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Issue of Female Feticide in India

Dr. Puneet Bedi is a gynecologist in the intensive care unit at Apollo Hospital in Delhi, India; his workplace serves as both a “source of pride and shame” (Hvistendahl 45). Dr. Bedi can boast about having access to the best ICU technology in all of India, since it was one of his reasons for taking up the practice of gynecology at Apollo Hospital. However, he is ashamed that the unit’s technology contributes to the imbalanced sex ratio in India. According to Bedi, seven out of ten babies accounted for in the maternity ward are male; he knows that most of these male babies are replacements for aborted female babies. The ratio of male babies to female babies delivered at this reputed hospital is indicative of the skewed sex ratio of males to females in India.

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Many women in India choose to get a female fetus aborted (female feticide) or kill a baby girl after giving birth to her (female infanticide) due to the cultural or economic difficulties they face. In an interview with Zahida Begum, a young woman in a Sunni Muslim settlement who assists women to gain access to female-selective abortions, Maya Unnithan-Kumar asks why women commit female feticide. Zahida responds to the matter by saying that mothers think about the kind of man the daughter will have to marry and the problems she will have to face; they also worry about the amount of goods that will have to be given to the in-laws and that there may be no happiness in the in-law’s family even if they give a complete set of goods given to the in-laws along with their daughter. As a mom, Zahida responds by saying, “Tomorrow, my daughters will be sad. Then as a mother, I can’t take that” (Unnithan-Kumar 156). Maya notices that the blame for female feticide, which is a nationwide problem, should be placed upon social expectations of a marriage alongside the dowry system.

Misinformed onlookers condemn technology for female feticide occurring commonly and regularly in an informed and technologically developed country. In the New York Times article, “Missing: 50 Million Indian girls”, opinion writers Swami Agnivesh, Rama Mani, and Angelika Köster-Lossack credit modern technology, particularly the ultrasound machine, for making it easier for “parents, and highly profitable for doctors, to practice female feticide without great risk of detection and punitive legal action” (Avignesh). While technology has played a part in allowing female feticide to thrive and maintain its everlasting presence in many parts of India, the authors of the article fail to understand that female feticide has been occurring for over a millennium. Modern technology has only facilitated the practice of female feticide and has provided an accessible method to those who wish to carry out the act of killing female babies. However, this has been the case only for the past few years since ultrasound machines have been in use for less than a century. Thus, technology is not the main reason contributing to the pre-existing gender imbalance in India, which has continued to increase with the addition of easily accessible techniques to use to kill a female baby.

In order to address the inequality gender problems caused by modern technology in India and put forth a way to rebalance the sex ratio, the authors of “Missing: 50 Million Indian girls” deem that women need to be educated and more aware of their rights. The opinion writers do not fail to take into consideration that female feticide is “most prevalent among the poor and illiterate” (Avignesh). However, the authors noticed that recent reports on Indian literacy rates show female feticide most commonly occurring among the highly educated members of Indian society, contrary to common notions on education being a solution to eliminating female feticide. A solution through education, which has been so widely presumed by many seekers, as well as the opinion writers of the article, for the issue of the common occurrence of female feticide is proven to be ineffective and is rather proven to be exacerbating the state of the problem. Attempts to help women become more educated and aware of their denied rights have served to be of no good as per respective studies conducted on rates of literacy affecting the sex ratio in India.

True progress in Indian society, where the inferior status of women is so deeply embedded, can come only if pre-existing cultural attitudes towards women change. In her article, “A Campaign Against Girls in India”, featured in the New York Times, Nilanjana S. Roy references a more logical answer to the sex ratio problem in India due to the frequent occurrences of female feticide. According to Roy, there are several factors that are associated with the dowry system which explain the preference for boys in many parts of India: “sons are the source of the family income, daughters marry into another family and are not available to look after their parents, dowries make a daughter a liability and, in agricultural areas, there is the fear that any woman who inherits land might take that property to her husband’s family” (Roy). The giving and demanding of a dowry have been practiced for a long time in India, long before modern technology came to hold a place in India’s social economy. The roots for the practice of female feticide are strongly linked to the dowry system. With proven studies showing that the rates of female feticide cannot be decreased with more educated people, a more impactful and direct solution must be pursued. Getting rid of the dowry system entirely and enforcing laws to make the practice illegal will allow for the most effective changes in the female status of women in society, therefore helping decrease the rates of female feticide and balancing the sex ratio in India.

Prior to establishing the connection between the dowry system and the female infanticide rates in India, it is crucial to understand what the dowry system is and how it has tainted the status of women in the country. In India, when a woman is married off to a man, the woman’s family presents the man’s family with a dowry, an amount of money and goods, to ensure that their daughter is provided for and is taken care of, especially in the case that the man’s family is unable to care for the woman. The dowry system was used by many families to acquire more money, land, and power, since it was an easy way to become wealthy. As more and more families accepted the dowry system to make a financial relationship through the marriage of a man to a woman, the social status of women deteriorated. Women were soon looked upon as “objects” to trade and were characterized as “items” which could be used to become wealthy; the dowry system consequently marked daughters as burdens and liabilities for the families which would have had to nurture and raise them.

Middle-class and lower-class families began to fear the struggles they would have to face in the future in the case that they would have to care for a girl, thus seeking an unpreventable solution. They would have to pay for a girl’s education, pay for a girl’s living conditions, pay for food to feed a girl, pay for clothes to dress a girl, and in the end, pay to send a girl away to another family. Thus, many families stopped sending their daughters to school to avoid paying for education and had them married off at young ages so that the family would not have to care for them anymore. But financial struggles still persisted due to the demands set by the dowry system, forcing families to seek another solution; that solution was to kill female babies and avoid problems in the future. Maya Unnithan-Kumar made a distinct connection between marriage and female feticide by claiming that “in a patrilineal kinship system where marriages are arranged on principles of dowry … and where women are objects of exchange along with other forms of wealth, excess female mortality is argued to be an inevitable outcome” (Unnithan-Kumar 593). In her statement, Unnithan-Kumar distinguishes the main reason which lead to the occurrence of female feticide in India: due to pressures put on families due to the responsibilities that come with a female baby, responsibilities which were established by social constructs of society, female feticide was certain to have been the answer to those who sought a “viable” solution for the struggles they were facing.

In order to combat the problem of female feticide in India, a practical and expected solution was sought by many seekers: education. According to S. Sudha and S. Irudaya Rajan, in their article “Female Demographic Disadvantage in India”, they state that “women’s literacy and education levels are much higher in the South than the North” (Sudha 589). The observation made was used to establish a relationship: the rates of education and literacy reflect in lower mortality rates in the southern regions of India whereas there are higher female mortality rates, alongside low rates of literacy, in northern parts of India. Women who lived in areas with greater concentrations of female employment and female empowerment, measured by literacy rates and educational opportunities, suffered less pressure to practice female feticide; thus, these areas had low rates of female feticide and a more balanced sex ratio.

Broad generalizations made as outcomes of finding positive relationships between education and female feticide do not hold strong when applied to smaller scale studies conducted in India, which provide stark contrasting results. Education was expected to positively change the problem and mitigate the magnitude of the problem; however, studies conducted in rural parts of Punjab and Gujarat reveal that high literacy rates allow women to be more efficient in discriminating against other women. Although education might help in making women, and men equally, more aware of health and nutrition, educating people “alone is not enough to transcend the nexus of conditions that lead families to consider daughters a liability. Education often domesticates women rather than liberates them” (Sudha 593). In “Sex ration in India – Embarrassing, to be honest”, a commentary piece on a study done to account for the differing sex ratios in various parts of India, the authors, Archana Joshi, and Neeraj Tiwari, saw that literacy rates in both males and females rose tremendously over the past few decades. Along with the observation in increased literacy rates, the authors noted that “such improvements have further shown a preference for a male child in the society” (Joshi). Not only has education helped women be more capable of discriminating against other women but it has redefined the extent of the problem of female feticide: education and literacy have allowed for a greater preference for a male baby in India.

While lack of educational opportunities and low literacy rates are blamed for being responsible for the high rates of female infanticide, some experts say that medical technology is to blame for the occurrence of female feticide in India. In a random sample of individuals from an urban area in Punjab, all the participants had heard of amniocentesis and “66 percent of them thought it was intended for sex determination” (Sudha 598). Amniocentesis is a more recently developed method which involves taking a sample of amniotic fluid from a mother’s womb to test for any fetal abnormalities. However, it was used in India, as many presumed, as a sex-determining medical test. In another test, “49 out of the 67 women interviewed in depth were aware of ultrasound and/or amniocentesis techniques and 45 percent of those who knew approved of aborting female fetuses” (Sudha 598). Many medical technology techniques are abused in India and are used to practice female feticide. The spread of such medical technologies in India is indicative of the skewed sex ratios as more people and families use these techniques and tools to kill a female fetus or a female baby.

Such occurrences of medical technology abuse are used to explain the high rates of female infanticide but the relevance of the reason in accordance with time was not considered. Medical technology and techniques to determine the sex of a baby were developed quite recently: amniocentesis was developed in the 1880s, but the technique was used in prenatal diagnosis only since the 1950s; ultrasound for clinical and prenatal purposes was first used in the late 1950s to view a fetus during pregnancy. When these medical inventions are applied to a timeline which accounts the first occurrences of female feticide, it is evident that these recent developments are not the primary reason as to why female feticide started and why it still occurs. Prohibiting the use of medical technologies to determine the sex of a child may decrease female feticide rates today but it is apparent that “any policy measures must not focus primarily on restricting technology used to women’s detriment, [it] must also address the root causes of devaluation of Indian women, or they will not succeed in eradicating discriminatory practices but will drive them underground where they will continue to flourish” (Sudha 611).  As per the claims made by Sudha and Rajan after reviewing the reasons explaining the high rates of female feticide in India, education and technology cannot be the root causes of the problem occurring in India. Attacking the roots which have allowed for the devalued status of women in India will provide a more efficient solution to the problem of female feticide.

The dowry system has made a lasting presence in India and has greatly contributed to developments which have generally been to women’s detriment. Socio-cultural trends established in India place women in positions where they at an increased disadvantage. When female feticide was heavily practiced in India, it was “part of a set of household strategies …  to acquire further holdings and improve and consolidate socio-economic status. This was achieved by manipulating the marriage of sons and acquiring dowry from daughters-in-law; daughters, as dowry-takers, were clearly a liability in this scheme of things” (Sudha 594). Gender stratification is increasing exponentially in India, confirmed by the spread of the dowry custom to acquire goods and wealth which further deteriorates that status of women in society; thus, many families do not have the incentive to welcome daughters and would rather focus on maintaining a patrilineal family. The dowry system, in part allowing for female infanticide to occur, is widely used by many families in India to increase the concentration of patriarchy and wealth in the family; it is also used by many families to raise their social status to gain prestige in a society where gender inequality is a social reality many people, including women, choose to ignore.

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Men, as well as women, are equally responsible for allowing the dowry system to flourish, with resulting consequences including the practice of female feticide. Many men have not made strides to change or fix the problem of female infanticide in India because they bask in the recognition they receive upon women’s seclusion and increased dependence on the male of the family. As a result, men begin to assert and enforce their gained rights to emulate socio-cultural customs, which mainly includes the practice of female feticide. Women are to blame as well because “even when women make financial contributions to the household, their contribution remains ideologically devalued” (Unnithan-Kumar 157). These employed women say that they will take responsibility for the dowry in their marriage by themselves so that they will not be a burden to their families. On the contrary, their determination does nothing but reinforce their inferior status in comparison to the status of men in society.

Abolishing the dowry custom completely and taking strides to balance the social standing of women with that of men will allow for less sexual discrimination. Women will have enough power to voice out their opinion and stand up for themselves in their family; they can prove their standing and support their voice with the skills they have; a woman will henceforth be given rightful respect and value in the social economy. All of these small steps to balancing the gender differences can be achieved and will aid to decrease the rates of female feticide in India.

In battling the dowry system, laws must be changed and better rules should be enforced to protect female fetuses and female babies in the future. Gender differences established in India are the main reason as to why female feticide is such a common occurrence. The inferior role of women established, through practices such as female infanticide, has strengthened the differences in the gender roles which are ever present in India and has allowed for female feticide to spread and grow for many years. Abolishing the dowry system will allow for changes in the heavy practice of female feticide as well as the gender gap which has developed as a result of harsh socio-cultural demands.  As seen with the southern states in India, they “have not only maintained a good SR but are also found to increase in some states. This is due to less discrimination against females in these states compared to those in North India” (Joshi 106). According to this data, it is evident that the sex ratio in areas which discriminate women less is comparatively high. The elimination of the dowry system would help close the wide gender imbalance present in the country and will help soften the magnitude of patriarchy to a certain extent; female feticide will decrease, and women will be given equal importance where they will be able to stand on a platform next to men without a price tag attached to them. In this way, women will not be looked upon as a burden to their families but will rather be seen as equals of men.

Due to the unchecked continuation of female feticide in India and many other countries in Asia, the social economy of the continent is drastically different from what it could have been. According to Christophe Guilmoto, if Asia’s sex ratio had maintained its natural sex ratio over the past few decades, “the continent would have an additional 163 million females” (Hvistendahl 5). The great number of women who have disappeared due to female feticide contributes to the problem of an extremely imbalanced sex ratio. Gender imbalance started out only in a few countries, mainly where patriarchy is strongly practiced such as India and China. Since there are fewer women due to the gender imbalance, men started seeking wives from neighboring countries. Consequently, the gender imbalance spread to other neighboring countries, for example, Vietnam and Caucasus countries, because women are being heavily trafficked as sex slaves or wives. Even with UN projections planned to stabilize the population in affected countries, “restoring the global balance of males and females will take until 2050” (Hvistendahl 7). The barriers put up by female feticide in many countries in Asia have taken away potential there could have been: the sex ratio could have been at its natural equilibrium state and both genders would be represented in all parts of the socio-economic society, not differentiated by gender or status.

A concern comes into the spotlight when discussing why abolishing the dowry system will be the best way to decrease the rates of female infanticide in India. To expand, the government of India has been making amends to their social economy and has been trying to give women a higher social standing. With many families worrying about spending to educate a girl, the government decided to take on this matter and pay for a girl’s education, contingent on the family meeting the requirements for a girl to qualify for the scholarship. Independent governments of a few states in India have also established “cradle communities” where people could drop off their unwanted child without being asked any questions; the people running the facility will care for the child and will enlist the child for adoption. The government has also established laws which will not let a pregnant woman, or her family, find out the gender of the baby; the hope was to eliminate sex-selective abortions.

The shortcomings of all of these attempts to decrease the rates of female infanticide in the country, however, is that none of these will be successful or effective with the gender imbalance in the social economy. Current rules abolishing the practices of the dowry system are not effective because they are not enforced: corruption and frauds prevalent within the government have held back the proper execution of the government’s plans for girls’ education; lack of education and awareness of places such as cradle communities will allow female infanticide to continue occurring and will leave many women at a disadvantage. More importantly, a woman can still be forced to kill her female child after she gives birth to the baby, defying any and all laws established by the government.

Despite the shortcomings of previous attempts to mitigate the problem, battling female feticide in India is still feasible by weakening the patriarchal mindset of the Indian with the use of media and propaganda to market the status of women. If women can be seen as who they really are, people who are the same as men and who have the same capabilities as every other being on this planet, the patriarchal dominated mindset has a potential to be changed. If the media persistently insists and markets the fact that women deserve to be respected and treated equally as men, over time, people will come to accept the truth that women are equally as capable as men and are not burdens to the family. However, this can be achieved only if the small steps are first taken. Small steps for women, a giant leap in mitigating gender discrimination.

The bottom-line answer to the problem of female feticide in India is patriarchal culture. The most logical consequence of letting female feticide to occur unchecked is that there will be two types of Indias: type one is where the society will flourish due to the acceptance of women and will not be situated with a patriarchal mindset; the type two society will exist in despair where women are in demand and will be sold as property or goods. It is evident that the society which is more acceptive of women will succeed and will continue to thrive; however, strides must be taken to ensure that a type one society is created.

Works Cited

  • Agnivesh, Swami, Rama Mani, and Angelika Köster-Lossack. “Missing: 50 Million Indian Girls.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 Nov. 2005, www.nytimes.com/2005/11/25/opinion/missing-50-million-indian-girls.html.
  • Hvistendahl, Mara. Unnatural Selection : Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, PublicAffairs, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central, pp. 1-7. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/NJIT/detail.action?docID=729369.
  • Joshi, Archana, and Neeraj Tiwari. “Sex Ratio in India – Embarrassing to Be Honest.” Current Science (00113891), vol. 101, no. 8, Oct. 2011, pp. 1006–1008. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=71826763&site=ehost-live.
  • Roy, Nilanjana S. “A Campaign Against Girls in India.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 12 Apr. 2011, www.nytimes.com/2011/04/13/world/asia/13iht-letter13.html.
  • Sudha, S., and S.Irudaya Rajan. “Female Demographic Disadvantage in India 1981-1991: Sex Selective Abortions and Female Infanticide.” Development & Change, vol. 30, no. 3, July 1999, pp. 585–618. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=3253287&site=ehost-live.
  • Unnithan-Kumar, Maya. “Female Selective Abortion – beyond ‘Culture’: Family Making and Gender Inequality in a Globalizing India.” Culture, Health & Sexuality, vol. 12, no. 2, Feb. 2010, pp. 153–166. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/13691050902825290.


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