India's Silent Gender Cleansing

Apr 03, 2009
*Special to asia!
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In December 2006, Rita Banerji began a campaign on the photo-sharing site Flickr. Called 50 Million Missing, it has one important message. Over the last 100 years, 50 million women have been systematically eliminated from the country's population.


Here is more on the campaign in Rita's own words:

There were two important reasons why I needed to start this campaign: to bring to light the real scale of what is essentially a massive human rights calamity for India, and to expose the causes of this female genocide

The gravity of this issue has not been seriously or effectively addressed by the government and even the media in India. One periodically reads about the “gender ratio problem” in India, in some small corner of the newspaper, like it was a fifth-grade math problem. But what most people, even in India, are unaware of is that what this means in terms of numbers of real people.

All over rural India people pay midwives as little as US$1.50 to kill the baby soon after birth if it is a girl.

More than 50 million women who should have been living in India, have been methodically removed from the population. Many people in India and outside regard this number with disbelief, but this is the reality. In fact, it’s getting worse every year. This year the U.N. announced that that number has increased to about 60 million women.

This is way beyond the regular issues of domestic violence and gender discrimination. This sort of massive elimination of a targeted group is, in fact, a genocide, as defined by the 1948 U.N. Convention on genocide.

So how can 50 million women be exterminated from a country? It is largely because of a pervasive social system, whose customs, traditions, and beliefs are misogynist and antagonistic towards women.

It is not just that people in India want sons. The fact is they don’t want daughters. Consequently every year in India now, at least a million babies are aborted – perfectly healthy potential babies whose parents don’t want daughters.

All over rural India people pay midwives as little as US$1.50 to kill the baby soon after birth if it is a girl. This is an ancient practice. They are poisoned, strangled and sometimes drowned in a bucket of milk or water. Even in India’s most progressive state, Kerala, which has more than a 90% literacy rate, it is reported that at least 25,000 newborn baby girls are killed annually.

This is proof that such behaviour is not because of lack of education, but because of people’s mindsets. Just last year, Unicef reported that in rural areas, girls under five years of age in India have a 40% higher mortality rate than boys of the same age. Why? Because when food is less, parents prefer to feed the boy, not the girl. When the girl is sick, the parents often choose to not spend money on their medical care. Little defenceless girls in their most vulnerable stage are being starved and neglected to death by their own parents.

Just as gruesome is the practice that is now known as “dowry murder” or “bride burning”. More than 25,000 young women are murdered every year by their husbands and in-laws within seven years after marriage because the bride’s parents refuse to give in to blackmail by the in-laws for more dowry in cash or kind. Often, even when the parents know their daughter’s life is in danger, they look away. They don’t want to bring her home, because a divorced daughter for them is a matter of social stigma. Instead of testifying in the murder of their daughters, they sometimes strike a cash deal with the in-laws.


every child an artist

Chendur (photographer): Picasso said, every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist when we grow up. This was during a pottery workshop conducted by a non-profit organisation called Vidyaniketan, which means the place that provides education.


Then there is the issue of maternal mortality rate. In a country that is close to a failed state, Afghanistan, where all systems have broken down, the maternal mortality is about one woman every 30 minutes. India, which boasts of nuclear power and sends men to the moon, has a maternal mortality rate of one woman every five minutes!

Basically, the reason many women are dying is because of repeated pregnancies and abortions in an attempt to get rid of girls. In one case in Delhi, of a wealthy, educated upper-class family, where the husband worked for an MNC and the wife was a teacher, she had eight abortions to get rid of girls, and kept the ninth because it was a boy. She died two days after she gave birth. But again the irony of the mindset – it is proof that this is not done just by the poor and the illiterate in India.

If you look at all these social practices – and the number of girls or women each kills – then you see how the numbers add up, and how systematic and pervasive this practice is.


Rita Banerji is the founder of the international online activist movement "50 Million Missing" campaign, highlighting the horrific and systematic elimination of women from Indian society. Her latest book - "Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies" - examines how societies alter their concept of sexual morality over the years. It is available now on