Female Infanticide in India and China

Killing baby girls, or allowing them to starve to death, is something most of us cannot imagine. But it occurs even today. As shocking and disturbing as this behavior is, however, we must look at in within its cultural context. According to Scheper-Hughes (1987), neglect or killing of children may reflect a “survival strategy” that the family adopts. Parents might decide to invest more heavily in their “best bets” and neglect the rest. In some cultures, the best bets are often male (Scheper-Hughes, 1987). Families in these cultures may decide to kill their female children either outright, or passively, through abandonment or starvation to increase the likelihood that their families might survive (Miller, 1987).

Most of us have no trouble labeling infanticide as “wrong.” A trickier issue is sex-selective abortion. Sex-selective abortion poses a genuine conundrum for those who support reproductive choice. On one hand, proponents of choice do not want to see a discussion of abortion in a chapter on victimization. On the other hand, many people who support reproductive choice are uncomfortable when it is applied selectively to females. Even the World Health Organization lists sex-selective abortion as one type of violence against women (1997). I have witnessed some spirited, and at times heated, discussions of this issue among my colleagues at the University of New Hampshire. I have included sex-selective abortion in this chapter, but acknowledge that not everyone agrees that it belongs here.

Below I describe two cultures where both sex-selective abortion and female infanticide have been documented: China and India. While infanticide occurs for different reasons, the cultures have similarities. In both cultures, the survival of the group is

weighed more heavily than the survival of any individual. Both cultures also count on their sons to care for their aged. Daughters marry out and are no longer members of their families of origin. For this reason, daughters are considered more a liability than a blessing.

Many times, infanticide and sex-selection in abortion are secretive, and even illegal, actions. Official reports may dramatically underestimate their incidence. On the other hand, many of the statistics and case reports provided by advocacy or relief organizations focus on more extreme cases. The true number is probably somewhere in between. To get an overall view of the problem, however, one statistic is helpful: the ratio of male to female births. In industrialized nations, the ratio is approximately 106 males to 100 females (U.S. Department of State, 1997). As we discuss India and China, I will provide numbers that you can compare to this ratio. This provides at least an estimate of the number of female infants and children who are not surviving, although we must be careful not to assume that all are victims of infanticide.

Birth Planning in China

In 1979, China implemented a highly intrusive policy to limit the number of births per family. Government workers monitor families for birth control use and tell couples when they are authorized to conceive. Couples are pressured to terminate “unauthorized” pregnancies, and this has occurred even in the eighth or ninth month of pregnancy (U.S. Department of State, 1997). The policy was implemented because of the enormous size of the Chinese population. The government predicted that it would be unable to meet its needs (Potter, 1987). The policy is more likely to be enforced in cities than out in the countryside, where families may be allowed to have more than one child because they need extra help on the farm (Potter, 1987).

The government’s policy, however, runs counter to the family traditions of the Chinese people. In Chinese society, sons are the means of continuity, prosperity, and the only valid source of care and support. The happiness of the aging relatives is thought to be secure when there are many sons who can help, thus the village expression: “the more sons, the more happiness.” If a couple has only one child, and she is a girl, there will be no one to care for the parents as they age. It is a cause of great shame when aging parents must rely on the government for sustenance, and the amount provided by the government guarantees that the parents will end their days in poverty (Potter, 1987).

As you can see, there is cultural incentive to have more than one child. To counter this, the government provides steep penalties to families who have “unauthorized pregnancies.” These include psychological coercion, loss of employment, heavy fines (up to twice annual earnings) and confiscation of property. The Government does not authorize the use of force to compel persons to submit to abortion or sterilization, but officials acknowledge that this does occur (U.S. Department of State, 1997).

Interestingly, the new Maternal and Child Health Care Law forbids the use of ultrasound to detect the sex of a fetus. Moreover, regulations forbid sex-selective

abortions, even promising punishment of medical practitioners who violate this provision. However, population statistics at least suggest that these practices continue nonetheless. The Chinese press has reported that the national ratio of male to female births is 114 to 100. One October 1994 survey of births in rural areas put the ratio as high as 117 male births to 100 female. However, these official statistics may actually underestimate the problem in that they may exclude many female births, especially the second or third in a family. Such births are unreported so that the parents can keep trying to conceive a boy (U.S. Department of State, 1997).

In some press accounts, the ratio is even higher. The London Telegraph reports that the sex ratio of China's population is 131:100 in favor of males. In Zhejiang province there were 860,000 unmarried males aged 22 and above, but only 360,000 unmarried females of the same age group. Among 20- to 25-year olds, the sex ratio was 167:100 in a rural county in Henan province. In a population of 25 million babies born in China each year, there were 750,000 more males than females (Hutchings, 1997).

Since China is a closed society, it is difficult to obtain accurate statistics. India, on the other hand, is more open and may provide a more candid view of female infanticide.

Female Infanticide in India

The root of female infanticide is different in India than it is in China. In both cultures, there is a preference for male children. However, unlike China, there is no government organization limiting the number of children a family can have. In India the constraint is mostly economic—daughters will require a sizable financial dowry in order to marry. Because daughters leave their families of origin, they are often regarded as temporary members of their families and a drain on its wealth. There is an expression in India that “bringing up a daughter is like watering a neighbor’s plant” (Anderson & Moore, 1993).

The dowry, theoretically illegal under the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961, is a significant and pervasive theme . Although a law passed in September 1994 prohibits the use of amniocentesis and sonogram tests for sex determination, they are widely used for this purpose and many female fetuses are terminated (U.S. Department of State, 1998). Advertisements in India for ultrasound clinics urge couples to spend “500 rupees today to save 50,000 rupees tomorrow” (World Vision, 1994, p.4). Washington Post reporters Anderson and Moore (1993) report that at one clinic in Bombay, of 8,000 abortions performed after amniocentesis, 7,999 were of female fetuses. This estimate was supported by a study of clinic records in a large city hospital in India. Seven hundred individuals sought prenatal sex determination. Of those, 250 were male. All of these pregnancies were brought to term. In contrast, of the 450 determined to be female, 430 were terminated (Ramanamma & Bambawale, 1980).

In rural areas, women do not have access to ultrasound or amniocentesis in order to make a prenatal determination of sex. When girls are born, they are still in

danger either through direct infanticide or through sex-selective neglect. There were tribes and castes that had actually killed all their girls (Janssen-Jurreit, 1992). The Bedees (a branch of the Sikhs) were known as koree mar , or “daughter butchers.” Today, in India the ratio of women to men continues to declince from 972 females to 1000 males in 1901 to 935 in 1981 (Venkatramani, 1992).

The English-language newspaper The Hindu reports that on an average 105 female infants were killed every month in Dharmapuri district throughout 1997. This was in spite of efforts to protect female children (The Hindu, 1998). In another region, the Kallars (landless laborers in Tamil Nadu), view female infanticide as the only way out of the dowry problem. One mother interviewed in India Today said:

I killed my child to save it from the lifelong ignominy of being the daughter of a poor family that cannot afford to pay a decent dowry. But all the same, it was extremely difficult to steel myself for the act. A mother who has borne a child cannot bear to see it suffer even for a little while, let alone bring herself to kill it. But I had to do it, because my husband and I concluded that it was better to let our child suffer an hour or two and die than suffer throughout life (Venkatramani, 1992, p. 127).

Officials estimate that approximately 6,000 female babies have been poisoned in Kallar villages in the past decade. The Usilampatti government hospital records nearly 600 female births among the Kallar every year. Five hundred and seventy are taken immediately from the hospital. Approximately 450 (or 80%) are estimated to become victims of infanticide (Venkatramani, 1992). The Kallar also believe that if you kill your girl, your next baby will be a son.

While some have assumed that poverty was the main motivation for female infanticide (de Lamo, 1997; The Hindu, 1998), the reasons appear to be more complex. If social class were the sole determinant of infanticide risk, then we would expect to see lower rates of female infanticide in the upper classes. However, in the Punjab, India’s richest state, Cowan and Dhanoa (1983) found even higher rates of female mortality. For example, females constituted 85% of deaths among infants ages 7 to 36 months. Further, Miller (1981;1987) has argued that infanticide is more likely in the upper rather than lower castes. When the British Colonial government outlawed female infanticide in 1870, they stated that the two chief causes were “pride and purse.” “Purse” referred to the dowry. “Pride” referred to pride of the upper castes and tribes that would rather murder female infants than give them to a rival group even in marriage (Miller, 1987). This may at least partially explain why infanticide also occurs in middle-class and wealthy families.

Birth order appears to be a significant risk factor for girls, with second, third or fourth (or later) born girls at highest risk. First-born daughters are often allowed to live because they will help with the household chores (deLamo, 1997). Perhaps this reflects a general negative attitude toward girls that goes beyond the need to provide a dowry.

Sex-selective neglect may also contribute to female mortality. Girls are breastfed less frequently and for a shorter duration. To us, this may seem to be no big deal, but in

the developing world, this puts them at significant risk. Further, when girls get sick, the family is much less likely to seek medical assistance. One public health physician described this case:

In one village, I went into the house to examine a young girl and I found that she had an advanced case of tuberculosis. I asked the mother why she hadn’t done something sooner about the girl’s condition because now, at this stage, the treatment would be very expensive. The mother replied, “then let her die. I have another daughter.” At the time, the two daughters sat nearby listening, one with tears streaming down her face (Miller, 1987, p. 95).

In one study of infants, toddlers and preschoolers, 71% of females were malnourished compared to 28% of males. Boys are taken to the hospital twice as often (Venkatramani, 1992). Moreover, only 24% of girls in India are literate, compared to 47% of boys, and 84% of boys go to school, compared to 54% of girls. Further, girls comprise 85% of the child labor force. The work is often dangerous, putting them at further risk (Miller, 1987; World Vision, 1994).

Recent efforts to save baby girls in Tamil Nadu have not been particularly successful. Family honor is a barrier to these intervention efforts. Families don’t want to allow a girl to live if she will go through life as an outcast, with no caste, identity, or family background. Also, families are concerned that the girl may one day return to dishonor the family or seek vengeance (de Lamo, 1997). For interventions to be successful, they must support parents and address their concerns about the future.


In this chapter, I have presented some grim examples of the victimization of female children. Many of these practices are so pervasive and embedded in the culture that it is hard to believe that they will ever change. As bad as things are, however, there is reason to hope. First, as world attention is drawn to the plight of girls, we can hope that the light of public scrutiny will bring changes to pass. Second, the victims themselves are beginning to act. In our own country, we have witnessed a dramatic increase in awareness of sexual abuse over the past 20 years because survivors of sexual abuse are speaking out. But there is still much to do. Girls are still being sexually abused and our society still doesn’t seem to be able to protect them. We also need to increase awareness of the other types of child maltreatment that affect both boys and girls, and develop effective strategies to detect and prevent it. We have also become much more aware of the neglect and abuse of girls in other countries. People wishing to change these practices, however, need to approach the cultures that permit them with sensitivity and knowledge about why they occur. Otherwise, their efforts will backfire. A similar caution is urged by the Director-General of the World Health Organization’s Global Commission on Women’s Health, in a speech made April 12, 1994 (WHO, 1996, pp. 2-3). In this speech, he was addressing the issue of female circumcision, but his remarks are relevant to infanticide as well.

Table 1

We must always work from the assumption that human behaviors and cultural values, however senseless or destructive they may look to us from our particular personal and cultural standpoints, have meaning and fulfil a function for those who practice them. People will change their behavior only when they themselves perceive the new practices proposed as meaningful and functional as the old ones. Therefore, what we must aim for is to convince people, including women, that they can give up a specific practice without giving up meaningful aspects of their own cultures.

Table 1

Effects of sexual abuse on children: Most commonly occurring reactions

Age Most Common Symptom

Preschoolers Anxiety


Inappropriate sexual behavior

School-age Fear

Mental illness



School problems


Regressive behavior

Adolescents Depression

Withdrawn, suicidal, or self-injurious behavior

Physical complaints

Illegal acts

Running away

Substance abuse

Source: Kendall-Tackett, Williams and Finkelhor (1993)  American Psychological Association. Used with permission.