India’s Sex Ratio at Birth Begins To Normalize

A woman holds a baby at a public rally on International Women’s Day in 2018 in Jhunjhunu, India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the expansion of the “Save the girl child, educate the girl child” program. The Indian government launched the program in 2015 to advocate against sex selection and discrimination of daughters. (Himanshu Vyas/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Sikhs have a substantial reduction in son bias, but Christians still have a natural balance of sons and daughters.

According to recently released data from the country’s National Family Health Survey, the artificially high ratio of baby boys to baby girls that developed in India in the 1970s as a result of the use of prenatal diagnostic technology to facilitate sex-selective abortions now appears to be decreasing (NFHS).

According to the latest research, Indian families are less likely to perform abortions in order to guarantee the birth of sons rather than daughters. This comes after years of government initiatives to stop sex selection, such as the ban on prenatal sex testing and a significant ad campaign urging parents to “save the female kid,” and it also corresponds with broader social changes like more affluence and education.

The largest decrease in sex selection appears to be among the groups that historically experienced the highest gender imbalances, particularly Sikhs, among India’s major faiths.

Naturally, there are somewhat more boys than girls at birth, with 105 male infants to every 100 female infants. Before nationwide access to prenatal sex tests, such was the ratio in India in the 1950s and 1960s.

Amniocentesis-based prenatal gender testing were uncommon and expensive in the 1970s. Gender testing has expanded in popularity and cost since the 1980s, when ultrasound technology was first developed.

In this nation, abortion was made legal in 1971. Sex selection gained popularity as prenatal testing made it possible for Indian families to learn the fetus’ gender during pregnancy. The sex ratio at birth increased quickly, rising from 105 boys for every 100 girls before 1970 to 108 in the early 1980s, 110 in the 1990s, and then remaining at that level for about 20 years.



The sex ratio at birth in India, which was roughly 111 boys for every 100 girls in the 2011 census, has since narrowed to about 109 in the 2015–16 National Family Health Survey wave and to 108 boys in the most recent wave of the NFHS, which was performed from 2019–21.

However, India has one of the most skewed sex ratios at birth globally between 2000 and 2020, ranking behind Azerbaijan, China, Armenia, Vietnam, and Albania, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of United Nations estimates.3

Son preference, sometimes known as “daughter aversion,” is a type of gender bias that occurs when families choose to have males over daughters for monetary, cultural, or religious reasons. Son preference in India may be related to cultural norms that make raising daughters more expensive than raising sons. Hindu sons are supposed to carry out final rituals for departed parents, including lighting the funeral pyre and scattering their ashes, as per Indian tradition, which dictates that only sons can carry on the family name and lineage. Because men typically predominate in inheritance lines, sons have also been a tool for families to protect inherited property (even though most Indian inheritance laws now prohibit gender discrimination).

When daughters are married, they frequently get sizable dowries, and the payments may even continue throughout the daughter’s lifetime. A daughter is expected to move away from her parents and into her husband’s family home, but sons often stay in the parental house after marriage with wives who frequently take on the role of primary caretaker for aging in-laws. (For more information, see the “Laws, Norms, and Traditions” sidebar.)

Scholars have highlighted that these cultural and religious customs are frequently linked to regional norms; for instance, patriarchal and patrilineal family systems are more prevalent in Northern and Western India than in other regions of the country, particularly the South (See Wealth, education and regional distribution tied to differences among religious groups for more details.)

According to a Pew Research Center analysis of data from multiple waves of the NFHS and India’s census, at least 9.0 million (0.9 crore) female births went “missing” between 2000 and 2019 because of female-selective abortions, despite the fact that it has been illegal in India since 1996 for doctors and other medical professionals to reveal the sex of a fetus to the prospective parents.

The average yearly number of baby girls reported as “lost” in India decreased from around 480,000 (4.8 lakh) in 2010 to 410,000 (4.1 lakh) in 2019, according to the Center’s data, to put the recent reduction in sex selection into perspective.

RELATED: Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation

Sex ratios at birth and ‘marriage squeezes’ differ among religious groups

There were once significant discrepancies in the birth sex ratios of several of India’s major religious groupings, but there are signs that these differences are now less pronounced. Sikhs, who in previous decades had a disproportionately high imbalance of baby males to girls, now appear to be progressively reversing this trend and aligning with other communities.

Sikhs had a sex ratio at birth of 130 males for every 100 females in the 2001 census, which was much higher than the national average of 110 that year. The Sikh ratio has decreased to 121 boys for every 100 females by the time of the 2011 census. According to the most recent NFHS, it is now hovering at 110, or about the same as the male to female birth ratio among the predominant Hindu population of the nation (109).

Christians in India have recently distinguished themselves from other religious groups in the opposite way: their birth sex ratio has remained at or near the natural level of 105 boys for every 100 girls, indicating a comparatively low rate of sex-selective abortion. In addition, the birth sex ratio among Indian Muslims is currently near to the natural average observed in India before the beginning of prenatal testing (106 boys for every 100 girls).

The effects of female abortion can extend beyond the family who make the decision. International research demonstrates that nations with high sex-selective abortion rates often experience a scarcity of marryable women and an excess of men looking for wives within a couple of decades. Even if India’s sex ratio at birth continues to normalize, the large number of girls “missing” from its population could continue to have significant repercussions on Indian society for decades to come. This “marriage squeeze” can lead to a variety of social problems, including increases in sex-related violence and crimes and trafficking of women.

Given that few Indians marry outside their religion, religious groups are already facing varied degrees of a marriage pressure depending on their history of sex selection. Particularly among Sikhs, there is a severe lack of unmarried women of legal age. Despite making up less than 2% of the Indian population, the estimated 5% of the 9.0 million (0.9 crore) infant girls who went “lost” in India between 2000 and 2019 belonged to the Sikh community, or about 440,000 (4.4 lakh).

RELATED: Un-Natural Selection: Female Feticide in India

Hindus have a higher percentage of “missing” girls than their respective population share. Hindus make up 80% of India’s population, however they are thought to be responsible for 87% of the girls who are “missing” as a result of sex-selective abortions, or roughly 7.8 million (0.8 crore).

Muslims and Christians were less prone than other groups to practice sex-selective abortions, as evidenced by the fact that their proportion of female births that were “missing” during this time period was smaller than their respective percentages of the Indian population. Muslims make up over 14% of India’s population and were responsible for 7%, or about 590,000 (5.9 lakh), of the “missing” girls in the nation. Christians, who make up 2.3% of the population, account for an estimated 0.6% of all sex-selective abortions, or roughly 53,000 (0.5 lakh) procedures.

Aside from religion, many demographic factors are tied to sex selection

According to a survey of the academic literature, this is the first report to have been published that estimates the number of Indian females who are “missing” at birth per religious group. The findings do not, however, imply that religious differences are the only factors influencing childbearing decisions.

Family decisions, including how many children to have and who to live with, are tied to a variety of other factors in India and around the world, including educational level, money, urbanization, and regional culture. Additionally, it appears that several demographic parameters are related to birth sex ratios. Religious communities’ distinctive traits can have conflicting effects on sex ratios.

For instance, NFHS data reveals that women with greater wealth and education are less likely to favor having sons8, which could first lead individuals to believe that these same women would be less likely to abort girls. According to the NFHS, families in cities are also less likely than those in rural areas to favor having sons, which may be because they are wealthier and more educated. (For a more detailed examination of gender attitudes in India, read How Indians View Gender Roles in Families and Society by Pew Research Center.)

On the other hand, a woman may find it simpler to obtain (and pay for) an ultrasound or other form of prenatal sex screening if she has access to education, affluence, and urbanity. In India, having such a test during pregnancy is linked to a higher likelihood of having a son9.

In India, there is a social structure known as caste that has its roots in Hinduism but is also practiced by other religions. Particularly with regard to sex preference, upper-caste status has intricate relationships. In contrast, upper-caste Indians, particularly those in Northern and Western India, may have historically been more likely to adhere to rigid gender norms.11 Brahmins and other upper-caste families, who are typically wealthier and more educated, may not need to worry about the cost of having a daughter.

Birth order and fertility both significantly influence these decisions. Families who only want one or two children may be more likely to terminate a female to guarantee that they would have at least one son. For instance, the 1980 introduction of the one-child policy by the Chinese government most likely caused the country’s birth sex ratio to increase.

The relationship between religion and these demographic traits is complex. Religious adherents may have similar educational possibilities, financial difficulties, and fertility trends if they live close to one another. Religious groups may also share specific cultural norms, historical, geographic, or social backgrounds that have an impact on their way of life and the expectations they pass down to succeeding generations. In other words, it can be challenging to separate the connections between many of the variables that influence sex selection and both religious affiliation and them.

The specific causal relationships between religion and family decisions are not attempted to be determined in this paper. Its main objectives are to characterize the attitudes toward having children that are evident in survey and census data from India, as well as to use statistical methods to demonstrate how these attitudes vary by religion.

The remainder of this report examines each of the factors that influence sex preference in greater detail, including son preference, ultrasound use, and fertility. It also provides a thorough analysis of trends in each of India’s six administrative regions and among the country’s major religious groups. The following section provides a global overview of sex ratios. A brief description of some of the Indian customs, practices, and laws mentioned in this study is provided in the parts that follow, along with an overview of the demographic features of the various Indian religious groups.


By: Miss Cherry May Timbol – Independent Reporter

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