Unwanted Girls: The Problem Of Sex Selection In India

According to statistics, India has 63 million women fewer than it should have. This is the result of tradition in a society that prefers to have boys instead of girls.

These images are the work of Mary F. Calvert, a photographer who focuses on the problems that affect women around the world, especially human rights abuses, discrimination, and domestic violence. Her series, “India-Lost Daughters: Sex Selection,” poignantly captures these realities.

The story behind these photos has to do with the problem of sex selection in India, where most people prefer to have male children. This had led to a national crisis. In rural areas, there aren’t enough women eligible for marriage, while in urban areas, there are orphanages full of girls as well as homeless women. In addition, there is the practice of abortions based solely on the sex of the fetus.

The preference for males stems from the country’s traditions, according to which women cannot inherit property, but rather cost their family money, since they have to pay a dowry for them to be married. The dowry tradition has persisted in India despite being legally prohibited since 1961.

As a result, the notion that having a girl is more expensive than having a boy is very much alive, as we can see in popular sayings from the region, like: “Raising a daughter is like watering your neighbor’s garden.” The reasoning is that, after marriage, women usually focus on taking care of their husband’s family, while men are more likely to take care of their parents in their old age. For this reason, most families choose to save money by not sending their daughters to school. Instead, they prefer to send the boys and invest in their education.

For the girls who are sent to live in an orphanage, the picture is even bleaker. Since they’ll never be able to inherit property, prospective parents choose to adopt boys or to stick to their own “flesh and blood.”

The Indian government has tried (with little success) to implement measures to prevent this kind of discrimination and put an end to sex selection. For instance, doctors are not allowed to reveal the baby’s sex, but they usually find a way to let mothers know using codewords. Also, the use of ultrasound machines is forbidden since they show the baby’s sex, and they are only allowed when there is something wrong with the mother or the baby.

The desire for male children is so extreme, that women who give birth to more than one girl are sometimes victims of domestic violence. Take, for instance, the case of Varsha Hitkari (featured in this series), who was hanged in the shower by her husband after her second pregnancy, causing her to fall in a coma for 6 weeks. To make matters worse, she doesn’t have the means to afford the rehabilitation she needs.

In addition to the domestic violence crisis, India has seen a rise in the human trafficking market for brides. Although arranged marriages are commonplace there and weddings are very costly, young men from rural areas who want to start a family tend to pay for women from other parts of the country, always against their will. This feeds the vicious cycle of a shortage of women and increased demand for them.

Find more of Calvert’s photography and journalism work on her site.


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Translated by Zoralis Pérez