The story behind India’s missing girls lays bare a global history of population control. Mara Hvistendahl in The Caravan:
Midway through his career, Christophe Guilmoto stopped counting babies and started counting boys. A French demographer with a mathematician’s love of numbers and an anthropologist’s obsession with detail, he had attended graduate school in Paris in the 1980s, when babies had been the thing. By the time Guilmoto started his
PhD, birth rates had started falling around the world, but the populations of many developing nations were still growing, and it was hard to shake the idea that overpopulation was a grave threat. Like many of his contemporaries he concentrated on studying the drop in fertility, searching for clues to what factors proved decisive in lowering a country’s birth rate. He did his dissertation research in Tamil Nadu, where the birth rate had fallen to European levels even as income levels remained low, and as he graduated and started working as a scholar he returned there many times. By 1998 he headed up the South India Fertility Project, a formal effort to catalogue the successes of Tamil Nadu and surrounding states. But over the course of working in the region, he realised demography’s big story had changed. People in India were not simply having fewer children. They were having fewer girls. Population growth had been slowed, in part, by reducing the number of daughters.
Guilmoto’s first inkling that something was wrong came in 1992, when he interviewed village nurses in Tamil Nadu for a short research project. A wiry Frenchman with wide-set eyes rattling off questions in Tamil, he must have cut an odd profile, but when he explained that he wanted to understand the demographic history of the area, the nurses spoke frankly and openly. Several offered up the detail that villagers occasionally killed their daughters shortly after birth. The news shocked him—as a demographer, he was well aware that humans committed infanticide at various points throughout history, but in most cultures the practice had disappeared by the early 20th century—and he made it his private mission to determine just how pervasive daughter killing was. Later he visited an orphanage, where he found an aging French volunteer who had lived in India so long that she no longer spoke French. In a mixture of Tamil and English, the woman explained that most of the babies abandoned in the area were female. “Look, in the orphanage we have mostly girls,” she said. “What do you think?”
The encounters left a deep impression on Guilmoto, and he thought of them at the turn of the millennium when Indian census figures showed 111 boys born for every 100 girls. At first glance, the experiences of the village nurses and the orphanage worker helped explain the disparity, and indeed many foreign press reports blamed India’s dearth of girls on infanticide and abandonment. Looking into the matter, however, he realised they were only a small part of the story. Outside of the pocket of rural Tamil Nadu where he happened to have done field research, Indians rarely killed infants. “Everybody talked about infanticide because it carried more emotional weight,” he recalls. “But actually it was hardly in existence.” Tamil Nadu was in fact one of the states where girls had a better prospect of survival, while the sex ratio in the wealthier northwest worked out to 126: 126 boys for every 100 girls. The real cause for the gap, Guilmoto quickly learned, was that pregnant women were taking advantage of a cheap and pervasive sex determination technique—ultrasound—and aborting female foetuses. More: