Anthony Flint

India's unbalanced sex ratio has created a slew of social problems and exacerbated violence against women.

MUMBAI – More than a month after the fatal gang-rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey on a private bus in New Delhi, the brutal attack continues to reverberate around the cities of India. Headlines note the "shame of India" and ask, "What’s wrong with our men?" Enraged protestors hold signs that read "You rape, we chop," a reference to castration. It took only a short time for Bollywood stars to step in, with a "No more fear"-themed fashion gala here a few nights ago.

Meanwhile, news reports of horrific rapes continue, now covered more attentively in the press, and seemingly confirming the common belief that most violence has been going unreported. A girl was snatched from a bus stop by man on a motorcycle, taken to a shop where three accomplices waited, forced to drink a sedative, raped, and dumped by the side of the road. A 32-year-old woman who got off a jammed Delhi-bound train was gang raped and hung from a tree. That was just in one day’s news.

What passes for national soul-searching has revealed underlying factors setting the stage for this extraordinary scourge of violence: a slow-moving and ineffectual criminal justice system, a blame-the-victim mentality, and a culturally ingrained lack of respect for women. But one basic demographic fact runs underneath it all, captured in a term we might hear much more about in the years ahead: sex ratio.

Once an obscure area of scholarly investigation, alongside fertility and replacement rates, sex ratio — the number of boys versus the number of girls, and trend lines for future projections — is assuming a more prominent place in the unfolding and fascinating assessment of urban population growth in the developing world. It is now a common subject of international conference presentations, as it was at The Geography of Change: Contemporary Issues in Development, Environment and Society at Joshi-Bedekar College of Commerce and Arts in Thane, where I made a presentation on housing and urban population trends earlier this month.

The problem is simple. There are more boys than girls in the two most populous nations of the world today, India and China. There is generally concern when the ratio is 1,000 boys for every 800 girls, which is not uncommon for Indian cities. It sounds a bit crude, but that means lots of boys who will not have the opportunity to be paired up or have a normal relationship with a member of the opposite sex. As one independent consultant pointed out in a private briefing on China trends late last year, that means millions of restless and frustrated male teens, and a potential source of instability in metropolitan areas.

A sex ratio closer to 1,000 boys for every 900 girls is seen as a measure of progress and good municipal health, and is trumpeted in cities where that is the case, like a good graduation rate or crime rate.

The imbalance appears to be built-in for now and future generations, because of societal norms that are quite unthinkable for Western standards. Couples openly yearn for having boys over girls; girls mean the family must pay a dowry, among other things. Girls are shunned and to be avoided at all costs. Abortion and infanticide are commonplace. Enforcement has stepped up recently of a law forbidding learning the results of an ultrasound during pregnancy, a midwife told me. Predictably, there’s a cottage industry to get around these restrictions of knowing the sex of the baby.

As girls go through life, they must struggle against a culture of disrespect among the many men who outnumber them. As more women get educated, move to cities, and become competitors in the workplace, the resentment grows. Misogyny blooms.

There are some signs of change. In the same day’s newspapers carrying the latest news on Jyoti Singh Pandey, who died after being taken to Singapore for medical care, were two notable accounts. In one, a rapist had his driver's license permanently suspended – seemingly a small gesture, but previously unheard of. In another, a high court ruled that it was unlawful to forbid women from wearing colorful garb, or for prohibiting them from using a mobile phone.

Small victories. And for the moment, too small to make much of a dent in the troubling demographic realities of our urbanizing planet.

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