And then there's cold, hard economics: In the words of a Punjabi proverb, raising a daughter is like watering your neighbour's garden. Girls leave home at marriage, taking whatever skills or assets they have accrued. And the practice of dowry, once restricted to the highest castes, has been adopted at all levels of society – as a sign of social status – and is nearly universally practised even though it was outlawed in 1961. (Like the law against sex selection, this one seeks to alter a widely accepted social practice, and there is little enforcement – in fact, many feminists argue, government is reinforcing the practice by offering cash to unwed girls on their 18th birthdays.)
In aspirant middle-class families in south Delhi today, a typical dowry provided to a groom's family can include a sports car, a large apartment, all its furniture including high-end electronics, and thousands of dollars in clothing. “Increasing materialism … and the emphasis on obtaining consumer lifestyle products has exacerbated the problem of dowry,” Ms. Naqvi says.
Navsharan Singh, who heads the gender program at IDRC's India office, noted that dowry was a way to allow girls to share in family property; although India's inheritance law was changed two years ago to allow daughters to inherit, this has yet to have had an impact.
SMALLER FAMILIES LOWER THE ODDS
Meanwhile, family size is shrinking across all sectors of Indian society – the “small family norm” is pushed aggressively by government. Son preference endures even though people in upper income brackets rarely have more than two children, and so go to great lengths to ensure they have a son.
“Sex selection followed by abortion is a difficult, painful practice that few if any women would seek out – so you need to look at the dynamic in this family that makes a woman so desperate to have a son that she will undergo this pain,” Ms. John says. “If you're only having one or two, you do need this boy, that's the perception – the boy is an investment worth making, and the girl, as much as you might love her, she's going to have duties in another family. Call it rationalization or justification, but these are the motives.”
Last month, the Delhi government released new data drawn from birth registrations and said triumphantly that the sex ratio had actually increased from 820 girls born for every 1,000 boys in 2005 to 848 in 2008 – which means 19,000 more female births in 2008 than the year before. The government attributed the gain to its “Laadli” scheme – the Hindi word for darling or beloved – which gives each family with an annual income under $2,500 that same sum when a daughter turns 18.
But activists scoffed, calling the numbers bad statistics (the total number of births reported was down, when in fact it is believed to have risen considerably) and saying they actually represented a gross under-reporting of boy births – many poor women do not give birth in hospitals or clinics, and never register their babies' births, but the Laadli scheme gives families with girls a powerful incentive to do so, distorting the numbers.
Either way, the Delhi statistics confirmed that gender ratios are skewing with growing affluence: Muslims, the poorest residents, registered 1,040 girls per 1,000 boys. Sikhs and Christians, the two wealthiest groups, had 873 girls and 875 girls per 1,000 boys.
Ms. Naqvi noted that positive attitudes about modern women, who are earning their own income and contributing to families, exist simultaneously with concerns about women's increased independence and autonomous decision-making, seen by many as negative changes that clash with traditional Indian values, which link family honour to the sexual purity of daughters.
Her research found that young women were most receptive to challenging sex-selection, but Indian women of any class rarely make decisions about their reproductive choices themselves: Husbands and in-laws are usually intimately involved.