delivered, that will be even more skewed,” Mr. Sain said.

There are many reasons for Indians’ preference for a male child, including the perception that men will take care of their aging parents financially, a desire to pass lineage through a male heir and a fear of being financially crippled by the dowry for a female child.

But the report highlights what would appear to be a paradox: Even as fertility declines, and as incomes and education increase, the process of sex-selective abortion continues unabated.

“People are selecting to have fewer children but selecting to have boys,” said Poonam Muttreja, the executive director of the Population Foundation of India, a nongovernmental organization.

India outlawed prenatal sex determination in 1994, but its practice continues because of lax enforcement. Ms. Muttreja said that as income levels rise, so do aspirations, and as Indians emerge into the middle class they are limiting the size of their families and focusing their resources on male children, who are seen to offer a better return on investment.

“That is because the sex issue is basically a cultural issue in India,” Mr. Sain said. “If you want to change anything from the cultural aspect, it requires a shock.”

Not all government data makes the same conclusions as the report. According to the recently released National Family Health Survey of 2015-16, the sex ratio at birth has improved slightly in the country, compared with the previous decade.

But experts agree that sex determination is a major factor in the skewed ratios.

In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduced the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao campaign, which translates to Save the Daughter, Educate the Daughter, aimed at raising awareness about the harm of sex selection.

But advocates say it has not gone far enough.

The campaign “cannot be just a slogan,” Ms. Muttreja said, adding: “We have to do a lot more in changing social norms.”

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