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A girl amongst the audience looks on during an event against female feticide organized by Delhi Commission for Women, in New Delhi, India. (GURINDER OSAN)
A girl amongst the audience looks on during an event against female feticide organized by Delhi Commission for Women, in New Delhi, India. (GURINDER OSAN)

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Land of the rising son Add to ...

The information is traded in whispers over cappuccinos in the cafés of South Delhi and in the locker rooms of seaside gyms in Mumbai.

That doctor won't tell. But this one will. For a price.

And once you know, call this clinic – they will help with the “problem.”

In India, it has been illegal for 15 years to tell a pregnant woman the sex of her fetus – and to abort based on gender.

And ever since a national census in 2001 found that millions of girls were “missing,” the government has been throwing money at the problem. There are cash payments to parents when a girl is born, bursaries to send girls to school and a cheque on a daughter's 18th birthday.

These measures, launched under the slogan Save the Girl Child, aim to give parents an incentive to have daughters, and a cushion for what is perceived as the exponentially greater cost (a girl will almost certainly need a dowry, and will join her husband's family, taking her earnings and property with her).

There are some early signs that these interventions may be working, in poor families.

But $100 on the birth of a girl – or even $2,500 at her marriage – means nothing to the country's wealthiest families. And that is where the gender gulf is yawning most deeply. The richest neighbourhoods in the country – the wealthy farming areas of the Punjab, the middle-class areas of Mumbai and other cities, and here, the leafy neighbourhoods in the south of the capital – have the biggest gaps.

High-caste families in urban areas of the Punjab have just 300 girls for every 1,000 boys, researchers financed by Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC) reported last year. In South Delhi, it's 832 girls born per 1,000 boys; in the state of Haryana, home to the high-tech hub of Gurgaon, it's 822. (In “normal” circumstances, demographers expect to find 950 to 1,000 girls born for every 1,000 boys).

Conventional wisdom has long held that as India develops – as more families struggle their way into the middle class, more girls go to school and more women join the work force – traditional ideas about the lesser value of girls will erode. The incentive to abort them would fall away.

Instead, the opposite has happened, and the reasons – and solutions – have government and activists stumped.

“These educated, well-off women, who still want sons – this is really the crux of the problem and the government has not caught on to it,” says Farah Naqvi, author of a major study on attitudes to “son preference.”

“Yes, you have these very modern women today – you see them in spandex at the local gym … but it's a complicated modernity. It's two worlds these women are straddling.”

Women with a Grade 10 education or higher are four times as likely to have a second child who is a son, after a first daughter, as are women who are illiterate. “These educated, employed women are earning very well, and yet they prefer a son,” says N.B. Sarojini, head of SAMA, a health organization that tries to help women resist sex-selection pressure. “Why are rich women worst? If you have a male child, you are more valued in society – it's true in any class.” The crucial question, she adds, is why that idea has proved so immutable.

One of the dark ironies of India's growing prosperity is that it seems, in many quarters, to have exacerbated traditional ideas about the cost of girls, rather than changing them.

“It's no longer okay to marry your daughter off at 13: You have to give her education, job prospects – the expense of a daughter has been heightened,” says Mary John, head of the Centre for Women's Development Studies in New Delhi and an author of the IDRC study. “It's an unintended consequence of modernity.”

NEW TECHNOLOGY FOR AN OLD PURPOSE

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