Intersections: Female Genocide in India and the 50 Million Missing Campaign
Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 22, October 2009

Female Genocide in India
and the 50 Million Missing Campaign

Rita Banerji

  1. Even before I had initiated 'The 50 Million Missing Campaign' in December 2006,[1] it was clear that one of the toughest challenges for the campaign would be to overcome public scepticism both within and outside India, about the veracity of its claim. How could fifty million plus women just disappear from a country in a period that spans less than a century?[2] That number is about the size of the entire populations of Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and Portugal put together.

    Figure 1. The 50 Million Missing campaign poster. Designed collaboratively by designer, Pam Kelso, Fernando G. Aguinaco (background photo), and Hervé Blandin (foreground photo).

  2. So, in January 2008, while, in my capacity as founder of the 50 Million Missing Campaign, I was addressing a local chapter of the Rotary International in Kolkata as an invited guest speaker, I began by dispelling the first myth. 'Missing' is actually a euphemism, I confirmed. These are not 'missing persons' cases. Here the term in fact means—eliminated. However, 'missing' has stuck ever since the Noble Laureate, Dr. Amartya Sen, first used the term in 1986 to draw attention to the vast divergence in India's natural gender ratio.[3] Where the average male to female ratio in most human populations is about 100:105, Sen, using extrapolations from the census data, estimated that India was 'missing' about 37 million women—women who should have been in the population but could not be accounted for. Sen's warning rang no bells for the Indian administration, and the gender downslide continued. By 2005, almost twenty years since Sen's first alert, the International Herald Tribune reported that 50 million women were 'missing' from India's population.[4]
  3. The public reservation, however, is with the actual likelihood of such a mass-scale elimination occurring. Occasionally one reads in Indian papers about baby body parts being found in a well in the compound of some clinic, or a young woman dying of burns under suspicious circumstances due to a supposed kitchen accident, but there is nothing in the news that suggests a blood-bath on the scale of a genocide. To drive home the point to my Rotary audience, I put up on the overhead a two columned table relating to the annual rates of female homicide in India. This slide included the means of elimination, and the estimate for the annual rate for each category.

    Table 1. Annual Rates of Female Homicide in India

    Female foeticide approximately 1 million[5]
    Female infanticide approximately 25000 in the State of Kerala alone[6]
    Dowry-related murders approximately 25000[7]
    Preadolescent mortality 1 in 6 dies before 15 yrs (CRY)[8]
    Mortality rate 40% higher for girls under 5 than boys the same age (UNICEF)[9]
    Maternal mortality rate (MMR) 136,000
    (1 woman dies every 5 minutes due to pregnancy-related causes) (WHO)[10]

  4. The number one means of elimination I pointed out, is female foetal abortions. An estimated 1 million female foetuses are selectively eliminated in India each year, and that number is expected to rise to 2.5 million within the next few years.[11] Method number two is female infanticide, a practice that has a long history in India. So far there has been no national average estimated for female infanticide, largely because it is difficult to track down with there being no administrative compulsion for citizens to register births. Nevertheless, existent data gives an indication of the scale of the practice. In the state of Kerala, one of India's most progressive states, with a literacy rate of over 90 per cent, it is estimated that about 25,000 new born girls are killed every year.[12] In other states like Bihar, where the issue of gender bias is plainly discernable, one survey reveals that mid-wives interviewed admitted to being paid to kill almost 50 per cent of the baby girls they delivered.[13] As the number three method of elimination I listed dowry murders, also known as 'dowry deaths.' Despite the fact that a majority of dowry-related homicides of young married women in India are never even filed with the police, in the late 1990s it was estimated that at least 25,000 young married women were cold-bloodedly murdered by their husbands and in-laws in dowry extortion cases.[14] That number has continued to rise, as the practice of dowry itself spreads to communities, like tribal groups, that traditionally never had the custom of dowry.
  5. Yet another means of elimination of females in India is the abnormally high mortality rate for girls under 5 years. In 2007, UNICEF reported that the mortality rate for girls under five was 40 per cent higher than for boys of the same age.[15] Most of these girls are dying of nutritional and medical neglect. The neglect is often deliberate, for parents are not only biased in how they distribute food among their sons and daughters, but often they do not want to pay for a sick daughter's medical treatment—cases that would in most countries amount to negligent homicide.
  6. And the fifth means of female elimination in India is maternal mortality. In 2007, India accounted for the highest maternal mortality rate in the world—with one woman dying of pregnancy-related causes every five minutes.[16] The reasons cited for this are inadequate medical care and early-aged pregnancies in girls due to child marriages. Generally in cases of child marriages both the bride and groom are children. But the issue is really with the girls because the health impact is on them. Their bodies are underdeveloped and they are too young to bear children—which results in complications and deaths during childbirth, but with serial pregnancies from a very young age there is a complete breakdown in the health of these girls by the time they enter adulthood.
  7. While ultrasound facilities are sprouting around every street corner in India and reaching remote villages in mobile vans at competitively affordable pricing, people still opt for the cheapest abortion facility available to cut back on the cost of operation and hospitalisation. In a culture, where women have practically no say or control over their own reproductive processes, and essentially serve as wombs for patriarchy's narcissistic desire for an endless lineup of sons, India's deplorable maternal mortality rate is a certified killing machine. Looking at all this data through a comprehensive table, I pointed out to my Rotary audience, that the numbers for the death rates of females in India, tot up very rapidly, and it becomes quite evident how India today is liable for one of the worst genocides in human history. The 1948 charter for the United Nations Convention on Genocide states that genocide entails the prevention of birth of a group, its selective killing, or causing it grave physical or mental harm.[18]
  8. If the Indian public is currently perplexed about the issues of female genocide in its country, it is that much more confounded about its possible cause. In a recent survey that the 50 Million Missing Campaign distributed, most respondents felt that poverty and illiteracy were the major contributing factors to female genocide. The assumption therein is that if India's massively impoverished and illiterate masses were to receive a decent education and a reasonable level of income, the nation will pull itself out of this social quagmire. However, the ground realities speak otherwise. Surveys show that some of the highest rates of female foeticide occur among the comfortable middle and upper classes, who not only have the means to access adequate medical facilities, but who show an equal prevalence towards the practice of dowry and dowry-related murders.[19] There is no obvious correlation to indicate that the poor and illiterate in anyway contribute more towards female genocide in India than do the wealthy and educated. So what could be driving this systematic female annhiliation?
  9. To answer that question I put up my final slide for my Rotary audience. It was titled 'The Acculturation
    Figure 2. The Acculturation of Female Homicide of Female Homicide,' and listed the following terms: sati, bride-burning, dowry-death, doodh-peeti, kuri-mar, and johar. Each of these terms I explained, was a method of female homicide that was widely practised, widely accepted, and culturally-specific to India. Though sati, the practice of the burning alive of a widow on her husband's pyre, was banned by the colonial British administration in 1829, since India's independence in 1947, there have been at least forty reported cases.[20] The public still flocks to temples built to deify the practice of sati, and the government of India dare not take these monuments down.

  10. In two of India's most sacred towns, Benaras and Vrindavan, thousands of widows who have been driven out of their homes or some who have escaped sati, eke out a living by begging on the streets or prostituting themselves.[21] Doodh-peeti, another old tradition still practiced in the north-west, is a method of killing new born girls by drowning them in buckets of milk. Kuri-mar is a reference to the communities in northern India that traditionally killed all their daughters. The Kuri mar or 'daughter killer' communities at one time openly bragged about having 'no daughters' —only sons. Most new-born girls would be buried underground in earthen pots. It is said, that Sita, the heroine of India's 2000-year-old epic saga, who was found in a pot underground by her adopted father while he was ploughing the field, was perhaps one of the earliest girls thus rescued. Johar is the practice that socially compelled women to commit individual or mass suicide, when they were attacked and raped by rival communities, in order to preserve their family's honour. When a practice acquires a name in a society, it becomes acceptable at the subconscious level of that community's collective thinking. Its premise becomes sacrosanct, and the lines between crime and culture, and what is permissible and reprehensible, become blurred. It is this deep, historically-rooted acculturation of female homicide that is sustaining female genocide in India.
  11. Evidence of this is found in the average Indian's response to most of the crimes mentioned above. Where the murder of a new born by her own parents, or the gang lynching of a young married woman by her husband and in-laws would send shock waves through most communities, in India it hardly evokes a response. If pressed for one, the response is most likely to be a bland, nonchalant acknowledgement that such things do happen here.
  12. Another ascertainment of the invidiousness of this acculturation is evidenced in the appalling gender ratio of expatriate Indian communities in the U.S., U.K., and Canada. Despite being wealthy, well-educated, and socially well placed, expatriate Indian communities have engaged in female foetal abortions to such an extent, that there is now a conspicuous skewing of the gender ratio in these communities, so much so that governments and International bodies are beginning to take note. In 2006, in a speech at the United Nations General Assembly, it was announced by Nicholas Eberstadt that the unequal gender ratio achieved in some of these communities was 'biologically impossible.'[22] In the United Kingdom the medical community is now refusing to support this practice. However, that does not appear to deter expatriate Indians, who simply fly into India for their abortions.[23]
  13. India today has laws to counter female foeticide, dowry, and dowry 'deaths.' However, the misogyny that promotes the objectification of women, treating them like usable and disposable objects, has such deeply pervasive cultural and historical roots, that it sometimes seems impossible to surmount. It permeates every corner of society. Laws pertaining to prenatal diagnosis of gender are widely flouted. Thousands of doctors, ultrasound and abortion clinics routinely cater to the female killing fields.[24] Police and courts are corruption-riddled and bureaucratic— so much so that most cases that may be dowry-related homicides go unregistered and uninvestigated, and are passed off as 'suicides' or 'accidents.' In the state of Kerala, police assigned to keep tabs on the safety and upbringing of girls delivered in hospitals, regard it as an opportunity for some extra income, and extract bribe money from parents who have killed their infant daughters.[25]
  14. Perhaps the real danger is the rank apathy of the Indian nation to its own predicament. India is not even attempting to pull itself out of this horrendously annihilating abyss. In 2008, the U.N. announced, the number of 'missing' women in India had climbed to 62 million.[26] What this means in terms of India's social reality is that there are at least 62 million males without hope of ever finding female partners from within their own cultural setting. The possibility of social mayhem under such conditions is terrifying — and what it would involve could lead to widespread sexual crimes, perversion, and near anarchical law-and-order situations. Already, there is massive trafficking of girls across state boundaries in India, to be sold as 'brides' in those regions where the gender ratio has dropped so low that men cannot find women to marry. Families with many sons, who cannot afford to 'buy' a bride for each, often will buy a 'bride' for all the men to share.[27] Where every other social crisis that India currently faces—poverty, the nuclear standoff, the HIV/AIDs epidemic, and population explosion—could, under the most optimistic situations be somewhat dealt with, there is no solution to India's gender-ratio skewing. The warping of the natural gender ratio is irreversible.
  15. Nonetheless, the signal is clear. India must pull out all its emergency stops to deal with this gender crisis right away. To get the ball rolling, I turned to the Rotary audience I was addressing and pleaded:

      The change begins with us. Each one of us. It begins with how we respond to this issue. The first thing we need to do is to abnormalise what our history has normalised for us. We must refuse to allow this normalcy. So the next time you hear of a case of female infanticide, or foeticide, or dowry murder—please speak up. Speak loud. Rant, rave, protest, resist, but do not say—'this happens,' and look away.

    It was a desperate plea I made to an audience that I believed were of the socially conscionable stratum of society, and that if we wanted the 50 Million Missing Campaign to stir the public this is where it would happen. But nothing could have prepared me for the audience's response that evening. A veteran Rotarian on the dais declared, in blistering, bitter tones, that my speech was 'perverse,' and it would be better, should I ever be invited back there, to come prepared with a happier, more optimistic message. He urged his fellow Rotarians to not applaud my speech. The audience coldly complied, till the embarrassed President of the club coaxed them into a mild, half-hearted applause. Over the next few days I mused over the Rotarians' response to my speech and tried to make sense of it. If this was the response from India's so called educated, civic-minded groups, what were we to expect from the general public? And why would this speech infuriate them so? It dawned on me slowly, that the audience was the public—the participatory public. Police, government administrators, doctors, wealthy, educated upper and middle class businessmen. The response was offensive, perhaps defensive, because a light had been flashed into their collective consciousness. And at that moment, they had no place to hide. It then dawned on me that that response is perhaps exactly what the campaign needs to evoke to jolt India out of its genocidal apathy.


    [1] In December 2006 I founded the 50 Million Missing campaign online, on Flickr. By 2008 we had another website that provides comprehensive information on various aspects and issues of the campaign and hosts an international petition. The goal of the campaign is to raise international awareness about female genocide in India and to bring to light issues like female foeticide, infanticide and dowry murders, that have led to a systematic annihilation of at least 50 million women from India's population over the last century. The campaign is run entirely by volunteers. There are six administrators and four moderators from seven countries all working online. Our flickr site is supported by 2000+ contributing photographers from over 25 countries, and has a photo gallery of more than 13,000 photos of Indian girls and women. At some point we will use these photos for travelling exhibitions, books and other ground projects to publicise the campaign. For now, each photo is a reminder that 50 million women who should have been living in India are not. The flickr site also has discussion links open to all. The campaign goals are also publicised through presentations to organisations, interviews to newspapers and participation in workshops and seminars. Some of the interviews that provide more information about the campaign and its agenda follow.

    Rita Banerji, 'Fifty million missing women,' in The Mount Holyoke Alumnae Quarterly, Summer 2008, online:, accessed 1 June 2009; Ciara Leeming, 'Fifty Million Missing,' in The Big Issue (U.K.), 04 September 2008, online:, accessed 1 June 2009; Rita Banerji, 'India's silent gender cleansing,' in The Asia Magazine (Hong Kong), 13 April 2009, online:, accessed 10 June 2009; Mathures Paul, 'Freedom abducted,' in The Statesman (India), 8 March 2008, online:, accessed 1 June 2009.

    [2] Gautam Allahbadia, 'The 50 million missing women,' in Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics, vol. 19, no. 9 (September 2002):411–16, online:, accessed 1 June 2009.

    [3] Amartya Sen, 'More than a 100 million women are missing,' in the New York Review of Books, vol 37, no. 20 (20 December 1990), online:, accessed 1 June 2009.

    [4] Swami Agnivesh, Rama Mani and Angelika Köster-Lossack, 'Missing: 50 million Indian girls,' in International Herald Tribune, 25 Nov 2005, online:, now held at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, online:, accessed 7 May 2009.

    [5] Allahbadia, 'The 50 million missing women.'

    [6] Gita Aravamudan, Disappearing Daughters: The Tragedy of Female Foeticide, New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2007, pp. 157–59.

    [7] Himendra Thakur, 'Are our sisters and daughters for sale? When will the horrors of dowry and bride-burning end?' in India Together, 25 September 2007, online:, accessed 7 May 2009.

    [8] 'Statistics: Indian Children,' in CRY (Child Rights and You), n.d., online:, accessed 10 June 2009.

    [9] Patricia Moccia (ed.-in-charge), David Anthony (ed.), and Annalisa Orlandi (principal writer and researcher), The State of the World's Children: Women and Children, The Double Dividend of Gender Equality,' South Asia Edition, UNICEF, 2007, online:, accessed 10 June 2009.

    [10] 'Indian women ask government for greater commitment in the fight against maternal mortality,' in Asia, 30 December 2005, online:, accessed 10 June 2009.

    [11] G. N. Allahbadia, 'The 50 million missing women,' in Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics, vol. 19, no. 9 (September 2002): 411–16, online:, accessed 7 May 2009.

    [12] Aravamudan, Disappearing Daughters, pp. 157–59.

    [13] R. Murthy, 'Fighting female infanticide by working with midwives: an Indian study,' in Gender and Development, vol. 4, no. 2 (1996):20–27.

    [14] Thakur, 'Are our sisters and daughters for sale? When will the horrors of dowry and bride-burning end?'

    [15] Moccia, Anthony and Orlandi (eds), State of the World's Children.

    [16] Roopa Bakshi, 'UNICEF unveils new tool to combat maternal mortality in India,' in UNICEF India, 6 April 2006, online:, accessed 7 May 2009.

    [17] Alvin Powell, 'A doctor goes home: combating Afghanistan's maternal mortality rate,' in Harvard University Gazette, 9 June 2005, online:, accessed 7 May 2009.

    [18] (Article 2), Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted by Resolution 260 (III) A of the United Nations General Assembly on 9 December 1948, online:, edited 27 January 1997, accessed 1 June 2009.

    [19] Amelia Gentleman, 'India still fighting to save the girl child,' in International Herald Tribune, 15 April 2005.

    [20] Lata Mani, 'Mutiple meditations: feminist scholarship in the age of multinational reception, in Feminist Theory Reader, ed. Carole Ruth McCann and Seung-Kyung Kim, New York: Routledge, 2003, pp. 365–77, p. 372.

    [21] Mian Ridge, 'India's expanding city of widows,' in Christian Science Monitor, 9 August 2007, online:, accessed 7 May 2009.

    [22] Nicholas Eberstadt, 'The global war against baby girls,' speech delivered before the United Nations General Assembly, 6 December 2006.

    [23] Neelam Raaj, 'Thanks to Asians, US has got a skewed sex ration,' in Times of India, 2 April, 2008.

    [24] 'Doctor queries Indian abortions,' in BBC News, 8 March 2006, online:, accessed 7 May 2009.

    [25] G. Aravamudan, Disappearing Daughters, pp. 37–38.

    [26] 'Eliminate gender bias,' in the Sunday Tribune, 04 May 2008 edition 1, online:, accessed 7 May 2009.

    [27] Archana Jyoti, '15-yr-old girl's abduction reveals gender gap,' in the Asian Age, 14 July 2005.

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