Sikhs show a sharp decline in son bias, but Christians maintain a natural balance between their daughters and sons.
This study describes India’s sex imbalance at birth and how it has been changing, both nationally and within major religious groups. The report focuses on India’s four biggest religious communities – Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs – because there is not enough fertility and health data to make reliable estimates for smaller groups, such as Buddhists, Jains, adherents of other minority religions, and religiously unaffiliated people. These members, as well as many others, are included in the overall population results at the state, region, and country levels.
Sources: This analysis is largely based upon the Indian government-supported National Family Health Survey, (NFHS), as well as the official Indian census. The fifth wave of the NFHS was completed in 2019. It contains the most recent data. The most recent census data is from 2011, because India’s 2021 census was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Terminology: “Son preference” is a phrase standardly used by scholars to describe the outlook of parents who engage in gender-biased sex selection, using abortions to give birth to more males and fewer females than would occur naturally. However, researchers sometimes also refer to “daughter aversion” as the underlying cause of skewed sex ratios at birth in India. Both phrases are used in this report, because “son preference” and “daughter aversion” are closely linked and often interchangeable. For more details, see “Is it son preference or daughter aversion?”
Ratios of sex: On average, women give birth to more boys than they do girls. International convention has sex ratios as 100 girls to one. Natural sex ratio at birth, is approximately 105 boys for 100 girls. This ratio is expressed in India as the number of boys per 1000 girls. In India, the ratio is approximately 950 girls for every 1,000 boys. This report follows international practice by presenting the ratios as 100 boys to 100 girls. Below is an example of the way that these same values are expressed within each system.
The Appendix contains a table that converts all of the sex ratio statistics used to create this report.
Numbers: India’s number system differs from the international one. Indians use units such a lakhs and crores, with commas placed at different intervals. This report shows numbers in both the Indian and international systems. Take, for example:
India’s artificially wide ratio of baby boys to baby girls – which arose in the 1970s from the use of prenatal diagnostic technology to facilitate sex-selective abortions – now appears to be narrowing, according to newly released data from the country’s National Family Health Survey (NFHS).
According to new data, Indian families are less likely than ever to opt for abortions to ensure the births of daughters and sons. This follows years of government efforts to curb sex selection – including a ban on prenatal sex tests and a massive advertising campaign urging parents to “save the girl child” – and coincides with broader social changes such as rising education and wealth.
Among India’s major religions, the biggest reduction in sex selection seems to be among the groups that previously had the greatest gender imbalances, particularly Sikhs.
At a ratio of about 105 male babies to 100 female babies, it is evident that boys outnumber girls. This was India’s 1950s- and 1960s ratio, before prenatal sexual tests were made available in all parts of the country.
Prenatal gender tests using amniocentesis were uncommon and costly in the 1970s. Gender testing has become much more common and cost-effective since the 1980s when ultrasound technology was introduced.
In 1971, abortion was legalized in India. The birth of prenatal testing enabled Indian families to discover the sex of a fetus in pregnancy. Sex selection was possible. The sex ratio at the birth increased rapidly from 105 boys for 100 girls before 1970 to 108 boys for 100 girls in early 1980s. It reached 110 boys in the 1990s, and has remained at this level for approximately 20 years.
The NFHS is a large scale survey of Indian households. It has been done five times since 1992-93. It is funded by the Indian government and includes additional funding from various sources including the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and UNICEF.
The NFHS is designed to provide India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare with reliable data on fertility, maternal and child health, family planning and related topics. Because it interviews a random sample from the population, estimates from NFHS are less accurate than those from the census. The sampling error is also higher for estimates involving smaller religious groups. For example, the NFHS’s estimate of the national sex ratio at birth (108 boys per 100 girls) has a margin of sampling error of plus-or-minus 1 boy per 100 girls. The margin of error for Sikhs, which is the smallest religious group, is greater at plus or minus 8 per 100 girls.
There will be more certainty about India’s current sex ratio at birth after results from the 2021 Indian census – which was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic – are released. See the Methodology for more details about how to estimate sex proportions at birth and confidence intervals.
From a large imbalance of about 111 boys per 100 girls in India’s 2011 census, the sex ratio at birth appears to have normalized slightly over the last decade, narrowing to about 109 in the 2015-16 wave of the National Family Health Survey and to 108 boys in the latest wave of the NFHS, conducted from 2019-21.
Nonetheless, a Pew Research Center analysis of United Nations estimates reveals that during the two decades between 2000 and 2020, India on average had one of the world’s most skewed sex ratios at birth, after Azerbaijan, China, Armenia, Vietnam and Albania.
Around the world, sex selection is often attributed to “son preference” (or “daughter aversion”), a form of gender bias in which families prioritize having sons over daughters for economic, historical or religious reasons. Son preference in India may be linked to cultural practices that make it more expensive to raise daughters than sons. According to Indian tradition, only the sons can pass on the family name. Hindu sons are expected perform the last rites of the deceased parents. This includes lighting the funeral pyre or scattering their ashes. Because males tend to dominate inheritance lines in India, sons are a way for families preserve ancestral property (even though Indian inheritance laws prohibit discrimination).
Daughters, meanwhile, often take wealth away in the form of large dowries at the time of marriage, with payments sometimes continuing throughout a daughter’s life. And while sons continue to live in the parental home after marriage, with wives who often become the primary caregivers for aging in-laws, a daughter is expected to move away from her parents and into her husband’s family home. (See the “Laws, norms and traditions” sidebar for more details.)
Scholars have observed that these religious and cultural traditions often tie to geographical norms. In Northern and Western India for instance, patriarchal and patrilineal family structures are more dominant than elsewhere in India, especially the South.
Even though it has been illegal in India since 1996 for doctors and other medical practitioners to reveal the sex of a fetus to the prospective parents, at least 9.0 million (0.9 crore) female births went “missing” between 2000 and 2019 because of female-selective abortions, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of data from multiple waves of the NFHS and India’s census.
To put the recent decline in sex selection into perspective, the average annual number of baby girls “missing” in India fell from about 480,000 (4.8 lakh) in 2010 to 410,000 (4.1 lakh) in 2019, the Center’s analysis finds.
“Missing” is a term demographers and economists use to describe the deficit in a population caused by discriminatory family planning practices, largely female-selective abortions and female infanticide. Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen in 1990 was the first to draw international attention to the concept of “missing” women in a groundbreaking article in The New York Review of Books.
To approximate the number of “missing” girls due to sex-selective abortions (excluding post-birth infanticide or femicide), scholars generally compare the actual number of newborn girls with the number that would be expected if there were no sex selection. The sex ratio in India at birth would be approximately 105 boys to 100 girls if there was no sex selection. This was the natural sex ratio at the birth for many decades, before prenatal sex technology was introduced in 1970s.
About 48.8% of all children born in India are girls when the natural sex ratio is at its highest. On average, India’s children were born in 2000 to 2019. This is a 47.9% increase. The gap between these statistics represents “missing” girls – those who were not born, due to sex-selective abortions.
Using three waves of data from the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), Pew Research Center estimates there were 9.0 million (0.9 crore) “missing” girls between 2000 and 2019 in India.
The Center’s estimate of “missing” girls due to sex-selective abortions is smaller than estimates published by some other scholars. This discrepancy is partly because other studies often cover earlier time periods, and partly because the survey data Pew Research Center researchers relied on – the NFHS – seems to produce relatively conservative, less male-biased sex ratios at birth in India than some other sources. (See this report’s Methodology for discussion of differing estimates of the number of “missing” girls.)
Sex ratios at birth and ‘marriage squeezes’ differ among religious groups
In the past, some of India’s major religious groups varied widely in their sex ratios at birth, but today there are indications that these differences are shrinking. Sikhs, which in the past had a significant imbalance between baby boys and girl babies, seem to be slowly moving towards the natural level.
In the 2001 census, Sikhs had a sex ratio at birth of 130 males per 100 females, far exceeding that year’s national average of 110. The 2011 census showed that the ratio of Sikhs to girls had decreased to 121. It now hovers around 110, about the same as the ratio of males to females at birth among the country’s Hindu majority (109), according to the latest NFHS.
In recent decades, Christians also have stood out from India’s other religious groups, but in the opposite direction: India’s Christian minority has maintained a sex ratio at birth around the natural level of 105 boys per 100 girls, indicating a relatively low incidence of sex-selective abortion in the Christian community. Indian Muslims have a sex rate at birth of 106 boys for 100 girls, which is similar to India’s natural norm prior to prenatal testing.
The consequences of having a female sex-selective abortion may extend beyond the family making the decision. Research from around the world shows that societies with high rates in sex-selective aborts often suffer within a few decades due to a lack of married women and a surplus men looking for brides. This “marriage squeeze” can trigger a variety of social problems, such as increases in sex-related violence and crimes and trafficking of women. Even if India’s sex ratio at birth continues to normalize, the large number of girls “missing” from its population could continue to have profound consequences on Indian society for decades to come.
Based on the history of sex selection, religious groups already experience varying degrees of marriage squeeze. Very few Indians are married outside of their religion. Sikhs are particularly affected by a shortage of single women who can marry. Sikhs make up less than 2% of the Indian population but accounted for an estimated 5%, or approximately 440,000 (4.4 lakh), of the 9.0 million (0.9 crore) baby girls who went “missing” in India between 2000 and 2019.
The share of “missing” girls among Hindus is also above their respective population share. Hindus make up 80% of India’s population but accounted for an estimated 87%, or approximately 7.8 million (0.8 crore), of the females “missing” due to sex-selective abortions.
The share of female births “missing” among Muslims and Christians during this period is lower than each group’s share of the Indian population, meaning they were less likely than others to engage in sex-selective abortions. Muslims, who make up about 14% of India’s population, accounted for 7%, or approximately 590,000 (5.9 lakh), of the country’s “missing” girls. Christians make up 2.3%. They have been responsible for 0.6% or approximately 53,000 (0.5 million) of all sex-selective sex abortions.
Many demographic factors, other than religion, are linked to sex selection
India has a number of abortion laws and practices
Abortion is legal in India up to the 24th week of pregnancy under a range of criteria, including to save a woman’s life. Abortions are allowed after the 24th week if a medical board of at least three experts detects “substantial fetal abnormalities.”
However, the use of ultrasound devices and other technologies to determine the sex of fetuses is prohibited, and violators – including family members who seek this information and medical personnel who provide it – face fines and even imprisonment.
It is difficult for India to estimate the number of abortions that take place each year. This is due to the stigma surrounding abortions. While the latest National Family Health Survey found that approximately 3% of Indian pregnancies ended in an abortion, academic researchers often believe the number to be higher. A 2018 study published in The Lancet suggests that roughly half of pregnancies in India are unintended, and that there were 15.6 million (about 1.6 crore) induced abortions in 2015 alone – roughly one-third of all pregnancies that year. According to the 2018 study, most Indian abortions are performed outside of hospitals. These medications are often purchased from pharmacies or informal vendors.
It is likely that sex-selective procedures account for only a small fraction of all abortions in India, given that about 9.0 million (0.9 crore) sex-selective abortions were performed between 2000 and 2019, according to Pew Research Center’s estimate.
A review of the academic literature indicates that this is the first published report to estimate the numbers of females “missing” at birth in India Sorted by religious group. These estimates do not indicate that there are differences in the choices of childbearing options. solely Religion
In India and around the world, family choices – such as how many children to have and whom to share a home with – are also bound up with a myriad of other factors, such as educational attainment, wealth, urbanicity and regional culture. Many demographic factors are also linked to the birth ratio. There are many factors that can influence sex ratios, including the characteristics of religious groups.
NFHS data also shows that wealthier women are less likely than those who have more education to choose having children. It might seem that this would lead people to believe that more educated women and wealthier women are less likely to give birth to girls. The NFHS also found that urban families are less likely to choose to have children than rural ones. This could be because they are more educated and wealthier. (For a closer look at gender attitudes in India, see Pew Research Center’s survey report “How Indians View Gender Roles in Families and Society.”)
However, women with more education, wealth, and urbanity may be able to access (and pay for!) an ultrasound or other prenatal screening. It is believed that a woman who has had an ultrasound test before she becomes pregnant increases her chances of having a baby.
Caste is a social stratification rooted in Hindu tradition but shared by other religious groups in India. The complex association between upper-caste status and sex selection is particularly evident in the upper-caste category. Brahmins, and other upper-caste family members, are likely to not worry about the expense of having a girl. Upper-caste Indians, particularly those from Northern and Western India, may be more inclined to follow strict gender norms.
These decisions are also affected by the birth order and fertility. If a family is planning to have only one or two children, they may be more likely to choose to have a girl aborted to guarantee at least one child. In China, for example, the government’s former one-child policy, introduced in 1980, likely contributed to a widening of China’s sex ratio at birth.
These demographic characteristics are tied in many ways to religion. A religious group may have adherents living near one another, which means they can share similar educational opportunities, economic challenges, and fertility patterns. Some religious groups may also share cultural norms, historical or geographic backgrounds, or a certain status in society that can influence their lives and the expectations they leave for future generations. In other words, many of the factors that affect sex selection are connected to each other – and to religious affiliation – in ways that are difficult to untangle.
This report is not intended to identify the exact causal relationships between religion and family choices. The report’s main purpose is to describe the patterns and attitudes of childbearing revealed in Indian census data as well as in surveys. It also uses statistical techniques to show how these patterns differ by religion.
The rest of this report takes a closer look at each of the dynamics that underlie sex selection – namely son preference, ultrasound use and fertility – including a detailed analysis of trends in each of the major religious groups and across India’s six administrative regions. In the next section, you will find an overview of sex ratios worldwide. Subsequent sections include a summary of Indian religious groups’ demographic characteristics, and brief explanations of some of the Indian traditions, norms and laws referenced in this report.
Pew Research Center produced this report as part of its Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project. This project analyzes religious change and how it affects societies all over the globe. The Global Religious Futures project is funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts as well as the John Templeton Foundation.