NEW DELHI — The preliminary data from the decennial census in India has once again brought to the fore a mentality that bodes ill for girl children.

More than 5 million girls have gone missing in a decade, as per the 2011 census estimates — compared to the data from the 2001 national census.

Even the increase in the gender ratio, from 933 to 940 females per 1,000 men, got lost in the alarming drop in the number of girls under 6 years: from 927 to 914 per 1,000 boys. In some states, that ratio went below 800 girls per 1,000 boys.

“The figures are very disturbing. We need to address this problem as a major challenge,” Cardinal Oswald Gracias, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), said April 11.

Cardinal Gracias, the archbishop of Mumbai, further pointed out that he was “shocked” to learn that better-educated people indulge more in “female feticide.”

The census figures showed that while the child ratio in rural areas is 918 girls per 1,000 boys, the figure is 904 girls per 1,000 boys in cities and urban areas.

“It is sad that people are using their education to get rid of the girl child instead of getting rid of their prejudices,” Cardinal Gracias lamented.

Prospective parents often conduct illegal testing of the sex of the child during pregnancy and abort if the embryo is a girl due to deep-rooted gender prejudice in India.

The preference for boys is rooted in the belief that one cannot attain moksha (liberation) unless he has a son to perform his last rites, as mandated by Hindu sacred writings.

This belief traditionally rendered the girl child unwanted and paved the way for the dowry system that has reduced her to a “liability” for the family. Worried about dowry burdens, couples often abort the second pregnancy if the fetus is a girl.

20% Fewer Women Predicted

Two weeks before the census data came out, Pratibha Devisingh Patil, president of India and the first woman to hold that office, had also expressed concern over the skewed sex ratio March 17. That was in reaction to a report in the Canadian Medical Association Journal that made headlines in India in early March.

If the trend of fewer women than men in India continues, it will have “a negative impact on the society,” Patil cautioned while addressing a university convention at Chandigarh, capital of the northern states of Haryana and Punjab.

Several areas of both Haryana and Punjab have reported less than 800 girls for 1,000 young boys due to rampant female feticide.

Patil spoke out after the international team of researchers forecast that the number of women in India would be 20% less than men by the year 2030 due to female feticide.

According to the census figures, 1.21 billion Indians account for 17.5% of the world’s population, with the equivalent of the population of Brazil being added each decade.

Father Sebastian Ouseparambil, director of the Catholic Health Association of India, which includes 3,300 major hospitals and health-care centers, pointed out that there have been instances of parents approaching even Catholic hospitals seeking female feticide.

“Sadly, I should say, the unscrupulous medical practitioners are cashing in on this prejudice. There are clinics all over which carry out the [illegal] tests and the abortions,” he lamented.

The duplicity of the social elites was laid bare when an undercover BBC reporter was promised by a leading gynecologist in New Delhi in 2007 that the doctor would undertake female feticide after illegal tests for a price. Ironically, the same doctor who is running a fertility clinic has been in the forefront of the campaign against female feticide.

“It is not enough that the Church speaks against abortions. The Church should go beyond abortions to address the issue more specifically to target female feticide,” said Virginia Saldanha, former executive secretary of the Women’s Desk of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference for 15 years.

“Though this problem is not serious among Christians, we have a duty to educate others on it,” said Saldanha, who is based in Mumbai.

Catholic Education Network

Amid the grim scenario of decline in the sex ratio in most areas, Christian strongholds like southern Kerala state and northeastern India provide a comforting picture. According to the census figures, the number of women in Kerala has gone up from 1,058 to 1,084 females per 1,000 men. Even the sex ratio among children has remained steady at 959 girls from 960 in 2001.

“We must use our vast educational institutional network to educate the larger society,” said Saldana.

Education is the biggest outreach activity of Indian Christians, who account for a mere 2.3% of India’s population. Three-fourths of the nearly 15 million students on the rolls of 20,000 Catholic educational institutions are non-Christians.

Matilda Mathias, a Catholic activist based in Bangalore, was shocked to find grandparents and relatives “thumping their chests in mourning” when hospital staff informed them of the birth of a girl.

“This is terrible. We must change this mentality of treating the girl child as a liability,” said Mathias, national program coordinator of Soroptimist International, a women’s advocacy group.

Mathias said that it is “not enough that we educate our own people.” The Catholic Church in India has been observing Sept. 8, the Nativity of Mary, as a “Day of the Girl Child” since 1997 to change deep-rooted gender prejudice.

Mathias suggests that female feticide be a part of the curriculum through “moral education” in Church-run institutions.

In Christian schools, while Christian students have catechism classes, non-Christians have moral education, for which the management has the freedom to choose the text.

Cardinal Gracias said that “the Church will take concrete steps to address the concern through our institutions. We must do everything possible to change the social attitudes.”

Anto Akkara writes from Bangalore, India.