Millions of Missing Girls


On 1 June 2011 the organisation called All Girls Allowed celebrated its first anniversary. Founded by Chai Ling, a former leader of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement, All Girls Allowed aims to end the elimination of millions of girls in China and elsewhere through sex-selection abortion, infanticide, the abandonment of girl babies soon after birth, and neglect.

The group raises money to donate $20 a month to poor Chinese women who raise girls, hoping that their husbands and in-laws would see the value in keeping baby girls instead of considering them to be a burden.

On 1 June 2011 members of Congress, demographers and representatives from leading human rights organisations launched an effort to end the gendercide of girls.

“It’s important for world leaders to see gendercide is not just a women’s rights issue, but it also leads to trade imbalance, insecurity and a threat to peace,” said Chai Ling who now lives in the US. Chai Ling led members of the US Congress in signing a declaration vowing to press for an end to sex-selection abortion not only in China but in India where there is also a wide gap between the numbers of newborn boys and girls.

The situation in China
According to 2005 data, China had 119 boys for every 100 girls. All Girls Allowed estimated that by 2020, China would have 40 million more young men than women – a number equal to all the young men in the US.

The situation in India
A study published recently in the Lancet showed that in the past three decades up to 12 million unborn girls have been aborted by Indian parents determined to ensure they have a male heir. The research revealed that selective abortion is concentrated in families where the first child has been a girl. Parents welcome a first daughter but want their second child to be a son. In these families the gender ration for second births fell from 906 girls per 1000 boys in 1990 to 836 in 2005, implying between 3.1 million and 6 million female foetuses have been aborted in the past decade.

The 2011 census revealed 7.1 million fewer girls than boys under 7, up from 6 million in 2001 and from 4.2 million in 1991. The sex ration in the age group is now 915 girls to 1000 boys, the lowest since records began in 1961.

Wealthier, better-educated couples are the worst offenders as they can afford the ultrasound tests that reveal the sex of the baby. This put paid to hopes that socio-economic progress would lead to a change in attitude.

Although the termination of pregnancy on the basis of sex was made illegal in 1996, the law is routinely flouted. The market for sex determination is said to be worth at least $US100 million a year, with 40,000 registered ultrasound clinics in Inda.


July 2007

India is once again having to face the results of what ultrasound technology coupled with deep-seated prejudices against having a daughter is doing to its population. This time evidence of the practice of female foeticide has been revealed not via a paper in a medical journal (see article below), but through the discovery of mass graves containing the remains of aborted females.

Although gender-based abortion in India was made illegal in 1994 and a Supreme Court decision in 2001 outlawed the use of ultrasound scans to check for girls, parents are choosing to abort female foetuses in ever increasing numbers. Wealthier and better-educated Indian families who tend to have the least number of children want sons not daughters, and they are prepared to use the financial resources they have to ensure they the babies they do give birth to are male, rather than female.

Nayagarh, a small town in eastern India became the focus of the latest scandal when a disused well, dug on land earmarked for a private hospital was discovered. It contained the remains of over 40 female foetuses. 132 bags of human remains have so far been exhumed, most aborted at about five months of gestation which is the legal limit for abortions. In such a small town it is hard to believe that illegal terminations could happen without official connivance. At least one government doctor has been arrested so far and another is on the run.

What happened in Nayagarh is just the tip of the iceberg. In June a doctor in Delhi was arrested after remains of aborted babies were found in a septic tank at his practice. In February police found the remains of 15 babies buried in the backyard of a hospital in the central state of Madhya Pradesh. And a television investigation last year filmed dozens of doctors offering to perform illegal terminations of female foetuses and dump them in rivers or in fields.

Activists have pointed out that the 2001 law banning the use of ultrasound scans to determine the sex of the foetus is largely unenforced, and in the 13 years since selective gender-based abortion was outlawed only one doctor has been convicted.

Sabu George, a campaigner against female foeticide, has said: “We are seeing a rush of multinational companies selling ultrasound machines in India with little regard for how they are used.”

Ten million missing girls
A study published in the Lancet in January 2006 estimated that India has lost 10 million girls in the past 20 years. Latest figures from a sample registration system covering 1.3 million households, shows that for the two years up to 2005, India had just 880 female babies born to each 1000 males, instead of the expected ratio of 950-980 to 1000 boys. The practice of female foeticide with the resulting shortage of girls will haunt India for decades.


A report entitled “Because I am a girl” which was published in May 2007 by Plan International is the first in a series of global reports to be published over the next nine years.

The new report from Plan, one of the world’s largest development organisations founded on child sponsorship, highlights the appalling situation in which girls find themselves – some-times through poverty, sometimes because they are young but often simply because of their gender.

Almost 100 million girls “disappear” each year, killed off in the womb or as babies. Two million girls a year still suffer genital mutilation, half a million die during pregnancy every year – unsafe abortions and birth complications is the leading killer of 15-19 years old girls – and an estimated 7.3 million are living with HIV/AIDS compared with 4.5 million young men.

The report exposes the shocking gender discrimination which remains deeply entrenched and widely tolerated across the world and uses global statistics to highlight the extent of the problem. For example, 62 million primary school-aged girls are not in education, and over 100 million girls, some as young as 12, are expected to marry over the next decade despite international legislation outlawing early marriages. Almost a million girls fall victim to child traffickers each year, compared with a quarter of that number of boys.

“Because I am a girl” warns that the Millennium Development Goals, currently being reviewed by the United Nations, are unachievable without a global commitment to enforcing international laws that protect girls’ rights.

“This study shows our failure to make an equal, more just world has resulted in the most intolerable of situations,” says Graca Machel, a leading ambassador for child rights along with her husband, former South African President Nelson Mandela.

“To discriminate on the basis of gender is morally indefensible, and economically, politically and socially unsupportable.”

Designed to run until 2015, the Because I am a girl campaign, will also follow the lives of 125 girls born last year until their 9th birthday.

• Further information on this report can be found on the Plan website:


February 2006
A recent study published in the Lancet in January 2006 has revealed that the practice of female foeticide is alive and well in India despite the passing of a law banning the practice of prenatal selection and selective abortion over a decade ago.

The use of ultrasound scans to determine the sex of an unborn child was introduced to India in 1979 and has since spread to every district in the country. It has played a crucial role in the aborting of an estimated 10 million female foetuses in the following two decades, including an estimated 5 million since 1994 when the Indian government banned the practice after the 1991 census data revealed a sharp drop in the child sex ratio.

Half a million missing girls
The Lancet survey was conducted by Prabhat Jha of St Michael’s Hospital at the University of Toronto and Rajesh Kumar of the Postgraduate Institue of Medical Research in Chandigarh, India. The survey examined government data collected from a sample of Indian families in all districts of the country. From this data they concluded that one out of every 25 female foetuses is aborted, an estimate of 500,000 a year.

The data was gathered in 1998 when women who were or had been married were interviewed in detail about the number of children they’d given birth to in the previous year, their sex and their birth order. The analysis of 133,738 births confirmed other estimates that the male-female sex ratio at birth is distorted.

The authors also examined information on the sex ratio of children by parity or birth order – meaning whether they were born first, second or third. They found that the sex ratio of second or third born children was affected by the sex of the previous child or children.

The sex ratio for first order births was 871 girls for every 1,000 boys, compared to the expected ratio of 950-980 per 1,000 boys. If the first child had been a girl, the sex ratio of second children was as low as 759 girls for every 1,000 boys. This got further skewed to 719 girls per 1,000 boys for the third child, if both first and second children had been girls.

Impact of education and religion
A most disturbing finding was that the sex ratio was more skewed in the children of educated mothers than those of illiterate mothers. Education appears to increase the chances of using sex selection technologies. “Even states such as Kerala or Tamil Nadu, in which women are generally better educated and child mortality rates are lower, show clear differences between the sex ratio after a previous female birth versus a previous male birth,” the authors wrote. Income or wealth did not seem to be an influence, nor did religion, as the practice was found to be common among all religious groups – Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Muslims and Christians.

“More educated women have more access to technology, they are more privileged, and most educated families have the least number of children,” says Sabu George, a researcher for 20 years on female foeticide at the Center for Women’s Development Studies in New Delhi, who did not participate in the study. “This is not just India. Everywhere in the world, smaller families come at the expense of girls.”

Family planning incentives
Like China, India has encouraged smaller families through a mixture of financial incentives and campaigns calling for two children at most. Faced with such pressures, many families, rich and poor alike, are turning to prenatal selection to ensure that they get a boy. It’s a problem with many potential causes – from social traditions to the economic burden of dowries – but one that is sure to have strong social repercussions for future generations.

Figures disputed
While many doctors, including the Indian Medical Association, dispute the findings of the report, saying that the data sample used by the Lancet study precedes a 2001 Supreme Court decision outlawing the use of ultrasound scans to check for girls, others including Indian demographers Udaya and Mala Ramanathan support the analysis and have suggested that further analysis would also have revealed the impact of the government’s female-sterilisation-driven family planning drive on sex-selection abortion. Activists have also pointed out that the law banning the use of ultrasound to determine the sex of the foetus is largely unenforced.

However, the Indian Medical Association admits that sex selection is a common practice – it’s just the number they object to, stating that female foeticides is closer to 250,000 a year rather than the half million estimate in the Lancet study.

Although Sabu George says he has some qualms about the Lancet study – he feels that taking the figures from one year and projecting them back-ward 20 years just doesn’t square with the facts on the ground – he also believes that it might underestimate the exponential growth of female foeticide into the future. “This is a much larger problem in the future,” he says. “Without strong pressure by civil society groups, we’ll be seeing 1 million female foeticides every year within five years’ time, definitely.”

• The Lancet 2006; 367: 211-218.