Magnum Photos

Women shielding themselves from a dust storm, Rajasthan, India, 1983; photograph by Steve McCurry from his book Untold: The Stories Behind the Photographs, which includes fourteen of his photo stories from India, Afghanistan, Cambodia, and other countries, along with essays about his work and ephemera from his personal archive. It has just been published by Phaidon.

“I am not a boy, I am a girl,” wrote a twenty-one-year-old woman in Delhi, called Jyoti, who was studying at a medical college to be a physiotherapist. This was in a text message sent in December 2010 to a twenty-six-year-old man who worked in information technology and who had initially taken Jyoti to be a man. They met, and what began as a casual communication became a close friendship.

Two years later, on December 16, 2012, after they had seen a film, The Life of Pi, Jyoti was gang-raped with extreme brutality, and the man was severely beaten as he tried to protect her. They had been tricked into boarding a bus that seemed to be going their way and that had offered them a ride. It was a closed bus with darkened windows in which five determined rapists were waiting for their prey, with their impatience heightened, it is alleged, by the drugs they had taken. The battered bodies of the abused pair were dropped off on a lonely street, and by the time Jyoti received medical attention, she was on her way to death from the injuries, despite specialized medical care in Delhi, and later in Singapore.

The gang rape, including the violence accompanying it, not only got headlines in every serious Indian newspaper, it received continuous coverage around the clock on radio, television, and cable channels. It also led to large-scale public protests and demonstrations that continued for many days in Delhi as well as in other Indian cities, with agitated crowds—men and women—much larger than any seen before in protests of this kind. The insecurity of women, including their vulnerability to rape and abuse, became overnight a national issue in a way it had never been.

Public anger at gender inequality in India must be seen as an important—and long-overdue—social development, and it can certainly help in remedying the persistent inequalities from which Indian women suffer. It is, however, very important to understand the nature of female disadvantage in India, which can take many different forms. If the lack of safety of women is one aspect of it, the old phenomenon of “boy preference” in family decisions is surely another. Boy preference relates closely to the deep-rooted problem of what has been called “missing women,” which refers to the shortfall of the actual number of women from the number we would expect to see, given the size of the male population, and the female–male ratios that could be expected if there were symmetry in the treatment of women and men. There is, moreover, strong evidence that the economic and social options open to women are significantly fewer than those available to men; and going beyond women’s well-being, we have reason to ask also about women’s limited role in society and their ability to act independently, and how their initiatives and actions influence the lives of men as well as women, and boys as well as girls.

Numbers and Insecurity

One of the positive consequences of the agitation following the barbaric incident of December 16 has been to draw attention both to the prevalence of sexual brutality and rape in India, and to the failure of the media to report on it seriously, thereby limiting public discussion and the likelihood of social change. Even though Indians buy more newspapers every day than any other nation, the reporting of sexual assaults and sexual harassment had been quite rare in the widely circulated papers. It is, therefore, impressive and encouraging that newspapers in India, smarting from intense criticism of the negligence in their coverage, rapidly reinvented themselves as rape-reporting journals, and many of them have been devoting several pages every day to reports of rapes gathered together from all the different parts of India. This dramatic change is certainly a welcome development, but it can be asked whether the ongoing news reporting is well aimed and as helpful for public discussion as it could be.

How frequent is rape in India? If there are pages and pages of reports of rapes from across the country in the newspapers, the incidence must be high. There are, in fact, good reasons to believe that the majority of rapes go unreported in India, and the actual incidence of rape may be much higher (some estimates suggest that it is larger by a factor of five or more) than what gets recorded by the police. Based on the news coverage of rape across India, it has been argued, with some plausibility, that India has an extraordinarily high frequency of rape. To what extent is this the right way of thinking about India’s problem? Rape and brutality against women are not exactly unknown around the world. One question is whether rape is relatively more common in India than elsewhere, despite the increased attention it is now getting in Indian news reports.


In fact, if we go by the comparative statistics of reported rape, India has one of the lowest levels of rape in the world. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found the incidence of rape in India for 2010 to be 1.8 per 100,000 people, compared with, for example, 27.3 in the US, 28.8 in the UK, 63.5 in Sweden, and 120.0 in South Africa. The number of recorded rapes in India is certainly a substantial underestimate, but even if we take five times—or ten times—that figure, the corrected and enlarged estimates of rapes would still be substantially lower in India than in the US, the UK, Sweden, or South Africa (even with the assumption that there is no underreporting in these other countries).

High frequency of rape may not be the real issue in India, but all the evidence suggests that India has a huge problem in seriously monitoring rape and taking steps to reduce it. The failure of the police to help rape victims and to ensure the safety of women is particularly lamentable. Following the December incident there were large clashes with the police by protesting crowds, not only because of the attempts by the police to break them up, but also because the demonstrators frequently confronted the police for their very poor record in dealing with this problem.

Even though the alleged rapists in the particular case on December 16 were picked up by the police quite quickly and promptly charged in court, the police were criticized for acting too slowly in giving emergency care when the raped victim and her beaten male friend were found lying on the street. Even in dealing with another terrible aspect of the December incident, the failure of people in passing cars to stop to help the victims (even though some of them did call the police), it was claimed that many passersby are afraid to get involved in a scene of criminal activity because of the fear that the police can—and often do—harass the good Samaritans who are found near the victims of crime, rather than searching diligently for the criminals who have fled the scene.

There was discussion also of the large number of cases in which the police seemed to doubt the credibility of a rape victim on the ground that the suspected rapist told a different story that seemed “equally credible” to the authorities. The Indian judicial system is itself extremely slow, and has not typically been able to rise to the challenge of bringing about speedy convictions of rapists and assaulters on the basis of the information provided by the victims. But the courts are certainly not well served by the unclear information provided by police reports on what exactly happened. From what we know, India’s problem may well lie not so much in a particularly high incidence of rapes, but in its inefficient policing, bad security arrangements, slow-moving judicial system, and, ultimately, the callousness of the society.

Legal Reform and Social Change

One of the salutary effects of the public agitation about women’s insecurity and the inadequacy of the law and policing was the appointment—within a week of the December 16 incident—of a Committee on Amendments to Criminal Law, chaired by a former chief justice of the Supreme Court of India, J.S. Verma, with two other leading jurists, Leila Seth and Gopal Subramanium, as members. Their report, which was thoroughly researched yet delivered in less than a month, led to a new law, enacted in Parliament by the end of March, aimed at providing more adequate, and quicker, legal remedy to violated or threatened women.

Some of the proposals of the Verma Committee were diluted in Parliament, and many human rights activists have plausibly criticized this weakening, including the continued failure to include among sexual offenses what is sometimes called “marital rape”—forced sexual activity with an unwilling partner. There are other gaps too in the parliamentary act; but taking everything into account, the new act is a substantial, though partial, step forward in dealing with gender injustice in India.

Four new provisions are important. First, the act has a broader and more inclusive definition of the crime of “sexual assault”: it includes, but goes beyond, what counts technically as rape. Second, there is a prima facie presumption of nonconsensual sex when the affected woman affirms (even if unilaterally) that there was no consent. Third, “sexual harassment”—common on the streets of some cities in India—is included among the list of criminal acts. Finally, there is a new emphasis on the criminality of the sexual trafficking of young women, mainly for the purpose of forced prostitution.


Such trafficking—sometimes even of very young girls—remains disturbingly common in India, although few serious statistics have been collected about it. There is, however, considerable evidence that the sex trade is indeed big business in India. And yet the newspapers are still shockingly negligent in their failure to investigate this area of darkness (unlike what has happened in the case of rape). Most cases of sexual trafficking involve young women from very poor families, and here the difficulty in getting authorities and journalists, among others, to cross class barriers in their care and concern—a distressingly general phenomenon in India—affects the zeal with which information is sought. There is a clear need for the new activism of newspapers to go well beyond the reporting and discussion of only rapes.

To some extent, the class barrier preventing information from being collected is a problem even in dealing with rapes, not just sex trafficking. Even though Jyoti came from a family of modest means (her father is a baggage loader at the airport), her family was upwardly mobile. It was easier for the Indian middle classes, including the educated middle classes, to take an immediate interest in the predicament of a young medical student than it would have been in the case of a rape of a poor and socially distant Dalit woman. There is a broad and urgent need to supplement the new provisions of the recently enacted law with ways to obtain and disseminate information about the treatment of women from the poorer classes.

There is also a regional dimension to the problem of women’s insecurity in India. It is clear that Delhi, where Jyoti’s rape occurred, has a very special problem that may not apply, in quite that form, to the other megacities in India. The rate of recorded rape per 100,000 people was 2.8 for Delhi in 2011, compared with 1.2 in Mumbai, 1.1 in Bangalore, 0.9 in Chennai, and 0.3 in Calcutta. Since there is nothing to indicate that keeping track of rape is much more efficient in Delhi than in the other cities, it is indeed remarkable that Delhi has a record that is more than nine times worse than Calcutta’s. No matter how unfriendly to women Indian society may be, huge differences exist between different regions of India, which apply to other kinds of gender inequality as well. In many ways India can be seen as a collection of distinct countries with diverse records, experiences, and problems.

Missing Women and Boy Preference

A distressing aspect of gender bias in India that shows little sign of going away is the preference for boys over girls. One of the most pernicious manifestations of this pro-male bias is the relatively higher mortality rates of girls compared with boys, not because girls are killed, but mainly because of the quiet violence of the neglect of their health and illness in comparison with the attention that male children receive. Studies have shown that male priority in care continues for adults as well as children, raising the mortality rates of adult women above those of men.

A distinct bias of “boy preference” can be found in countries extending from North Africa and West Asia to South Asia, including India, and East Asia, including China. That such discrimination has a place in a large part of the modern world is distressing: the number of “missing women” can be quite large. When I wrote on “missing women” in these pages in December 1990,* and also in the British Medical Journal, I based my conclusion on data available up to the 1980s. The missing women could be identified then as the result of the differences in mortality rates between men and women. These in turn reflected discrimination, mainly in health care, against girls and women.

Over the last couple of decades those kinds of discrimination have substantially declined in most of the countries I wrote about. Even though female mortality is still higher than male mortality for children in many Indian states, and the gap is even higher for infants in China, nevertheless in both China and India, and indeed in many of the other countries in the region, women now have a substantially higher life expectancy at birth than men.

However, since the 1980s, the wide use of new techniques such as sonograms for determining the sex of fetuses has led to huge—and growing—numbers of selective abortions of female fetuses, offsetting the gains in declining difference in mortality rates (as I discussed in the British Medical Journal in December 2003). Selective abortion of female fetuses—what can be called “natality discrimination”—is a kind of high-tech manifestation of preference for boys. Because of this counteracting influence, the proportion of missing women in the total population has not declined in many countries, including China and India. Women’s education, which has been a powerful force in reducing mortality discrimination against women and also in achieving other important social objectives such as the reduction of fertility rates, has not been able to eliminate—at least not yet—natality discrimination.

Still, we must not underestimate the effects of women’s education. There is definitive empirical evidence that women’s literacy and schooling cut down child mortality and work against the selective neglect of the health of girls. They are also the strongest influence, among all relevant causal factors, in cutting down fertility rates. The reduction of fertility that has taken place throughout India (and more sharply in Bangladesh) is clearly connected with the expansion of women’s literacy, which empowers women to have a stronger voice in family decisions. The lives that are most battered by excessive bearing and rearing of children are those of young women; any change that increases the force and impact of their voice, such as girls’ education and women’s ability to earn an independent income, has the effect of sharply reducing childbearing.

Bangladesh’s steep fall in total fertility rate from nearly seven children not long ago to 2.2 now (quite close to the replacement rate of 2.1) is strongly connected with the power of women to gain more control of their lives, and both girls’ education and women’s outside employment have done much to yield that result. I should also note here that even China’s shift from high fertility to below-replacement fertility can in many cases be more easily explained by women’s having more say, and more power, in family life—helped by education and greater economic independence—than by the draconian compulsions of its punitive “one-child policy.”

In India too, expansion of women’s schooling has contributed to its significant reduction in fertility rates. While the average of 2.4 children per family for the entire country is still above the replacement level of 2.1, this reflects a big fall from earlier rates, and nine of the twenty largest states of India have fertility rates now that are below the replacement level, which seems to reflect mainly the impact of the increased power of women to influence decisions about bearing children. Women’s education does not seem to be adequately effective in reducing discrimination against giving birth to girls; but it would be a mistake not to appreciate what female education clearly does achieve.

It is important to ask why women’s education and the corresponding enhancement of women’s voice and influence in family decisions have not done much to eliminate selective abortion of female fetuses. Educated mothers seem clearly less inclined to neglect girls compared with boys once they have been born; but they seem almost as keen on having boys rather than girls as uneducated mothers are. Here larger questions of enlightened understanding and scrutiny of traditional values become central and go beyond women’s role and influence in family decisions. There seems to be a lack of adequate awareness of the oddity of seeing girls as inferior to boys, and a lack of knowledge about what happens in other places where such discrimination against girls is not present.

An analogy can be drawn here with Adam Smith’s discussion, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, of the willing acceptance of the alleged necessity of infanticide by intellectuals in ancient Greece. Smith quoted Plato and Aristotle in defense of infanticide. He thought that the hold of parochial values can be broken primarily by knowledge of what happens elsewhere and how other people think about the same problems. It was with respect to such parochialism that Smith emphasized the importance of considering how a local custom would look to people at “a certain distance from us,” which is a part of his thought experiment of invoking an “impartial spectator.” What is crucial here is not just freedom of action but also freedom of thought and the ability to overcome parochial boundaries of thinking.

In China and South Korea, the standard routes to women’s empowerment, such as female literacy and economic independence, have resulted in major achievements. But with the new techniques of sex determination of fetuses, discrimination through selective abortion of female fetuses became surprisingly common in both countries. This has led to organized public initiatives to make women aware of the value of having daughters and not just sons. Such efforts have had much more success in Korea than in China, where the female–male ratio at birth remains lower even than in India.

Contrasts Within India

While female education does not serve as a silver bullet to prevent discrimination against girls, other factors make the experience of the different regions within India quite diverse. In fact, there is a sharp regional divide. In the northern and western states, there is clear evidence of extensive use of selective abortion of female fetuses. In the states in the south and east of India, we do not typically find evidence of its widespread use.

Everywhere in the world more boys are born than girls, and the female–male ratio at conception is even more sharply biased in the direction of males (the standard ratio is often taken to be 910 conceptions of female fetuses compared with 1,000 male conceptions). But females do better than males in survival, if they have equal care, which they tend to get in the uterus. By the time births take place, the female–male ratio is around 940 to 950 females per 1,000 males in European countries. Between 2005 and 2010, the average ratio of females to males at birth for Europe as a whole was 943 females per 1,000 males.

There are variations within the European countries that cannot be plausibly attributed to the effects of presumed practices of sex-selective abortion; and so we have to accept a range of values for “normal” sex ratio at birth. Among the larger European countries, the female–male ratio at birth is 941 in Italy, 940 in Spain, 939 in Greece, and 935 in Ireland. If we take the ratio of 935 per 1,000 (the ratio for Ireland) as a standard against which to measure selective abortion of female fetuses, what can be said about the Indian states?

Since birth registration is incomplete in India, the ratios of girls to boys at birth are calculated by first looking at the actual numbers of girls and boys in the age group between zero and six (counted by the census), and then working backward to the female–male birth ratio by adjusting the zero to six figures for differences in mortality rates at specific ages between birth and age six. Using this method with the data provided by the 2011 census, it appears that all the states in the north and west of India, without exception, show absolutely clear evidence that sex-selective abortion is practiced to a much greater degree than is generally the case in the states in the east and south. Though many of the states even in the south and east have had some fall in female–male ratio among children between the censuses of 2001 and 2011, even in 2011 the female–male ratio at birth in the south and east of India remains not only substantially higher than in the north and the west, but also within the European range for such ratios.

Mike King

In fact, we can draw a dividing line to cut India into two halves (see the map above), with the states in the west and north (including Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Uttarkhand, and Jammu and Kashmir) showing clear evidence of widespread sex-selective abortion, with female–male ratios well below the cut-off line of 935 per 1,000 males. In fact, in all western and northern states this ratio actually is even below 920, and in many of these states well below 900.

This contrasts sharply with the figures for states in the east and south—Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar, West Bengal, and Assam—all of which have ratios above 935 (with Odisha marginally so). In those states the use of sex-selective abortion, when present, is not on a scale to pull the female–male ratio below the cut-off line based on Irish figures. Incidentally, the data from Bangladesh, where the female–male ratio for the age-group zero to four years is 972, conform strongly to the pattern of eastern India, which it adjoins.

Why is there such a regional difference? I do not know of any convincing clear-cut answer to this question, even though the correspondence of these gender-specific differences with language groups and cultural practices offers fruitful lines of research. Any serious explanation will demand a much fuller understanding of the diversities between India’s different traditional cultures, as well differences in economic, political, and social influences.

While that important research must be done, there are many necessary actions that need not await the results of that research. There is a need for better policing and for greater media attention to neglected issues, including sexual trafficking and marital rape. There is an extremely powerful case for paying much more attention to schooling for girls, for more political and social discussion of the peculiarity—and the moral strangeness and inequity—of “boy preference,” and for more commitment by India’s mainstream political parties to address the issues central to gender inequality. There is a lot to do on the basis of what we do know, even as we remain engaged in finding out more about regional cultures and divergent behavior within India.