Alarmed at the rising incidence of female foeticide in India, and a declining sex ration in Punjab, an edict was issued in August 2000 from the Akal Takhat – the highest temporal seat in Sikhism – warning that Sikhs indulging in it would be excommunicated since female infanticide is categorically forbidden in the faith.
Both Indian and international media hailed the edict “revolutionary” and congratulatory messages were received from religious heads, social organizations, doctors, lawyers and intellectuals as reported in The Hindu (Hyderabad, April 22, 2001) with a suggestion that “Other religious leaders should take note of the ill-effects of the practice of female foeticide.”– Editor
Amidst the euphoria surrounding the birth of the billionth Indian baby to a couple in New Delhi in May, what escaped the attention of demographers was a warning note sounded by the World Bank: Indian men will very soon have fewer options for marriage!
According to projections made by Monica Dasgupta of the World Bank, males born between 1980 and 1984 would discover, upon entering the marriage market, that there are 6 per cent fewer potential brides than earlier. And those born after 1985 would encounter a still greater shortage.
In a country notorious for discriminating between male and female offspring, the latter continue to top infant mortality charts. Daughters are unwelcome in many households. A boy boosts the family income and brings in a dowry when he marries.
A girl, on the other hand, is paraya dhan (someone else’s wealth) because she will belong to the family she marries into, and her dowry and wedding expenses will bleed the family she leaves. So sons are regarded as assets and daughters as liabilities.
Explains Vimla Sharma, a researcher with the Indian Institute of Population Sciences (IIPS), New Delhi:
We are still bogged down by the directives of Manusmriti (Codes of Manu, an ancient treatise) which make a girl child the most unwanted member in a household.
Moreover, in a predominantly agrarian economy, every new male in the family means an additional farm hand. Girls cannot put in that kind of labour. So no matter what the government does, as long as India remains dependant on farming, the problem of gender discrimination will persist.
Its worst consequence is female infanticide. In South India, girls are fed the sap of a poisonous cactus plant and “put to sleep” within hours of their birth. In Rajput families, doodh pilana is a common ritual reserved for new-born girls. Parents immerse the helpless child in a tub of milk, till she chokes to death.
Many other parents ensure that their daughters are fed with leftovers and get less medical attention then their boys so that child mortality is higher among girls. The result is a male surplus population, which exceeds 10 per cent in North India, where discrimination is worst.
Parents of girls have, however, faced a puzzle since long. If there are more men than women, grooms should have a tougher time than brides in the marriage market. And yet, experience shows it is the other way round.
The answer to this puzzle lies in the age difference between men and women at marriage. If men married women at the same age, brides would be scarce: In every age group (save the very old), there are more men than women.
But men generally marry girls several years younger. The average gap was 7 years in the 19th century, fell to 6.1 years in 1931, 5 years by 1981 and 4.2 years by 1991. It may be around 3.5 years today.
In a static population this does not matter. In a growing population however, this means fewer 30-year-olds than 20-year-olds, who in turn are outnumbered by 15-year-olds. So, even if there are fewer females in every age group, there are more 20-year-old girls than 24-year-old boys. This explains why grooms have been scarce for so long.
In the past centuries, India has witnessed a zero growth rate in population because mortality rates offset fertility rates. So an age gap at marriage did not increase the availability of brides. In those circumstances, the killing of little girls created a shortage of brides.
In effect, the parents of grooms, far from demanding dowry, typically paid a bride-price to parents of brides. This may surprise those who think of dowry as an ancient Indian tradition. The truth is that dowry was earlier limited to upper castes and bride-price was the norm among lower castes.
Things changed dramatically in the 20th century. Improvements in health care meant that population rose rapidly. Progressively there were more 15-year-olds than 20-year-olds. This more than offset the impact of girl killing and dowry replaced bride price.
The shortage of grooms became as high as 12 per cent for those who entered the marriage market in the early 1960s, and dowries zoomed. Subsequently, trends began changing. The fertility rate fell steadily and so eventually did annual births. The surplus of young girls began shrinking.
This trend was strengthened by the steady decrease in average age gap at marriage. The result is that the surplus of brides has disappeared for men born in 1975-79, who are just coming in the marriage market. And those born in 1980-84 will be even more hard up at finding suitable brides.