Health

What the Census Tells Us About Having Faith in Daughters

It’s high time Hindus and Sikhs learned from their neighbours of other religions how to save millions of “missing women”

The release of the latest census data on religion has whipped up a media storm. The focus has been on the two largest communities Hindus (79.8%) and Muslims (14.2%). But one significant trend between them seems to have been largely overlooked.

In 1991 and 2001, Muslims and Hindus had virtually similar female-male ratios, with the former consistently at a slight advantage. Sikhs trailed far behind. But in 2011 Muslims have shown a marked improvement.

In a decade, their female-male ratio has leaped from 936 to 951 women for every 1000 Muslim men. But in the same period, the Hindu ratio only rose from 931 to 939. The gender gap between the two communities has widened.

Source: Census 2011, 2001 and 1999, Tables C-1 Population By Religious Community

Source: Census 2011, 2001 and 1999, Tables C-1 Population By Religious Community

The overall child sex ratios, released earlier, had already rung alarm bells. In 2011, for every 1000 boys, only 918 girls celebrated their sixth birthday. These abnormally low all-India figures have fallen to their lowest level since independence.

The government has yet to release the latest religion-specific child sex ratios. In 2001, it was 950 for Muslims, which is considered to be more or less ‘normal’. But it was significantly lower for Hindus due to entrenched gender discrimination, especially blatant sex selective abortion.

Source: Census 2001, Tables C-1 Population By Religious Community Drop-in-Article on Census - No.4, Distribution of Population by Religions

Source: Census 2001, Tables C-1 Population By Religious Community Drop-in-Article on Census – No.4, Distribution of Population by Religions

So, in all likelihood in this round too, Muslim child sex ratios are expected to be better than Hindus. Perhaps significantly better, despite setbacks in Jammu and Kashmir. But the number of “missing women” among Hindus is likely to be alarming.

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen coined this term “missing women” for the dystopian phenomenon of women dying in unnaturally greater numbers than men in deeply-rooted patriarchal societies. Extreme gender discrimination manifests itself as “son preference” and “daughter aversion”.  Sex selective abortions, female infanticide and pervasive neglect of women’s healthcare are symptoms of this morbid prejudice. Infant girls, for example, are more likely to die than boys across every single state in India.

Rich states like Haryana and Punjab fare the worst in child sex ratios, especially due to sex-selective abortions. But, across the border in Pakistan’s Punjab province despite lower female literacy, more girls are born and survive childhood. Religion is an important difference across the two sides of the Punjab border.

Source: India: Census 2011, Bangladesh: Census 2011, Nepal: Census 2011, Sri Lanka: Census 2012, Pakistan: Labour Force Survey 2012-13

Source: India: Census 2011, Bangladesh: Census 2011, Nepal: Census 2011, Sri Lanka: Census 2012, Pakistan: Labour Force Survey 2012-13

Across the majority of Indian states, too, Muslims have overall higher female-male ratios despite lower socio-economic development and literacy. One argument is that in larger Muslim families perhaps there is lesser pressure for sex selection.

But this hypothesis doesn’t ring true. Bangladesh, for example, with a 90% Muslim population has had a historic fall in fertility in the last three decades from 6 to 2.2 children per woman. But it has also simultaneously dramatically improved its child sex ratios – at 972 girls for every 1000 boys in 2011.

The Koran also explicitly forbids female infanticide, a practice common in Arabia in the Middle Ages. The Muslim advantage in female-male ratios does seem consistent across South Asia.

In Bangladesh young women are more literate than men. In Pakistan’s Baluchistan, on the other hand, only 23% and in the district of Dera Bugti only 1% of women can read. But in both countries, they are less likely to slay their unborn and newborn daughters.

So, apart from ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’ and ‘#SelfieWithDaughters’, perhaps it’s high time Hindus and Sikhs learned from their neighbours of other religions how to save millions of “missing women”

  • vikramvg

    Based on the author’s hypothesis, how would she explain the low child sex ratios in the Kashmir Valley, which is overwhelmingly Muslim ? Or the normal/high sex ratio in Nepal, which is mostly Hindu ? And how would she explain the fact that the Sikhs have the lowest sex ratio by far ?

    It is quite clear looking at the map, especially of India, that low child sex ratios are seen mostly in North-Western India. This also happens to be a region of relatively low Muslim population, and higher Jain and Sikh population. Then why is this trend not continuous across the India-Pak border ? I think the key lies in another variable that is not continuous across this border: fertility rate. Fertility rates in North-Western India vary between 1.7 and 2.5, whereas in Pakistani Punjab it is 3.8.

    In the highly patriarchal cultural of the North-Western subcontinent, a son is considered essential. Malala Yousufzai mentioned in her biography that in her region of Swat, NW Pakistan, the birth of a son would be greeted by celebration and that of a daughter by gloom.