Disappearing Daughters: Women Pregnant With Girls Pressured Into Abortions

In India, steep dowries lead to gender-selective abortions, murders.

ByABC News
December 7, 2011, 10:10 AM

Dec. 9, 2011 — -- It is a country with a female president and where men revere female goddesses. And yet, India is far from a haven for women.

According to current estimates, Indian men outnumber women by nearly 40 million. That startling gender gap, activists say, is the result of gendercide. Nearly 50,000 female fetuses are aborted every month and untold numbers of baby girls are abandoned or murdered.

"It's the obliteration of a whole class, race, of human beings. It's half the population of India," said women's rights activist Ruchira Gupta of Apne Aap Women Worldwide.

Why is there such deadly discrimination against girls? Part of the answer is money. Girls are a financial burden to their parents, who must pay expensive dowries to marry them off. The dowry is a cultural tradition and the single biggest reason Indians prefer boys.

When an Indian woman gives birth to a baby boy, it is an occasion for jubilation, said women's rights activist Gita Aravamudan, author of the book, "Disappearing Daughters."

A boy's birth is greeted "with great joy because he's going to bring in the moolah," Aravamudan said. "He's going to be the person who gets married to a girl who's bringing in the money."

The reaction can be far different when a baby girl is born, especially when a family has more than one daughter and must face a future of having to pay more than one dowry.

"Amounts of dowry have become higher and higher, and families can get into huge debt bondage just to be able to pay the dowry to get a daughter married," Gupta said.

If a woman's family fails to pay a dowry, she might be beaten, tortured or even burned to death.

"We put very little value to girls and to women," Gupta said. "So they're always in danger from birth to death."

The high rate of female fetus abortions can be traced partly to the proliferation of clinics offering ultrasounds. It is a crime in India to use an ultrasound to determine the sex of a child and it is also illegal to perform an abortion based on gender, but the laws are rarely enforced.

RESOURCES: How to help girls and women in India.

Aravamudan said that the Indian issue of gendercide is unrelated to the American debate on abortion.

"This is not about pro-life or pro-choice," Aravamudan said. "This is about pro-women, anti-women. I'm not against abortion. This is a crime against women and I am against that."

Last July, in a effort to expose doctors breaking the laws, two activists with a hidden camera, posing as a husband and his five-months-pregnant wife, walked into an ultrasound clinic to hear their test results. The doctor didn't mince words, immediately breaking the law to tell the couple the gender of the fetus.

"It is not a good report as it is a girl child," he said.

He recommended the fetus be aborted and offered the woman an illegal injection to induce a miscarriage for 60,000 to 70,000 rupees -- between $1,100 and $1,300.

After activists submitted the sting video to authorities, the clinic was shut down, the equipment was sealed and two doctors there face possible charges. But stings like that one rarely lead to convictions.

"The very people who have to implement the law -- the police and the judiciary -- also believe that having too many girls is a burden on the family," Gupta said. "They never implement the laws because they believe in the same thing, and sometimes actually do the same thing."

In an interview with "20/20" this summer, India's then-secretary of health and family welfare, Dr. K. Chandramaouli, admitted that more needs to be done to enforce the laws intended to prevent gendercide.

"Probably, we've not been aggressive enough," Chandramaouli said.