Features | Society | South Asia

India: Where Are All the Girls?

The state of Haryana is ground zero for a social issue with growing repercussions for India: gender imbalance.

The silence is revealing. Rajju is baking bread for her son Rajesh. She serves him without word. Thirty minutes later, mother and son finish their lunch with only the barest minimum of utterances. This is life for the Hooda family of three—Rajju and her two sons. The tension within the household has been mounting for six years, ever since 52-year-old Rajju advertised for a bride for her elder son.

In the Sanghi village, located in the Rohtak district in the northern Indian state of Haryana, like most places in this region and indeed throughout India, the majority of marriages are arranged by the parents. Most marriage alliances are made within the same caste or ethnic group. The marriage age seen as ideal here has traditionally been between 20 to 25 for both men and women, but with growing urbanization and increasing education men have recently preferred to wait until they are 28 or 29. The majority of women are still not able to make marriage decisions for themselves.

Rajesh is now 35 and despite being well settled in his job as a computer professional near his village he has not had any good marriage proposals. In fact, in six years he has received just one proposal, which fell through.

Barely 100 meters away from Rajesh’s house lives Shayam. He’s been looking for a bride  for four years, also without success. The absence of marriage partners is creating tensions within many families. The stress and frustration has aged Rajju beyond her years.

Rajesh and Shayam are not alone. Haryana, which borders Delhi, has long had a gender imbalance, and some reports say it has the worst sex ratio in India.

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According to the 2011 census, the number of females per 1000 males in Haryana stands at 879, far below the national average of 943 and the lowest among all twenty-eight states in India. The number falls to 836 in certain districts, and the state-wide figure is even more alarming in the 0-6 age group, where there are just 834 girls for every 1000 boys.

As a result of this disparity, men like Rajesh are unable to marry, and face an increasingly dire situation. His mother laments, “There are so few girls in Haryana. No-one wants a daughter. If you don't have any daughter how will you have a bride?”

She adds, “It is common for pregnant women to have a prenatal test and if the fetus is a girl, they often abort them.”

The gender imbalance in the Haryana society has forced many young men to look for girls outside the state from different cultural, socioeconomic and linguistic backgrounds. Men are bringing brides in from other states, like Tripura, West Bengal, Orissa, and Bihar and even—in some cases—Bangladesh.

“I have started looking for girls outside my state and very soon I expect to have a wife. For that I will have to spend some money. The situation is really bad. Even a well qualified person remains unmarried because of the paucity of girls,” rues Rajesh.

Rajesh’s neighbor, Karamveer Hooda, a farmer, married a girl from West Bengal two years ago after failing to find any partner locally. His wife Seema, 22, speaks a different language, Bangla, and had never left her village in her home state. But she is now the mother of a 2-year-old boy and seems at ease in her new home.

“My father was a poor man. He could not afford a boy from Bengal who would expect a dowry. When the offer came from Haryana I willingly accepted. I married without paying any dowry. Initially it was difficult to adjust but now I am fine,” says Seema.

Adds her husband, “The main reason why I had to look for a girl outside my state is the lack of girls in my state. For me it was not easy to find a girl here.”

Today, according to one estimate there are at least thirty to forty women like Seema in the average Haryana village. That’s a recent phenomenon for a state with village elders known to have pronounced death on any villager marrying outside the community.

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But this new development has not addressed the issue of gender imbalance. Rather, it has divided society and increased the incidence of domestic violence and women trafficking.

A recent UN report blames “Haryana’s skewed sex ratio for large-scale trafficking of girls from other states for forced marriages and ‘bonded’ labour into the state.”

Jagmati Sangwan is an activist and one of the more prominent voices against domestic violence in Haryana. Speaking to The Diplomat, she says that generally boys from poorer, less-advantaged backgrounds have the most difficulty finding brides.

“The problem is that these women who come from outside suffer social, cultural and emotional isolation in traditional Haryana, where they find it difficult to integrate with mainstream society,” explains Sangwan.

She adds that women brought in from outside Haryana for marriage also “come from poor backgrounds generally and frequently suffer domestic violence. There is no one to support them in society.”

Another side effect of the gender imbalance is the rising incidence of rape in Haryana. Sangwan agrees, noting that the “low sex ratio fuels all kinds of violence against women. Boys are finding it difficult to find girls and that leads to an environment that is not conducive for women’s safety.”

In this male-dominated society, where sons generally inherit, female feticide is common. Medical centers with ultrasound flourish in Haryana. Though prenatal tests are illegal, a tacit agreement among couples and the centers to keep quiet make it difficult for the authorities to enforce the law.

“In law, there is a provision for punishment for both parties: the couple who goes for a sex determination test and the center which does this test. But due to the nexus between the parents and medical centers we fail to prosecute the law breakers,” says Dr Kuldeep Singh, a deputy civil surgeon who heads the team trying to crack down on prenatal tests in Rohtak district.

He warns that “if the civil society groups and different sections of society don’t come together to create awareness and stop this inhumane practice in time the magnitude of the crisis will multiply and have different adverse consequences for society.”

The repercussions of the gender imbalance in Haryana, and indeed India, are rising. In places like Haryana, a solution must begin by breaking the silence on the issue of discrimination against women.