Wednesday, April 20, 2011

News Flash 3: Discrimination Against Girls in India

In India, discrimination against women is an extremely prevalent issue.  This sexism can be viewed as implicit discrimination due to cultural practices.  Thus it falls into the realm of 3rd wave feminism.  The embedded sexism in the Indian culture is especially evident in the recent increase in abortions of female fetuses.  This article explains that with technological improvements and a recent increase in wealth, which has allowed greater access to this technology, there has been a decrease in the ratio of females to males born in India.  For example, in 2001 the ratio was 927 girls to every 1,000 boys in the 0-6 year age class (Roy, 2011).  In 2011, the ratio was 914 girls to every 1,000 boys (Roy, 2011).  Thus, the gender disparity has expanded in recent years.  Reason for this imbalance stems from the sexism against women that is deeply woven in the Indian society.  Therefore, the underlying cultural norms and gender roles need to be changed to decrease this discrimination against women. 
            In Indian society there is an evident preference for boys over girls.  This is due to various cultural aspects.  First, boys are expected to provide an income for their families and thus are valued for financial purposes (Roy, 2011).  Accordingly, in India the birth of a boy may be preferred over a girl due to family economic reasons.  Another factor that influences male preference is the concern that daughters will be unable to take care of their own parents because they will be married into a new family.  The daughter’s responsibilities would then be to her husband and his family rather than her own parents (Roy, 2011).  Therefore, when thinking of their future security, parents may prefer to have boys rather than girls to ensure that they can grow old in a financially secure environment. This also relates to the concern that a woman who inherits land may give that land to her husband’s family (Roy, 2011).  Thus, rather than having the land stay in the original family it would be lost to the husband.  Overall, underlying cultural factors have resulted in a society that highly favors men.  
The arguably most important cultural aspect that leads to favoring of boys is the dowry system.  The dowry is money, goods, or property that a woman gives to her husband before their marriage as a means to establish their new home (Roy, 2011).  Due to the 1992 economic liberation, dowries have become additionally extravagant and husbands expect more from their future wives (Roy, 2011).  This is further perpetuated by a more materialistic society, which emphasizes the obtainment of money and real estate.  Therefore, for parents, having a girl means that they eventually will need to pay a dowry, which can be a financial burden on their family.  For this reason a boy would be favored over a girl because they would not bring the responsibility of paying this money.  In this manner, the article describes women as liabilities to their family.  This financial responsibility is deeply embedded in societal expectations and traditional practices.  This custom however leads to discrimination against women, which in turn has resulted in an unbalanced male to female ratio. 
In recent years, the emphasis on a larger, more valuable dowry has led to violent consequences if that dowry is not met.  There are many reports of women murders because the husband and his family wanted a bigger dowry (“Shameful Act Still Prevalent in the Indian Society”, 2010).  Therefore, it is of great concern in India if families are not financially able to produce a large enough dowry for their daughters.  In fact, dowry deaths have increased from 5,800 killings in 1998 to 8,172 killings in 2008 (Roy, 2011).  These brutal acts are thus related to why there is such a discrimination against girls.  If families are not financially able, or do not want to risk having to pay a dowry in the future, they may resort to aborting female fetuses.  Unfortunately many families consider this as their only option that does not leave them with the liability of a daughter. 
Therefore, it is evident that the dowry system works to reinforce the discrimination against women in Indian society.  It also increases gender-based violence.  The article describes this as a part of the gender-based continuum of discrimination and violence.  Therefore, the continuum begins with the abortion of female fetuses.  It also includes the dowry system and the associated violence.  
Cultural norms and traditions pay a huge role in discrimination and violence against women in India.  The expectation that a women’s family must pay the husband a large sum of money or material goods is an idea that has been practiced in Indian history and thus is a tradition that people are expected to uphold.  However changes in the mentality of materialism and consumerism have heightened expectations.  Still, the bride’s family is expected to present a sufficient dowry or consequences may result.  This custom therefore reinforces the selection of male fetuses over female fetuses.  A male fetus in this society is less of a financial burden to parents due to cultural traditions.
Another cultural norm that supports gender-based discrimination is the way that a woman marries into her husband’s family and in doing so is expected to pay more time and attention to this new family than her original family.  Conversely, men remain responsible to their own parents and own family throughout life.  This system leads to a preference of males because parents feel more financially secure with sons.  With sons they know that they will not be abandoned for a different family and thus they will be looked after in their old age. 
These Indian cultural norms and expectations reinforce discrimination against women.  In their society, men are valued for many reasons and these reasons compound often resulting in the selection of male fetuses.  To address the issue of discrimination and violence against women it is necessary to start with the cultural basis of these constructs.  This relates to Allan G. Johnson’s article “Patriarchy, the System: An It, Not a He, a Them, or an Us”.  All people are part of a system and thus work to perpetuate that system (Johnson).  The system’s ideology including cultural beliefs and ideas, dominates the culture.  Specifically the beliefs about male superiority result in the oppression of women.  This social hierarchy is thus maintained as a patriarchy, privileging men over women. Still, this patriarchy is reinforced by the actions of all members of that system (Johnson).  Furthermore, in Marilyn Frye’s “Oppression”, she uses a birdcage analogy to emphasize the constraints and oppression that women are faced with.  This can be related to the Indian Culture as women are depicted as burdens and inferior to men, which can result in fetal discrimination. Specifically, the traditions, social norms, values and beliefs of Indian culture reinforce this sexism.  The tradition of the dowry especially leads to discrimination and violence by framing women as liabilities.  The Indian culture makes it difficult for poor parents to have a daughter, it also works to reinforce the notion that male is the desired gender.
The Indian government has worked to decrease the abortion of female fetuses.  According to the article, they are currently working to supervise the new medical technology that allows sex-selection.  Still, this seems to ignore the real underlying issues.  Sex-selection will continue to occur as long as women are disadvantaged by societal norms and traditions.  Cultural constructions such as the dowry will continue to promote the preference of boys.  Until these cultural factors are addressed, the issue is likely to persist. 
Some call for a complete abolition of the dowry (“Shameful Act Still Prevalent in the Indian Society”, 2010).  This could decrease the financial responsibility of having a girl.  Furthermore, today some women work to earn their own dowry so that the financial burden will not fall on their parents but rather on themselves.  Regardless, the evidence remains that many parents strongly prefer to have a boy.  The Indian culture reinforces this discrimination and thus the only solution may be changing these deeply embedded traditions and societal norms.
Overall, the increase in the abortion frequency for female fetuses in India is very concerning.  These abortions demonstrate gender discrimination even at the fetal level.  The deeply embedded discrimination against women causes families to view girls as a family burden and boys as superior and thus the preferred gender.  This mentality is supported by cultural norms and expectations that lead men to become producers of wealth and women to become liabilities.  Therefore, in order to address these issues it is necessary to start at the cultural level.  The underlying norms and gender roles must be altered in order for girls to be considered equal to boys.  Specifically, the dowry is a cultural construct that leads to discrimination against girls.  As a primary course of action to decrease discrimination against women, the cultural expectations concerning the dowry should be reconsidered.


Frye, Marilyn. The Politics of Reality. Trumansburg, NY: The Crossing Press, 1983.

Johnson, Allan G. “Patriarchy, the System: An It, Not a He, a Them, or an Us.”

Roy, Nilanjana S. "A Campaign Against Girls in India." The New York Times 12 Apr. 2011: n. pag. Web. 18 Apr. 2011. <>.

"Shameful Act Still Prevalent in the Indian Society." Zor Se Bol. 2010. Web. 18 Apr. 2011. < dowry-by-techies-shameful-act-still-prevalent-in-the-indian-society/>.


  1. This is something that always scares me because I know the Chinese and Vietnamese culture also value boys over girls. Especially in China, where the one-child policy still holds strong, parents are desperate for boys and ways to dispose of their girls. After speaking with the Chinese intern, I learned that ultrasounds for the purpose of sex determination in China is also illegal. It really did shock me, but at the same time, it really challenged me to think about whether or not I personally think this is right. After contemplating a bit, I think I support these laws and restrictions over the individual rights of parents. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for the freedom and liberty of individuals like the next person is, but I when these freedoms and rights are used to take part in essentially a genocide against the entire female sex, I think that's when I can pass up my right, put my foot down and say, "No."

    I agree with your point that we should look at the underlying cause of patriarchy. Though India's supervision of ultrasounds is definitely a step towards the right direction, like you said, it's not fool-proof and actually creates a class conflict; the rich can afford to fly elsewhere, can afford to bribe their doctors, can afford the abortion.

    Very interesting newsflash, Tricia! If you're interested in this, you might be interested in the topic of surrogacy and medical tourism in India! :)

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