• The (Slightly) Legal Column by Pallavi Khatri

A Sociological and Historical Analysis of Female Foeticide in India

This article examines the sociological, and historical context behind the proliferation of the practice of sex-selection in India. The practice, under which women – most often under coercion of their families – aborted pregnancies solely because the child was female. It led to the enactment of the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex-Selection) Act,1994 (hereinafter, “PCPNDT Act”), which, among other things, banned the disclosure of sex of a foetus.

Amniocentesis – technology used to detect abnormalities and foetal infections –can also be used for sex determination.[i] In the 1970s, when this technology was introduced in India, the potential for perverse use of this technology in the future, was not predicted by the Government. Even when the technology became popular, and privatised specifically to be used for sex-determination, the Government was slow to respond, finally making a move in 1994. In fact, several sections of the Government interpreted the increased number of abortions as being beneficial – to help achieving the target of reducing the number of pregnancies each female underwent.[ii] The delay in the enactment of the law, occurred because many lawmakers had themselves been accustomed to families’ preference for males. Coupled with the social facilitation provided by groups supportive of sex-selection, led them to either support or remain oblivious to the trend for sex-selective abortions. However, underlying these practical reasons is the undercurrent of a web of ethnic and caste patterns developed over centuries that explain the distinctively gruesome manner in which Amniocentesis was misused in India.

Geographical Spread of Sex Selection

Initial prevalence of sex-selection in North India

The historical and cultural context of India gives insight into the main cause of the rampant sex selection – aka, the son-preference syndrome. The antecedent factors behind the spread of this syndrome are a) the social norm that all girls must marry; b) the patrilocal nature of marriages; c) the concept of dowry (socially obligated, albeit illegal, gifts of high value given to the groom’s family by that of the bride) – particularly prevalent in North India.

When all of these factors are applied to the institution of marriage, the result is that in North India, it becomes economically advantageous to raise a male child. In addition to any investment in the education of the girl, her marriage – which is the sole end-goal – coupled with dowry, shall seep into husband’s family.[iii] The resulting preference for a male child harboured an increase in female infanticide – the practice of murdering new born girls, right after their birth. The psychological, and moral inhibitions to murdering infants – the only possible checks in a complicit society, where even local administration was largely sympathetic of social attitudes, and practices – became far reduced with the advent of amniocentesis technology.

Later spread of the practice of sex selection to South India

Initially, South India was largely insulated from sex selection owing to its distinct conception of marriage. Girls in South India marry either amongst close kin, or within their natal villages, which helps women maintain bonds with their own families – despite patrilocal marriages.[iv] This feature reduces separation of the girl child – unlike in North India – as the two families generally functioned as a single accommodating unit even before the marriage.[v] Then there is the practice of stridhan (literally translated as bride-price) – a payment from the groom’s family to that of the bride in recognition of the fact that a productive member of the family was being taken away. Combined, the effect of these norms is to relieve much of the economic and social disadvantage that is customarily imposed on brides in North India.

However, starting in the 1950s, rising heterogeneity of education, and wealth, made it harder to get appropriate matches within the narrow scope of the villages, increasing the preference for exogamous marriages.[vi] Daughters began moving out of their natal villages and the practice of dowry proliferated into South India under an academically intriguing, yet tragic, pattern of developments. It began with the Brahmans (the priestly class atop the caste hierarchy), and slowly penetrated the lower levels of the caste hierarchy. This took place as a result of a sociological development that the great Indian sociologist MN Srinivas terms Sanskritization. This is a process peculiar to India, through which members of lower castes attempt to gain upward mobility (in social status) by emulating higher caste customs, culture, practices, and beliefs. Combine that with a top-down trend in spread of education, and a ‘dream’ of upward mobility turns into a ‘nightmare’.[vii] Soon enough, a situation similar to North India developed with an economic advantage associated with the male child. When coupled with the spread of sex-identification technology in the 1970s, this led to a convergence in the sex ratios of states in North and South India – the sort of convergence that manifested a dark reality of Indian social hierarchies.[viii]

Spread Across Caste and Class

Sex Selection is more prevalent in upper castes

In India, to this date, caste hierarchy overlaps with class hierarchy to a great degree.[ix] Groups that are lower in the caste hierarchy are most likely to be weaker in the class hierarchy too, and vice-versa. For this reason, caste and class can often be used interchangeably, without distorting conclusions in any significant way. This is what the author may also do in this piece.

The practice of sex selection correlates with the economic advantage to the parents of the child. This means that the matching of marriageable pairs in the society will be significantly affected by the relative wealth of families – the wealthiest boys marrying the wealthiest girls.[x] However, due to the skewed sex ratio, a large number of the well-off grooms ended up having to marry below their income brackets. Conversely, this presented hypergamy opportunities for lower class parents – who are also usually from lower castes. A female child, would then become an instrument for aiding upward mobility in such families. Consequently, this explains how, even when infanticide was common amongst the upper castes, it was infrequent among the lower castes. However, over the years, this trend has vanished as well.

Spread of sex selection to lower castes due to Sanskritization

Despite the economic, and social benefit that a female child presented to parents hailing from a lower class, with time, sex-selection proliferated among these classes as well. An apposite explanation of this phenomenon lies in Sanskritization. As explained above, a lower caste group uses the process of Sanskritization in order to move up the social hierarchy, by emulating the behaviour and traditions followed by the upper caste groups, thereby increasing the scope of its assimilation into those groups over time.[xi]

In the post-independence era, relatively faster economic growth and redistribution began to blur class lines, affording better economic to lower castes. Despite affirmations by the Indian state to whitewash caste differentiation through a mix of criminalising discrimination, and affirmative action, the allure of caste linked social status persisted. Sanskritization, therefore, became the means for lower castes to translate this economic upward mobility, into a social one as well. This brought forth the adoption of the practice of dowry, which completed the matrix for the enduring preference for a male child, consequently proliferating sex-selection. The effect of sanskritization is empirically borne out in the quick succession between the cultivation of dowry as a practice, and sex selective techniques. In South India dowry was first given by the Brahmans, reaching the peasantry some 15 later, mimicking the pattern of sex-selective techniques. Notably, Dalits – which refers to the lowest rung of the caste hierarchy – still do not practice dowry.[xii] The correlation evinces the top-down nature of adopting traditions which then trickle down the social hierarchy over the years.


In conclusion, historical and cultural factors, such as the nature of marriages, and the weaker position of women in the society, when coupled with the appropriate technology have led to the gruesome practice of female infanticide transforming into a far more damaging one of sex-selective abortions. However, sociological factors such as Sanskritization and the parochial social outlook of lawmakers at the time, bankrolled the consequent spread of the problem. While a law is in place to prevent the practice now, it remains prevalent as a socially accepted practice and, as it gets further entrenched, it will become more difficult to root it out.


[i] ‘Diagnostic Tests- Amniocentesis’, Harvard Medical School, May 2005.

[ii] Thomas, S.E. 2010. Cases and Materials on The PCPNDT Act. Bangalore: Centre for Women and the Law, National Law School of India University.

[iii] Borker, Girija et al. 2017. ‘Wealth Marriage and Sex Selection’. Paper Presented for the Stanford Economics School of Humanities and Sciences, April 2017.

[iv] Srinivas M.N. 1983. Some Reflections on Dowry. Delhi: Centre for Women's Development Studies, 1984. pp 3.

[v] Thomas, Supra Note i.

[vi] Caldwell, J.C., P.H. Reddy and Pat Caldwell. 1983. ‘The Causes of Marriage Change in South India’ in Population Studies Vol. 37, No.3, 343-361.

[vii] Sanskritization was originally defined by Prof. M.N. Srinivas. It is understood as a process peculiar to India through which members of lower castes attempt to gain upward mobility by emulating higher caste customs, culture, practices and beliefs.

[viii] United Nations Population Fund- India, ‘Declining Child Sex Ratio (0-6 years) in India’,(2001) available here (Last visited November 1, 2018); Bhattacharya P., ‘India’s Deepening Gender Imbalance’, Livemint, available here (Last visited November 1, 2018).

[ix] Mukherjee, R. (1999). Caste in Itself, Caste and Class, or Caste in Class. Economic and Political Weekly, 34(27), 1759-1761.

[x] Mohanty, T. R. 2015. ‘Law, Liberty and Life: A discursive analysis of PCPNDT ACT’ in Revista Eletrônica Direito e Sociedade Vol 3, No. 2 pp. 97-120.

[xi] Srinivas, M.N. 1966. ‘Sanskritization,’ in M.N Srinivas: Social Change in Modern India. New Delhi: Oriental Blackswan Private Limited, pp 1-48.

[xii] Thomas, Supra, Note i.

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About the Author

Pallavi Khatri is a student of LLB at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore. She is also a typical geek who can weave Game of Thrones and Star Wars into any conversation. Pallavi has a keen interest in ADR and has participated in multiple competitions on the subject. An avid reader of crime fiction, Pallavi loves criminal law and knows the IPC by heart. She also has an interest in legal policy; expect a lot of articles on problems relating to courts, national security, and gender equality.

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