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7.2: Female Infanticide

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    Female infanticide in India has a history spanning centuries. Poverty, the dowry system, births to unmarried women, deformed infants, famine, lack of support services and maternal illnesses such as postpartum depression are among the causes that have been proposed to explain the phenomenon of female infanticide in India.

    Infanticide is nowadays a criminal offence in India but it is an under-reported crime; reliable objective data is unavailable. There were around 100 male and female infanticides reported in the country in 2010, giving an official rate of less than one per million people.


    Section 315 of the Indian Penal Code defines infanticide as the killing of an infant in the 0–1 age group. The Code differentiates between this and numerous other crimes against children, including foeticide and murder.[1][1]

    Some scholarly publications on infanticide use the legal definition.[3][4] Others, such as the collaboration of Renu Dube, Reena Dube and Rashmi Bhatnagar, who describe themselves as “postcolonial feminists”, adopt a broader scope for infanticide, applying it from foeticide through to femicide at an unspecified age.[5] Barbara Miller, an anthropologist, has “for convenience” used the term to refer to all non-accidental deaths of children up to the age of around 15–16, which is culturally considered to be the age when childhood ends in rural India. She notes that the act of infanticide can be “outright”, such as a physical beating, or take a “passive” form through actions such as neglect and starvation. Neonaticide, being the killing of a child within 24 hours of birth, is sometimes considered as a separate study.[6]

    Studies of systematic infanticide based on gender have tended to concentrate on female children – female infanticide – but there are instances where male children are targeted, one historic example of which was in Japan.[4] Eleanor Scott, an archaeologist who has specialised in the study of infant deaths and their cultural associations, notes that the tendency to concentrate on the female examples is misplaced and driven by the desire of 19th-century cultural anthropologists to explain the evolution of lineages and systems of marriage. Scott also notes that the Netsilik Inuit“are in fact the only society for which there is any real qualitative data about the existence of the practice of female infanticide.”[7]




    British colonists in India first became aware of the practice of female infanticide in 1789, during the period of Company Rule. It was noted among members of a Rajputclan by Jonathan Duncan, then the British Resident in Jaunpur district of what is now the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Later, in 1817, officials noted that the practice was so entrenched that there were entire taluks of the Jadeja Rajputs in Gujarat where no female children of the clan existed.[8] In the mid-19th century, a magistrate who was stationed in the north-west of the country claimed that for several hundred years no daughter had ever been raised in the strongholds of the Rajahs of Mynpoorie and that only after the intervention of a District Collector in 1845 did the Rajput ruler there keep a daughter alive.[9] The British identified other high-caste communities as practitioners in north, western and central areas of the country; these included the AhirsBedisGurjarsJatsKhatrisLewa KanbisMohyal Brahmins and Patidars.[8][10]

    According to Marvin Harris, another anthropologist and among the first proponents of cultural materialism, these killings of legitimate children occurred only among the Rajputs and other elite land-owning and warrior groups. The rationale was mainly economic, lying in a desire not to split land and wealth among too many heirs and in avoiding the payment of dowries. Sisters and daughters would marry men of similar standing and thus pose a challenge to the cohesion of wealth and power, whereas concubines and their children would not and thus could be allowed to live.[11][12] He further argues that the need for warriors in the villages of a pre-industrial society meant female children were devalued, and the combination of war casualties and infanticide acted as a necessary form of population control.[13]

    Sociobiologists have a different theory to Harris. Indeed, his theory and interest in the topic of infanticide is born of his more generalised opposition to the sociobiological hypothesis of the procreative imperative.[14][15] According to this theory of imperative, based on the 19th-century vogue for explanations rooted in evolution and its premise of natural selection,[7] the biological differences between men and women meant that many more children could be gained among the elites through support for male offspring, whose fecundity was naturally much greater: the line would spread and grow more extensively. Harris believes this to be a fallacious explanation because the elites had sufficient wealth easily to support both male and female children.[12] Thus, Harris and others, such as William Divale, see female infanticide as a way to restrict population growth, while sociobiologists such as Mildred Dickemann view the same practice as a means of expanding it.[13]

    Another anthropologist, Kristen Hawkes, has criticised both of these theories. On the one hand, opposing Harris, she says both that the quickest way to get more male warriors would have been to have more females as child-bearers and that having more females in a village would increase the potential for marriage alliances with other villages. Against the procreative imperative theory she points out that the corollary to well-off elites such as those in northern India wanting to maximise reproduction is that poor people would want to minimise it and thus in theory should have practiced male infanticide, which it seems they did not.[13]


    There is no data for the sex ratio in India prior to the British colonial era. Reliant as the British were on local high-caste communities for the collection of taxes and the maintenance of law and order, the administrators were initially reluctant to peer to deeply into their private affairs, such as the practice of infanticide. Although this did change in the 1830s, the reluctance reappeared following the cathartic events of the Indian rebellion of 1857, which caused government by the East India Company to be supplanted by the British Raj.[16] In 1857, John Cave Browne, a chaplain serving in Bengal Presidency, reported a Major Goldney speculating that the practice of female infanticide among the Jats in the Punjab Provinceoriginated from “Malthusian motives”.[17] In the Gujarat region, the first cited examples of discrepancies in the sex ratio among Lewa Patidars and Kanbis dates from 1847.[18] These historical records have been questioned by modern scholars. The British made their observations from a distance and never mixed with their Indian subjects to understand their poverty, frustrations, life or culture at close hand.[19] Browne documented his speculations on female infanticide using “they tell” hearsay.[17] Bernard Cohn states that the colonial British residents in India would not accuse an individual or family of infanticide as the crime was difficult to prove in a British court, nevertheless accused an entire clan or social group of female infanticide. Cohn says, “female infanticide thus became a ‘statistical crime'”, during the colonial rule of India.[20]

    Aside from numerous reports and correspondence on infanticide from colonial officials,[10] there was also documentation from Christian missionaries. who were significant writers of ethnographies of India during the 19th century. They sent letters back to Britain announcing their missionary accomplishments and characterising the culture as savage, ignorant and depraved.[21][22] Scholars have questioned this distorted construction of Indian culture during the colonial era, stating that infanticide was as common in England during the 18th and 19th century, as in India.[21][23][24] Some British Christian missionaries of the late 19th century, states Daniel Grey, wrongly believed that female infanticide was sanctioned by the scriptures of Hinduism and Islam, and against which Christianity had “centuries after centuries come into victorious conflict”.[21]


    A review of scholarship by Miller has shown that the majority of female infanticides in India during the colonial period occurred in the north-west, and that it was widespread although not all groups carried out this practice.[25]

    David Arnold, a member of the subaltern studies group who has used a lot of contemporary sources, says that various methods of outright infanticide were used, including reputedly including poisoning with opium, strangulation and suffocation. Poisonous substances such as the root of the plumbago rosea and arsenic were used for abortion, with the latter also ironically being used as an aphrodisiac and cure for male impotence. The act of direct infanticide among Rajputs was usually performed by women, often the mother herself or a nurse. Administration of poison was in any event a type of killing particularly associated with women; Arnold describes it as “often murder by proxy”, with the man at a remove from the event and thus able to claim innocence.[26]

    The practice was made illegal in the British Indian regions of Punjab and the North-Western Provinces and Oudh, with the passing of the Female Infanticide Prevention Act, 1870.[25] The Act authorised the Governor-General of India to expand it to other regions, when appropriate, at his discretion.


    Major famines occurred in India every five to eight years in the 19th- and early 20th-centuries,[27][28] resulting in millions starving to death.[29][30] As also happened in China, these events begat infanticide: desperate starving parents would either kill a suffering infant, sell a child to buy food for the rest of the family, or beg people to take them away for nothing and feed them.[31][32][33] Gupta and Shuzhou state that massive famines and poverty-related historical events had influenced historical sex ratios, and they have had deep cultural ramifications on girls and regional attitudes towards female infant mortality.[33]


    According to Mara Hvistendahl, documents left behind by the colonial administration following independence showed a direct correlation between the taxation policies of the British East India Company and the rise in female infanticide.[34]


    From 1881 through 1941, demographic data shows India had excess males overall in all those years.[35] The gender difference was particularly high in north and western regions of India, with an overall sex ratio – males per 100 females – of between 110.2 to 113.7 in the north over the 60-year period, and 105.8 to 109.8 males for every 100 female in western India for all ages.[35] Visaria states that female deficit among Muslims was markedly higher, next only to Sikhs.[36] South India region was an exception reporting excess females overall, which scholars attribute partly to selective emigration of males and the regional practice of matriarchy.[36]

    The overall sex ratios, and excess males, in various regions were highest among the Muslim population of India from 1881 to 1941, and the sex ratio of each region correlated with the proportion of its Muslim population, with the exception of eastern region of India where the overall sex ratio was relatively low while it had a high percentage of Muslims in the population.[37] If regions that are now part of modern Pakistan are excluded (Baluchistan, North West Frontier, Sind for example), Visaria states that the regional and overall sex ratios for the rest of India over the 1881–1941 period improve in favour of females, with a lesser gap between male and female population.[38]


    Infanticide in India, and elsewhere in the world, is a difficult issue to objectively access because reliable data is unavailable.[39][40] Scrimshaw states that not only accurate frequency of female infanticide is unknown, differential care between male and female infants is even more elusive data.[39]

    Sheetal Ranjan reports that the total male and female infanticide reported cases in India were 139 in 1995, 86 in 2005 and 111 in 2010;[41] the National Crime Records Bureau summary for 2010 gives a figure of 100.[42] Scholars state that infanticide is an under-reported crime.[43]

    Reports of regional cases of female infanticide have appeared in the media, such as those in [44]


    Extreme poverty with an inability to afford raising a child is one of the reasons given for female infanticide in India.[45][46] Such poverty has been a major reason for high infanticide rates in various cultures, throughout history, including England, France and India.[47][48][49]

    The dowry system in India is another reason that is given for female infanticide. Although India has taken steps to abolish the dowry system,[50] the practice persists, and for poorer families in rural regions female infanticide and gender selective abortion is attributed to the fear of being unable to raise a suitable dowry and then being socially ostracised.[51]

    Other major reasons given for infanticide, both female and male, include unwanted children, such as those conceived after rape, deformed children born to impoverished families, and those born to unmarried mothers lacking reliable, safe and affordable birth control.[45][52][39] Relationship difficulties, low income, lack of support coupled with mental illness such as postpartum depression have also been reported as reasons for female infanticide in India.[53][54][55]

    Elaine Rose in 1999 reported that disproportionately high female mortality is correlated to poverty, infrastructure and means to feed one’s family, and that there has been an increase in the ratio of the probability that a girl survives to the probability that a boy survives with favourable rainfall each year and the consequent ability to irrigate farms in rural India.[56]

    Ian Darnton-Hill et al. state that the effect of malnutrition, particularly micronutrient and vitamin deficiency, depends on sex, and it adversely impacts female infant mortality.[57]


    In 1992 the Government of India started the “baby cradle scheme”. This allows families anonymously to give their child up for adoption without having to go through the formal procedure. The scheme has been praised for possibly saving the lives of thousands of baby girls but also criticised by human rights groups, who say that the scheme encourages child abandonment and also reinforces the low status in which women are held.[58]The scheme, which was piloted in Tamil Nadu, saw cradles placed outside state-operated health facilities. The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu added another incentive, giving money to families that had more than one daughter. 136 baby girls were given for adoption during the first four years of the scheme. In 2000, 1,218 cases of female infanticide were reported, the scheme was deemed a failure and it was abandoned. It was reinstated in the following year.[59]

    In 1991 the Girl Child Protection Scheme was launched. This operates as a long-term financial incentive, with rural families having to meet certain obligations such as sterilisation of the mother. Once the obligations are met, the state puts aside 2000 in a state-run fund. The fund, which should grow to 10,000, is released to the daughter when she is 20: she can use it either to marry or to pursue higher education.[60]


    The Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF) wrote in their 2005 report, Women in an Insecure World, that at a time when the number of casualties in war had fallen, a “secret genocide” was being carried out against women.[61] According to DCAF the demographic shortfall of women who have died for gender related issues is in the same range as the 191 million estimated dead from all conflicts in the 20th century.[62] In 2012, the documentary It’s a Girl: The Three Deadliest Words in the World was released. This focused on female infanticide in Chinaand in India.[63]

    In 1991 Elisabeth Bumiller wrote May You be the Mother of a Hundred Sons: A Journey Among the Women of India around the subject of infanticide.[64] In the chapter on female infanticide, titled No More Little Girls, she said that the prevailing reason for the practice is “not as the act of monsters in a barbarian society but as the last resort of impoverished, uneducated women driven to do what they thought was best for themselves and their families.”[65]

    Gift of A Girl Female Infanticide is a 1998 documentary that explores the prevalence of female infanticide in southern India, as well as steps which have been taken to help eradicate the practice. The documentary won an award from the Association for Asian Studies.[66][67]


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