- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 29, 2003

NEW DELHI The sign stands outside a doctor's office in a leafy New Delhi neighborhood, a hand-painted warning that the law is upheld in this enclave of walled-off homes, imported cars and private clubs.
"Here prenatal sex determination is not done. It is a punishable act," the sign says in English and Hindi.
The law, though, clearly has its loopholes.
"The Indian mentality is like this: You have to have a son," said one young New Delhi woman from a wealthy industrial family.
After giving birth to a daughter, her husband's family demanded she have illegal sex-determination tests. When each of her next three pregnancies tested female, they demanded she have abortions. In a nation where a woman's in-laws often wield enormous influence, she complied.
"They say I have to try and try" for a son, said the woman, who spoke on the condition she not be identified. "My mother-in-law full-pressure. My father-in-law full-pressure."
Across much of India, sons have long been preferred. They have more status than daughters, they don't require expensive wedding dowries, and they can light their parents' funeral pyres. A married woman traditionally moves in with her husband's family.
"Raising a girl," says an Indian adage, "is like watering the neighbor's garden."
The preference for sons has led to such practices as killing infant girls illegal for well over a century, but still practiced in some parts of this country of more than 1 billion people. And with the advent of sex-determination tests has come the aborting of female fetuses.
Activists and officials long felt such practices were largely an issue among the poor and less-educated, and would gradually be choked off by education, legislation and the spread of India's middle class.
But as that educated middle class has blossomed over the past two decades, and laws protecting girls have been strengthened, the numbers of girl-abortions have only grown, particularly in wealthy enclaves.
"We thought we'd create awareness through education," said Dr. Sharda Jain, a gynecologist with a well-heeled New Delhi clientele and a fierce opposition to sex-determination tests. "But what happens when the educated want to terminate their girl children?"
Six years ago, faced with the spread of inexpensive ultrasound technology and a parallel slide in the girl-boy ratio, India outlawed prenatal sex-determination tests.
At best, the effect has been minimal. In the 2001 census count of children 6 or under, there were 927 girls for every 1,000 boys down from 945 girls in 1991, and 962 in 1981.
The statistics mean there are anywhere from 20 million to 40 million "missing" women in India the result of girls aborted or killed in infancy, according to census reports and activists.
The preference for boys, strong across most of Asia, has also led to a scarcity of women elsewhere, particularly in China, where the official one-child policy has dramatically magnified the pressure for male children and even created a market for kidnapped women as brides.
In India's larger families, if the first-born is a daughter, she will normally be accepted. But the pressure for boys can build fiercely after that.
India's 2001 census found the widening of the sex ratio was sharpest in India's most economically developed states. In New Delhi, the capital, the ratio dropped from 945 girls per 1,000 boys in 1991 to 865 last year.
Near the bottom were some of the city's toniest neighborhoods.
"There has been a belief that urbanization and prosperity will somehow have a modernizing effect," said Satish Agnihotri, a Calcutta University professor who studies the demographics of what he and other activists call "feticide." The reality, though, is the opposite: "As prosperity goes up, the sex ratio seems to go down."
Activists say the issue is not abortion, which is widely accepted in India, but how women are valued. That's something many women struggle with themselves.
A well-off woman in her late 20s, a graduate in the social sciences, described growing increasingly depressed during her second pregnancy. Already the mother of a daughter, she desperately wanted a son.
"It was just my own pressure that I was missing something in my life," said the woman who, torn by her feelings, didn't seek out an illegal ultrasound. "I was in a big trauma, because even if it is a girl, then what am I going to do?"
Her gynecologist, worried that the woman's fear would affect her health, finally told her she was carrying a boy.
"It made me cry so much," the woman said, relief and pride echoing in her voice. "My life got fulfilled."
Some activists, though, say the problem is as much legal as cultural. They blast the government for barely enforcing the 6-year-old law the Supreme Court had to order enforcement in 2001, and then in response to lawsuits. There have apparently been few prosecutions of doctors or ultrasound technicians.
"We have people talking about it now, but that is not enough," said Sabu George, a co-petitioner in the Supreme Court lawsuit. "In many parts of the country, there is no implementation" of the law.
He puts much of the blame on the medical profession, saying greed drives the availability of illegal services. Doctors say that's nonsense.
While the staff in Dr. Jain's clinic regularly perform ultrasounds and abortions, they don't do sex-determination tests or abortions if they believe the woman had a sex test elsewhere.
But for many doctors, that refusal is a struggle. Many have long relationships with their patients and know that if they won't break the law, other doctors will.
"It's not just one woman, it's hundreds" who ask for the tests, said a New Delhi gynecologist who refuses to perform sex determinations, but knows many of her patients get them elsewhere. "We are close to them. That is why we don't give them to the police."

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