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Over 200,000 young girls die every year in India because of sheer neglect

Thomson Reuters Foundation/Mansi Thapliyal
Survival isn’t guaranteed.
  • Maria Thomas
By Maria Thomas

Writer at Quartz India

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Hundreds of thousands of young Indian girls are dying from neglect.

A new study published in the Lancet journal (pdf) has found that sex discrimination in India led to an average of 239,000 excess deaths of girls aged between zero and four per year between 2000 and 2005. This number is based on the excess female under-five mortality rate (U5MR), which is the difference between the observed female U5MR in India and the expected rate, calculated using the relationship between male and female U5MRs from 46 countries that don’t perform sex selection, including Denmark, Germany, and Finland.

While previous studies have shown that parental bias in India often denies young girls access to nutrition and health care, the researchers say this paper is the first to quantify the consequences, and at a district-level.

Using data from India’s 2011 national census, they derived the district-level U5MR for boys and girls, and found that 22% of the overall mortality burden of young girls in India is attributable to gender bias. This, they say, translates to an average of 2.4 million excess deaths of young girls per decade. In this, there’s a very clear regional divide, with the northern state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) topping the list for excess female childhood mortality.

“The highest rates of excess female mortality in childhood were in northern India,” the researchers wrote in the paper, pointing out “clusters” of post-natal discrimination in almost adjacent districts in UP, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Bihar. “By contrast, almost no excess female mortality was reported in most of southern India and in several inland regions with a strong tribal population.”

The map below shows the state-wise differences (there was no separate data for the southern state of Telangana, which was formed in 2014):

There are a number of different reasons for the excess female childhood mortality, including overall gender inequity and low socioeconomic development. But the strongest predictor the researchers found was high fertility, which they say suggests that the excess deaths of young girls are partly due to unwanted childbearing and ensuing neglect.

The researchers also found that even though the most skewed sex ratios at birth are recorded in north-western states such as Punjab and Haryana, these states were not the ones with the most severe rates of excess female under-five mortality.

“…sex-selective abortions and excess female mortality in childhood might stem from the same bias against female children, but they are not observed in the same regions,” the researchers said.

In northern states like UP, the reduced use of contraception and lower education levels contributed to higher fertility rates, which resulted in families having more “unwanted” daughters that were more likely to die of neglect, co-author Nandita Saikia told Quartz. In the north-western parts of the country, where fertility rates were relatively lower, sex-selective abortions were the norm.

All this suggests that there’s a lot of local variability in the way daughters face sex discrimination across India, and the government needs to take this into account when designing programmes to protect Indian girls. While prime minister Narendra Modi’s Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (save daughters, educate daughters) scheme was created to prevent sex selection and encourage the education of girls, this paper shows that it will take a lot more targeted and nuanced efforts to tackle the many different ways Indian girls are robbed of their right to life.

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