Female Infanticide


Female infanticide is the intentional killing of infant girls. In addition to the active methods undertaken to eliminate baby girls soon after birth, neglect and discrimination leading to death and sex-selective abortion are also means by which many female children die each year. These phenomena are most prevalent in patriarchal societies in which the status of women is low and a preference for sons is built into the cultural ideology. Female infaniticide cuts across all social and economic boundaries. Thus, the practice involves a wide range of location-specific and culturally-motivated causes. In rural and poverty-stricken areas, lack of education, economic resources, and access to healthcare are factors that lead to the murder of infant girls. In urban areas, selective abortion is commonly employed by individuals with access to modern medical technology that allows for early detection of sex. Unfortunately, although government programs and human rights organizations strive to put an end to these practices with education, financial incentives, and threat of punishment, female infanticide continues. India and China, two of the most populous countries today, top the list of nations in which these atrocities are carried out.


India is a patriarchal society in which a cultural bias against women has contributed to frequent cases of female infanticide, particularly in poor and rural areas. In South India, the state of Tamil Nadu is a particular area of concern due to indirect demographic evidence that suggests that the practice has increased, here, in recent years (George, Sabu M.). Female infanticide is prevalent throughout the state, particularly in the districts of Salem, Dharmapuri, Dindigul, and Madurai (Aravamudan,1999). In 1995, a study indicated that the number of girls who died soon after birth was three times greater than the number of boys (George, Sabu M.). In Dharmapuri, almost 3000 girls reportedly died immediately after birth between 1994 and 1997 (Aravamudan, 1999). Female infanticide is practiced by many different castes, indicating a bias against females throughout the social hierarchy.

Female infanticide is leading to an ever-increasing imbalance in the sex ratio. According to census statistics, the number of female children per male children in India has dropped from 972 girls per 1000 males in 1901 to 929 girls per 1000 males in 1991, and continues to decrease (www.gendercide.org). The disparities between female and male mortality among the children in these regions reflect a deep-seated preference for sons. "Sons are called upon to provide the income; they are the one's who do most of the work in the fields. In this way they are looked to as a type of insurance" (Porras, 1996, p.1). Sons are believed to secure the family's economic future. Women who fail to produce a son are often subject to ridicule and abuse, or are cast out of their husand's home to return to their family in shame.

Female children are looked upon as a burden on the family. This notion is perpetuated by the low status of women in society, as well as the dowry system in which a bride's family is expected to give large sums of money and goods to the husband's family with which she will live after marriage. Though prohibited by law, this practice has been adopted by all castes. Those at the lowest rungs of the social and economic hierarchy feel obligated to try to emulate the wealthier members of society. A small dowry is believed to bring shame upon the family. Because even a modest dowry price can bring financial hardship on a family, female infanticide is often considered the only option. Another factor that contributes to the undesireability of females in Indian society is the purity-pollution concept (Porras, 1996).

The hierarchy of castes is such that one's "pureness" is believed to decrease with lower social status. Women are considered more "polluted" than the men of their castes because of menstruation and childbirth, which are considered to be dirty and "polluting" (Porras, 1996). The low status of women is further aggravated by their inaccess to education. Less than two out of five women in India are literate, and 41% of Indian girls under the age of fourteen do not attend school (Surendar, 2000).

Because women are accorded such low value in Indian society, the female children who are allowed to live are at great risk of neglect and discrimination. Many parents do not even hide their contempt for their daughters, naming them Venda (don't want) or Poddum Pennu (enough of daughters) (George, Sabu M.). According to UNICEF, Indian girls are taken to health centers less often and receive less food and clothing than boys (Surendar, 2000). The National Family Health Survey indicates that the risk of dying between the ages of one and five is 43% higher for girls (Surendar, 2000). Sex-selective abortion is also on the rise, particularly in urban centers. With ultrasound, amniocentesis, and chorionic villus sampling, fetal sex determination is available, as is selective abortion, to those who can afford it. Today, mobile ultrasound units are even travelling to rural areas (George, Sabu M.). Studies indicate that thousands of female fetuses are aborted each year, in India, following prenatal sex determination.

Women in India are victims of the patriarchal ideology that oppresses them. For, it is they who carry out the murders of India's daughters. Mothers are often helpless to do anything, having no rights over their children (Warrier, 2000). The killing of infant girls is usually committed by senior women in the husbands' families, or midwives who will do so for a fee. A number of methods are employed to kill the newborn girls, and these, having been handed down from generation to generation, are similar throughout the land. Children are fed milk laced with the sap from poisonous plants or pesticides, given paddy (rice with its husk) to swallow, which will slit their throats, fed salt to increase their blood pressure, stuffed in clay pots, and the list of horrible offenses goes on. Although these methods are relatively swift and painless, the new methods adopted to avoid detection, and possible punishment, are sheer torture. Female infants are starved and dehydrated to death by their parents, or are wrapped in wet towels so that they will contract pneumonia (Aravamudan, 1999).

The state governments of India have taken some steps to combat female infanticide and sex-selective abortion. For instance, in 1992, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu enacted the 'Jayalaitha Protection Scheme for the Girl Child'. "Under its provisions, a poor family with one or two girls and no sons would be eligible for monetary incentives if one parent agreed to be sterilized. Money given in the name of the infant girl would be held in a fixed deposit account until she reached twenty-one years of age" (George, Sabu M., p.4). In addition, this Chief Minister developed the 'Cradle Babies' scheme, which asked that families abandon their unwanted female infants in cradles set up in government health centers, rather than kill them. However, both of these programs failed to eradicate female infanticide in Tamil Nadu. Unfortunately, the Indian police have not proven to be a successful deterrent to female infanticide. As mentioned earlier, parents fearing punishment have simply adopted new methods of killing their daughters. Of those cases that are reported to the police, not many are successfully prosecuted (George, Sabu M.). Village police officers have often been found to extract bribes from parents, as well (George, Sabu M.).

A number of non-governmental organizations have initiated preventative measures and developed programs to prevent female infanticide. For instance, they offer counseling to expectant mothers, monetary incentives and childcare support, health education, and so forth. The Indian Council for Child Welfare has had success with its' adolescent training programs that teach girls between the ages of 12 and 16 about self-confidence, hygiene, and health. At the end of the program, the girls take an oath refusing to take part in female infanticide (Warrier, 1999). Another successful program is Danida Healthcare Project's street theatre. The stories, performed, involve female empowerment and value. According to the project director, Sheela Rani Chunkath, within the six months of street theatre performances, more than eighty female babies were allowed to survive in families in which previous girl babies were killed (Warrier, 1999). Thus, education and social strategies to raise women's status seem to be the key to the successful eradication of female infanticide in India.


Although the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has created laws that provide equal rights for women and men, female infants in China are subject to horrible abuses. Female infanticide has increased dramatically since the CCP's family planning policy took effect in 1989. The main focus of this program is the "one child per couple" policy. This policy was created in order to prevent the increasing overpopulation of the country. A number of incentives are employed to asure public compliance. For instance, couples are given medical, financial, and educational benefits for compliance. However, punishments including fines, salary cuts, and even the imprisonment of pregnant women are carried out if couples fail to comply. "Children born "out of plan" may not be issued residence cards, which in turn, will deny them education and other benefits provided by the state" (Porras, 1996 p.2). In China, when women marry they become part of their husband's family. Thus, a preference for sons, who will ensure that parents are taken care of in old age, is common.

The preference for male babies coupled with the "one child per couple" policy has led to an increase in female infanticide, the concealment of female births, sex-selective abortion, and the abandonment of infant girls. Although the Chinese governement recognized the risks to female infants in rural areas where anti-female bias is greater, allowing couples to have a second child if the first is a girl, the number of girls who have been subject to murder and neglect, as a result of this policy, numbers in the millions. If parents choose to hide the birth of a daughter, she will have no legal existence. She will face difficulties receiving healthcare, education, and other state services (Porras, 1996). Female infants are subject to neglect and discrimination, as well. As in India, Chinese girls are less likely to be given adequate healthcare and nutrition than their male counterparts. If abandoned or given up for adoption, Chinese infant girls risk horrible neglect and mistreatment in state orphanages. Dubbed "Dying Rooms", these orphanages have almost no boys. Ninety-five percent of the children in them are girls, and the other five percent are boys with mental or physical disabilities. The infant girls spend their days tied to wicker "potty" chairs. They are provided with no toys, physical attention, or mental stimulation. Disease runs rampant in the orphanages, and an estimated one in five children die (Woods, Brian "The Dying Rooms Trust").

A significant imbalance in China's male and female population has created additional abuses against women. For example, the kidnapping and slave-trading of women, primarily from Vietnam, for forced marriages in China claims 8000 victims each year (Manthorpe, 1999). The dramatic imbalance between the number of female and male infants is in large part due to sex-selective abortion. Although the Chinese governement has outlawed the use of ultrasound machines for prenatal sex determination, doctors continue to do so, especially in rural areas (Porras, 1996).

The Chinese government has taken a number of steps to combat the practice of female infanticide, as well as promote and protect women's rights. The Marriage Law and Women's Protection Law prohibit female infanticide, and the latter prohibits discrimination against women who give birth to daughters (Porras, 1996). The Sex Selective Abortion Law and Maternal Health Care Law of 1994 were created to put an end to sex selective abortions, and the latter prohibits the use of medical technology to determine the gender of a fetus (Porras, 1996). Unfortunately, however, the practice continues in China despite these efforts.


Female infanticide is a horrible manifestation of the anti-female bias that continues to pollute socieities throughout the world. Even in technologically advanced and educated societies, the brutal practice continues. The successful eradication of the practice of female infanticide seems an arduous task. In order to combat the phenomenon, careful consideration of the location-specific and cultural factors leading to the practice is necessary.

The education of both men and women, social strategies to improve the status of women, and access to family counseling and healthcare may provide means of eliminating female infanticide, as well as elevating the value assigned to women around the globe.

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