I was born in 1994, six months before the Indian government passed the Pre-Conception & Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act. This was parliament’s top-down attempt to prohibit prenatal sex selection against girls (figure 1). I went to an all-girls boarding school in Dehradun, Uttarakhand. Many of my classmates were from a family of one or two sisters with a youngest brother. I was among the odd few from an only-girl-child family without any male sibling adventure stories to share with friends.
Figure 1. Pre-Nineties: A Dismal Snapshot
Source: Census of India Archives, 1971, http://lsi.gov.in:8081/jspui/handle/123456789/27?offset=20.
Did this top-down intervention prevent sex selection against girls? How about the 1991 reforms and liberalization? Did increased income, schooling, and job opportunities make the birth of a daughter less damning or did sex selection against girls worsen?
There were several plausible reasons to expect a change in sex ratios post-1991. First, the 1991 liberalization reforms unlocked economic growth across many sectors; employment opportunities expanded and incomes improved for millions of Indians. This rise in income increased education, and more educated people, especially moms, are more likely to reverse the tide on son preference. Second, this period saw greater access to television and broadcast media, which exposed people to the cultural norms of more gender-equal societies. Third, there were more employment opportunities in the service sector, which could help offset dowry and wedding expense expectations.
But higher income also meant more people could afford sex-selective abortion. The needle could have moved either way. Indeed, things did not look up in the post-1991 period. On the contrary, selective abortion of girls, especially after a firstborn girl, increased substantially (figure 2).
Figure 2. Son Preference Conditional on Birth Order (1990–2005)
Source: Prabhat Jha et al., “Trends in Selective Abortions of Girls in India: Analysis of Nationally Representative Birth Histories from 1990 to 2005 and Census Data from 1991 to 2011,” The Lancet 377, no. 9781 (2011): 1921–28.
While the aggregate news of worsening sex-ratio trends was disappointing, India is massive, and there was enormous variation across sub-districts between 2001–2011 (figure 3).
Figure 3. Change in Child Sex Ratios (Female/Male, 0–6 Years Old) across India in 2001–2011