India’s “son preference” that led to a highly skewed sex ratio between 2000 and 2020 is finally tapering off. Data from a new report by Pew Research shows that sex ratio at birth (number of male births per 100 female births) has come down to 108.1 from a peak of 111.2 in early 2010s.
The report, which analyses data from the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), says “This follows years of government efforts to curb sex selection–including a ban on prenatal sex tests and a massive advertising campaign urging parents to “save the girl child”–and coincides with broader social changes such as rising education and wealth.” In 2015, the Centre launched the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao (save the girl child) campaign. (See Graph 1)
So what is driving the change? Among many factors outlined in the report, the marked decline in son preference among Sikhs is a big factor. In 2001, the sex ratio at birth among Sikhs stood at a very high 130. This came down to 110 by 2019-20. Son preference in the community has come down from 30% in 1998-99 to 9% in 2019-20. Son preference is defined as the percentage of women in the 15-49 age group saying they ideally want a son. (See Graph 2)
More is at work, however. Data shows that while son preference overall has fallen from 33% in 1998-99 to 15% by 2019-20, the use of ultrasound during pregnancies has gone up from 18% in 1998-99 to 78% in 2019-20. At one time, the use of ultrasound tests was clearly linked with higher abortions and female foeticide. Ultrasound clinics—which were once thinly disguised abortion shops—are now more likely to be used for medical purposes instead. Higher education, government programmes and awareness have finally made a dent against this tendency.