Disappearing Daughters: Women Pregnant With Girls Pressured Into Abortions

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

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.

Mother Says She Was Tortured to Abort Twin Girls

Those seeking to maintain the status quo, meanwhile, have been aggressive.

Mitu Khurana, 34, a pediatrician and a mother trying to fight the system, said she's faced death threats for the lawsuit she has filed against her husband and her husband's family.

Khurana said her parents-in-law tricked her into eating a cake made with eggs, knowing that she was allergic to eggs. She had to go to the emergency room and at the hospital, where, Khurana said, an ultrasound determined that she was pregnant with twin girls. (Watch an interview with Mitu Khurana here.)

Khurana claims, to ensure she miscarried, her husband and his family tortured her and deprived her of food, until she fled to her parents to give birth. When one of her daughters was 4 months old, Khurana said, her mother-in-law threw the baby down a staircase.

When ABC News reached Dr. Khurana's husband, he denied her claims but refused to provide any further comment.

Khurana's lawsuit has been ongoing for nearly four years. She said she's willing to fight as long as it takes in hopes that her daughters don't someday have to face the horrors that she did.

"How do I safeguard them when they get married? If this can happen to me, it can happen to them when they grow up. And that is the reason I'm fighting it," she said.

Trafficking for Brides

It's not just pregnant women and infant girls who face the consequences of gendercide. With men outnumbering women, some families resort to the black market and human trafficking to buy brides for their sons.

Sakina was 12 years old when she says she was sold for 10,000 rupees, or $200, and moved 1,000 miles from her home to a village in the Indian state of Haryana. She has since given birth to nine children, eight of them boys. Though Sakina herself says she was the victim of human trafficking, she said she might turn to the black market to find wives for her sons.

"In Haryana, because there are no women, I will have to pay money to marry my sons. And if I have to buy a bride, I will," she said.

A Unique Home

There is hope for young girls in India. In addition to the activists fighting against gendercide, the government and charities have set up a network of orphanages called "cradle houses."

One of them is called Unique Home. The woman who founded the orphanage, Prekash Kaur, cares for 60 girls, some just days old. Some abandoned infants are found in trash cans. Others are discreetly left in a drop box at the orphanage door.

Many of the infants, Kaur said, are "half dead" when they arrive because of the drugs their mothers have taken in an attempts to abort them.

No child is turned away from Unique Home. They live in close quarters and eat, sleep and study together. Kaur is affectionately known as "mama" and calls each child there her daughter -- girls she'll raise, protect and educate. She doesn't allow adoptions for fear that girls will again fall victim to abuse and neglect.

"It is important to empower and embolden these girls to make them stronger, so one day, when they give birth to a baby girl, they will not give into the pressure to play with nature," she said. "They should understand whatever their moms did to them, they should not do to their own daughters."

Lucy Singh, 19, has lived at Unique Home since she was one day old. She attends college and wants to be a teacher. She calls Prakash Kaur her mom, her dad, her everything.

"I feel that I'm the lucky one," she said.

Watch the full story on the latest episode of "20/20."