In towns like Mullahera, a village on what was then the outskirts of New Delhi, the prevailing logic for families was to want a boy, a boy who could inherit farmland, work the fields, and provide a place in his future home for elderly parents. But this January local officials rewarded residents of Mullahera with a check for 100,000 rupees ($2,200) for producing more girl than boy births.
Selective abortion of girls in India is worse than ever, prompting the state of Haryana (which has one of the worst birth ratios of girls to boys) to reward the village in each district that is defying the odds.
The federal and state governments in India are testing cash incentives to convince pregnant women to not screen for gender and abort their girls. While the programs have had some success, activists warn that they distract from serious crackdowns on illegal gender testing.
Mullahera had a birth ratio of 1,188 girls to 1,000 boys in 2009, way ahead of the latest figures for the district (an 853 to 1,000 ratio), the state (an 877 to 1,000 ratio), and India (a 914 to 1,000 ratio). Some residents say that urbanization (New Delhi grows larger and closer to Mullahera every year) has improved the image of girls. Begraj Yadav, a local politician says “Now, with education, the work profile has changed…Girls are better office workers.”
The village chief, Manoj Yadav, claims to frequently tell parents about inspiring women, like those who hold government jobs (including their district commissioner) or those who excel in sports (a Haryana woman climbed Mt. Everest).
The idea that urbanization is ending a preference for boys is not supported by national data. Wealthy and urban areas have the worst ratios of girls to boys, probably because of access to ultrasounds, says Prabhat Jha, at the Center for Global Health Research in Toronto. “The preference for boys is pretty similar across India, rich areas or poor areas, north or south, educated or uneducated…Houses that have the money and means to get tested and abort girls are going to be the ones using [ultrasounds].” He calculates that up to 12 million girls have been aborted over the past 30 years in India.
In spite of all the incentives put in place over the past decade, the 2011 Census saw only a tiny improvement in the state’s ratio, which was more than offset by rapid falls in previously unaffected states like Kashmir. There are numerous flaws in the village prize program. First, there is the problem of sample size–it includes villages as small as 5,000 people (in 2009, there were only 69 boys and 82 girls born in Mullahera). Second, the villagers were not aware of the award before (and even after) winning. A third concern with cash rewards is their potential for abuse or corruption.
Four female health workers in Mullahera are inspired by the award–they feel their education campaigns and doctor visits with pregnant women have helped. For Mr. George, an activist, Haryana still has problems, with six of India’s 10 worst districts for birth ratios.