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India's female freefall

By staff and wire reports

In a country with a deep-rooted sons-only ethos, the advent of ultrasound scanning of babies in the womb has led to Indian parents weeding out females before birth.

The ultrasound scans, and the abortions that inevitably follow, lie behind the single most worrying statistic in India's 2001 census -- a dramatic drop in the number of girls.

For every 1,000 boys up to the age of six, the census showed only 927 girls. The 1991 figure was 945. It is a shortfall, which demographers say, will haunt the country for generations.

Centuries of social customs, including the dowry payment, often leave parents with little choice but to avoid having a daughter.

At a glance: India

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This has resulted in female feticide on a massive scale including female infanticide, higher female child mortality rates, as well as neglect of girls in early life.

In the provinces of Haryana and Punjab, two of India's most prosperous agrarian states, the imbalance is even wider than the national average.

In Punjab, the 2001 census reported a worse scenario: 793 girl children per 1,000 male children, down from 875 per thousand in 1991.

A fact officials and experts say points to widespread abortion of female fetuses.

Here the Sikh clergy has threatened to excommunicate those involved in feticide.

Sex determination banned

The Supreme Court has now ordered state authorities to enforce a 1994 law banning sex determination and signs advertising "ultrasound facility available" have been removed.

Even tiny signs on trees and utility poles on Haryana's streets, which discreetly beckon expectant parents to discover the sex of their child, were destroyed after an outcry from women's groups and the media.

Yet hundreds of Indian towns that lack any modern medical facilities still have an abundance of ultrasound centers; even the poorest illiterate women are very much aware of the technology.

Due to the demand, the cost of the test has doubled to 900 rupees ($19) from a few years ago, however there are no paper records of the any tests conducted.

Dowry: The human cost

Women after an abortion
This mother is battling an infection caused by failure of the village midwife to remove all of the placenta  

Dowry payment is the main reason for female feticide. Rich or poor, the bride's parents must pay the groom and his family in money, property or goods.

An ultrasound and abortion, if female, avoids this cost and with the size of the dowry escalating with the families social standing, the price tag can be substantial; $100 or less to a new car, jewelry, gold or an apartment, or a combination of all these and more.

When the dowry falls short, it is not unusual for the groom's family to harass the bride, each year dowry payment problems leads to the deaths of more than 13,000 young brides.

India is the world's second most populous country after China, with 1.027 billion inhabitants and over the past decade it added the equivalent of the population of Brazil, of which more and more are male.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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