Gendercide: Sex-Selection in India



An estimated 40 million females are missing from classrooms, boardrooms, and political offices due to actions stemming from son-preference in India alone.1 Within the past thirty years, the frequency of sex-selective abortions against females has increased rapidly. This practice is most often cited in Asian countries, and India has one of the highest incidences with approximately 1,369 selective abortions occurring each day.1, 2 Given the increasingly alarming number of unborn females denied entry to the world simply based on their sex, it is important to understand which specific beliefs and traditions allow it to flourish. I intend to investigate how specific elements of India’s economic and social system inform the prevalence of son-preference and lead to sex-selective abortions.  My investigation will be framed around Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of practice with specific reference to economic and cultural capital, to analyze how these culture-specific factors directly bring about son-preference and sex-selection. My application of this theory demonstrates that the specified elements of the Indian culture provide causation for son-preference and sex-selection and not just correlation.

The discussion of sex-selective abortion in this country will be theoretically developed through a diachronic perspective, which focuses specifically on the way cultural practices have developed over time. This theoretical perspective is appropriate because of its relevance to the discussion of changes through history in the justification for and feasibility of partaking in sex-selection.

In conducting an anthropological analysis, it is always key to consider issues of cultural relativism, which is defined as “a methodological principle that emphasizes the importance of searching for meaning within the local context.” 4 However, this does not mean there is no place for constructive analysis of a demonstrated harmful practice; as such a notion would detract from the critical commitments of the field of anthropology. 


There are three well-documented types of sex-selection practiced within Indian society, differentiated by the stages at which they occur: pre-implantation, post-implantation and post-natal. Pre-implantation methods are very expensive and are therefore mainly reserved to cases in which the birth of a child of a specified gender will result in diseases (e.g. genetic conditions like hydrocephalus). 2 The post-natal sex-selection technique is known as female infanticide and is highly uncommon in modern Indian society because of evident moral and legal repercussions for the family. Though female infanticide is rare, the amount of household resources allocated to the healthcare (including vaccinations) and general welfare of daughters is often lower.5 In 2013, females one to 59 months old “in every region in India have higher death rates than boys.”5 These practices are a result of son-preference and the most common method for sex selection is sex- selective abortion, and this will be discussed in the most depth.

Sex ratio (the amount of males per one hundred females) at birth is a very useful metric in studying sex-selective abortion. Because of the prevalence of poorly documented at-home births as well as the recognized, though small, population of unwanted and abandoned babies, this makes the statistics collected on sex ratio at birth unreliable. Instead, in India, the metric usually cited is the ratio of children under 6 years old (ROC), which is collected from census data.1 It is of note that the natural sex ratio at birth is not 1:1 but rather “105-107 [male] births for every 100 female births” based on a large longitudinal study that found the ratio to be 105.9.1 In India this ratio rose from 104 in 1981 to 106 in 1991 to 108 in 2001. This national average hides the drastic variations from region to region, which will be detailed later.1, 2 This “proxy measure” as well as population sex ratio are the metrics most often referenced in literature on this subject. Besides sex ratio at birth, population sex ratio is affected by differential mortality rates as well as the effect of immigration and emigration.1 Population sex ratio naturally favors females as can be seen in that of Africa being 99.8 and North America being 96.8, but in Asia it is 104.8 and in India specifically it is 107.2 as of 2005.1  


The motivation of couples that opt for sex-selective abortions is a result of the intersection of the economic system and social organization present in Indian society. Indian acceptance of sex-selective abortion is seen to be culturally-linked. The amount taking place in countries in close geographic proximity such as Bangladesh and Pakistan has decreased since 1990 as health care and general conditions for women have increased, but this is not the case in India.1 The reasons Indian parents prefer sons are best understood when evaluated in terms of capitals theorized by Bourdieu. Cultural capital is the sum of social assets that allow for social mobility, such as: knowledge, skills, and clothing.4 Economic capital is defined as a financial asset that affects one’s power and social status in society.4 Individuals as well as groups aim to accrue as much capital as possible in order to be more respected and powerful in societies.


Indian society has a long history of son preference and many anecdotal examples date back to the nineteenth century. Examples include a city in the Eastern Uttar Pradesh region with no daughters and another region in India that was found to have a population sex ratio of 106 men to 100 women.2, 6 Such dated examples lend themselves to being explained away by the prevalence of primary sector jobs at this point in history and the therefore logical necessity of males for doing the hard labor needed to run a farm. This meant that having sons gave families greater potential for gaining economic capital, as they would be able to properly manage larger farms, which was often the only form of family income. So, the increased economic capital associated with having more sons, incentivized couples to have and raise boys in order to improve their social status and family welfare. However, this practice’s sustained prevalence in post-industrial India demonstrates that there are other factors that contribute to son-preference and show that the conditions supporting the practice have evolved over time.

Having male children continues to be financially advantageous. A study carried out on 25 000 households found that having a son as your first-born child “increases annual per capita household income on average by 6.9 percent across India” and “decreases the probability that a household is in poverty by 0.7 percentage points.”3 This is mainly due to dowry, patrilineal inheritance system, and wage-earning potential. 

Dowry is the widely practiced tradition wherein the family of the bride provides the groom’s family (not the couple) with a gift of great financial worth as a part of normal marriage proceedings.1, 3, 5, 6 Because of this practice, the parents of a female forgo some of their economic capital in order to have their daughter married. Avoiding marriage altogether (eliminating the financial stress of paying dowry) is rare for two reasons. First, Indian tradition states that young people get married and have families of their own. Second, getting married is often viewed in Indian society as an opportunity to improve the family’s social status by way of marrying into a family of higher status than the daughter’s family.7 This practice, known as hypergyny, exacerbates the economic problem for the bride’s family presented by dowry, as more affluent groom families expect even greater dowries, thereby putting more strain on the parents of a female. Ultrasound clinics have been known to exploit this well-known element of Indian marriages with one displaying a sign, in reference to sex-selection, that read: “invest only 500 rupees [$7.78] now and save your precious 500,000 rupees [$7,780] later.” 5 From this it can be seen that the tradition of dowry contributes to the decreased economic capital of families that have daughters thereby encouraging couples to select against them.

In addition, India is a patriarchal society with patrilineal inheritance and patrilocal residence. The culturally engrained system of patrilineal inheritance (element of patrilineal descent) dictates that the family assets after the parents are deceased are passed through the male line or at least in a manner that is “highly discriminatory towards women.” 1, 5, 6 Examples have been detailed where assets go to uncles or male cousins before female heirs.5 This means that if parents do not have any sons, all of the economic capital accrued in their lifetime will not be able to stay in their family line and benefit their descendants. This idea is supported by the fact that sex ratio gets more and more skewed with higher birth order: “for second births with one preceding girl the ratio is 132, and for third births with two previous girls the ratio is 139.”1 Therefore it is clear that due to the effect that having at least one son has on retaining the family’s economic capital, patrilineal inheritance presents a very potent incentive to select against females.

Furthermore, males in Indian society, as well as all patriarchal societies, have greater earning potential than females for many reasons including: their increased likelihood of working, greater access to tertiary sector jobs, and higher pay of jobs associated with their sex. Men are more likely to work than stay home and take care of the family. For example, in a study done in 2009 on family incomes in New Delhi, most families had two breadwinners but of those that only had one, it was almost always the husband.8 This means that males will likely spend a greater proportion of their life in the work force accumulating wealth, some of which can go towards their parents. Also, parents are more likely to pay for furthering the education of their sons than daughters, and since education level is highly correlated with higher paying white-collar jobs, this means that males are more likely to have the cultural capital of education needed to attain jobs in the generally higher-paying tertiary sector. With this greater cultural capital they will have more opportunities to expand their network to include relationships that will benefit them both socially (superiors and colleagues of higher socio-economic status) and economically (connections leading to higher paying jobs). Here, we see the close connections between cultural and economic capital with regards to working because increasing cultural capital greatly affects employability, which in turn affects economic capital. In addition, the work that men do is paid more than the work that females do. As detailed by anthropologist Reena Patel, when more women join a specific line of work, the social status of workers and the pay they receive reduces. An example of this phenomenon, known as “feminization of labor,” can be seen in the call-center industry at the turn of the century.9


Socially, the level of gender equality and the castes of families in a region are important factors known to affect how widespread sex-selection is. In areas with less gender equality; where the “health and social status of women continue to be poor,” sex-selection is more likely to occur.5 This is the case in the state of Haryana, which has a higher than average ROC, and where there are high levels of violence against women (relative to the rest of India) and “neglect of female children continues to be the cultural norm,”5 This aspect of Indian society limits the social mobility of every female from birth as they start at a lower social status. This means that all daughters automatically have less cultural capital and potential for the gain of power within society simply due to them being female. Furthermore, the social mobility of a family is more than just the amalgamation of each individual’s social mobility but rather a result of the interplay between higher and lower statuses meaning having one person of a high status will by proxy increase everyone else’s status and vice versa. Therefore, having a daughter is more likely to have negative effects on the family’s social mobility than having a son, which supports son-preference. 

Additionally, within the state of Haryana, a study was carried out in 1998 that showed upper caste families had a ROC of 127 while lower caste families had a ROC of 102.7 The fact that this study took place in the 1990s means it is possible that the ROCs differ between the two populations simply based on the high cost of the sex-selection procedures at this point in history, as they would be more affordable to members of the higher caste because they are more likely to be of greater socio-economic status. However, if this were the case it would be logical to see a level above the national average in both populations, but instead we see the lower caste population ROC was below the national average by 6 points. Even after accounting for lower caste people not affording safe and reliable methods of sex-selective abortion, if they had a desire to, there would be at least some evidence in the form of a higher or more uneven ROC. The reduced ROC suggests that there is no motivation for the lower caste population to take part in sex-selection and this is understandable after considering that the practice of exchanging large and financially debilitating dowries is less common among lower- caste marriages, as is the practice of hypergyny. This means that in lower castes having a daughter would have less of an effect on the future of a family’s economic capital than it would in a higher caste. 


In order to demonstrate the potency of these characteristics of social organization and the economic system in bringing about son-preference in terms of capitals, I will evaluate regions in which these characteristics look different in order to see the effect on the chances of families partaking in sex-selective abortion.  The regions are divided based on their geographic area and history. North and northwestern areas of India have high levels of sex-selection whereas in the south there is no evidence of this practice taking place. A study on several hospitals in Punjab, a state in northern India, shows an ROC increase from 105 in 1983 to 119 in 1988.7 Furthermore from 1991 to 2001 Punjab saw an increase from 114 to 127, Haryana (north) from 114 to 122 and Gujarat (north-west) from 108 to 114; however several states in the south, such as Kerala and Andhar Padesh have ROCs of 105 and have remained fairly constant.1, 10 A study was conducted on the basis of north versus south India analyzing the social status of women using the following metrics: “1) the extent of women’s exposure to the outside world, 2) the extent of women’s interaction with this non-familial world, and 3) the extent of female autonomy in decision making.”11 This study found that across all three indicators north Indian women had a lower social status. In this way we see that due to greater intensity of gender inequality within Northern Indian culture’s social organization, women have less cultural capital and are more devalued. This is directly linked to an increase in son-preference. Furthermore, in northern and northwestern populations there is “a positive linkage between abnormal sex ratio and better socio-economic status and literacy.”5 This data reveals how economic capital differentially affects populations, depending on how deeply engrained the practice of sex-selective abortion is. In areas with high son-preference, more wealthy and educated families have more economic capital that they would be in danger of losing if they have no male heir and can more easily afford the 300 to 500 rupees required for sex determination and the subsequent abortion leading to an increase in ROC abnormality. An example of this can be seen in Haryana (in Northern India), which, as of 2012, had the highest income per capita of any Indian state and a higher than national ROC of 117.9 male to 100 female children.5

The history of a region is also known to have great effect on the prevalence of sex-selection. The most noteworthy example of this can be seen in the territory now known as Kerala in Southern India. This area used to be home to a caste organized by a matrilineal social structure and inheritance system known as “Marumakkathayam.” 6 Although this system was officially abolished in 1975 and the state was made to follow India’s more prevalent patrilineal system, this elevated status of women still has effects on the society today. The region has virtually no sex-selective abortions- with a ROC lower than that of the national average. It also boasts the highest female literacy rate (as of 2009), a large amount of professionally qualified women, and numerous exemplary practices that promote gender equality.1, 6 Due to the high social status of women in this region, the difference in the cultural capital of females and males is less. This means that having a female child has less of a negative effect on the social mobility of the family and therefore removes a possible incentive for preferring sons to daughters. 


From evaluating the many different economic and social elements of Indian culture contributing to son-preference, we can now better appreciate the rationalization of a practice as difficult as sex-selective abortion in India. The many ways the life of a female child intersects with the economic livelihood and social mobility of the family can cause daughters to be viewed more as a burden than a blessing. Throughout their life they will have lower wage-earning capabilities, their inevitable marriage will necessitate the paying of dowry, and after their parents pass away they will not be able to secure the family’s wealth. These contribute to the decreased economic capital of both the female herself as well as her whole family. Simply by function of being female, women have decreased cultural capital in Indian society because of its patriarchal nature structured to keep them at a lower social status. Thus, it is clear that high frequency of sex-selection in India is due to the way in which the economic system deprives women of economic capital and how social organization deprives them of cultural capital.



  1. Hesketh, T. & Xing, Z.W. (2006). “Abnormal Sex Ratios in Human Populations: Causes and Consequences.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 103, no. 36, pp. 13271-13275.
  2. Sharma, B. R., Gupta, N., & Relhan, N. (2007). “Misuse of Prenatal Diagnostic Technology for Sex-Selected Abortions and its Consequences in India.” Public Health, vol. 121, no. 11, pp. 854-860
  3. Rosenblum, D. (2017). Estimating the private economic benefits of sons versus daughters in India. Feminist Economics, 23(1), 77-107. 
  4. Erickson, P.A. & Murphy, L.D. (2008). A history of anthropological theory. North York, Ont.: University of Toronto Press.
  5. Stallard, R. (2014). “Sex-Selective Abortion in India.” ChildReach International.
  6. Abrejo, F.G., Shaikh, B.T., & Rizvi, N. (2009). “‘and they Kill Me, Only because I Am a Girl’ . a Review of Sex-Selective Abortions in South Asia.” European Journal of Contraception and Reproductive Health Care, vol. 14, no. 1, pp. 10-16.’
  7. Miller, B.D. (2001). “Female-Selective Abortion in Asia: Patterns, Policies, and Debates.” American Anthropologist, vol. 103, no. 4, pp. 1083-1095.
  8. Khanna, S.K., Sudha S., & Rajan, S. I. (2009). “Family-Building Strategies in Urban India: Converging Demographic Trends in Two Culturally Distinct Communities.” Contemporary South Asia, vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 141-158.
  9. Patel, R. (2007). Working the Night Shift: Women in India’s Call Center Industry. Orient Sharma, Gupta, & Relhan.
  10. Arnold, F., Kishor, S., & Roy, T.K. (2002). “Sex-Selective Abortions in India.” Population and Development Review, vol. 28, no. 4, pp. 759-785.
  11. Basu, A.M. (1989). “Culture and the Status of Women in North and South India.” Popline, Delhi India B.R. Publishing.

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