The Case of the Missing Girl Child – Focus on Tamil Nadu, India

This article examines the issue of female infanticide in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. While the author is optimistic about the initiatives taken to eradicate the practice, there is emphasis on an understanding the issue at a more basic level and the need for a national level consciousness raising to change patriarchal attitudes. 


By Gowri Thampi 14th Feb, 2012

I was surprised when I read an article on infanticide by Athreya and Chunkath in the Economic and Political weekly twelve years ago. The horrible practice of female infanticide in Tamil Nadu had not gained media coverage until 1986, when the press highlighted its prevalence in Usilampatti, Madurai district, Tamil Nadu. Even then, it was assumed that this practice was only prevalent among a small minority in that area.

We have this idea, largely painted by the media and what appears before our well bred urban eyes, of India, one of continuous improvement and development. Either we deal with those who exalt the past glory of what is honestly an infant nation or those who speak of its future reign as a global super power, but rarely those who acknowledge the present realities without a defeatist attitude. Technology may have in fact contributed to the declining female sex ratio, though it wouldn’t have anything to do with female infanticide as opposed to female feticide.

This Google Motion Chart (click here) serves as a great tool to visualize the sex ratio in Tamil Nadu and individual districts over time. Click on the link and play around with it. Note that Tamil Nadu started off with far more girl babies than boy babies per thousand and sex ratio declined steadily till the 1990s after which we have seen some increase. You can look at individual districts as well over time, setting unique colors for them, and using opacity settings to view them individually, sex ratio changes will be observed along the diagonal, with an increase being an upward movement along the diagonal.

I see the work done to eliminate female infanticide in Tamil Nadu as a welcome blend of realism and optimism. Before I go into the measures, I will touch on female infanticide itself as a social issue. At the bare bones level, it’s a crime, murder, murder euphemized by so many almost polite sounding words that it is with a jerk alike the response to a sharp rap on the knuckles that we must remind ourselves that we are dealing with parental murder of their infants, babies who are girls, killed, because they are girls. Why then should we not deal with the issue like we deal with murder? Charge the accused, send them to jail. Apart from the obvious reasons like underreported births and deaths, ease of being mistaken for a case of infant mortality and the difficulty to get to the actual instigator as opposed to the hapless mother who may have been threatened to commit the act, we must understand that many practices held illegal in the eyes of law and the moral eyes of many well meaning educated citizens have large scale social legitimacy in various closed rural societies.

What grants practices social legitimacy is a grand question I do not want to get involved in right away as that may turn this article into a rant. It suffices to say that despite what the zealots may think, our morality is relativist; it is dependent on a host of cultural and temporal variables. What was moral in the medieval world is not moral today, what was moral in Usilampatti is not moral in Bangalore’s IT hubs. What I will talk about, is the core ideology that runs through urban and rural India, the rich and the poor, the impact of which varies only in the magnitude and the hues of its manifestation. That is patriarchy.

At the core of female infanticide are not murderous parents looking for ways to inflict torture on their babies but victims of an ideology condoned even by those who condemn this heinous avatar of it. Given this, any attempt to address the issue of female infanticide without trying to address the bigger problem of the patriarchy itself can only serve as cursory bandage on a deep internal wound. Well a cursory bandage would help to stem the flow of blood while society tries to deal with its internal injuries. Here I would like to talk about some such attempts to reduce the rate at which female infants die at the hands of their parents.

The cradle baby scheme was instituted by the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa In 1992 in Salem, it was extended to Madurai, Theni, Dindingul, Dharmapuri, Erode and Namakkal districts by 2001. Under the scheme mothers were allowed to anonymously drop off their infants in government run centers in these districts. There were 188 centers in these districts. By the end of 2007, 2410 female babies and 390 male babies were received in these centers. Dharmapuri had the largest number of female babies received at 965, closely followed by Salem with a total of 915 female babies received. It is undoubted that this scheme has saved the lives of many infants who have later been given up for adoption in India and abroad.

This however wasn’t the only scheme instituted by the government. Recognizing the importance of local government participation and education of the people, the government also funded theater troupes to stage street plays (kalaipayanams) to educate the rural public about the cause. Training actors for the plays, repeat performances by the troupes with themes including humor with a deep message helped in getting the word around. In Dharmapuri district from April 26 to June 6 1998, 18 troupes carried out 3,000 performances according to Athreya, Chunkath.

While the cradle baby scheme saved lives, there is evidence that the work of the troupes helped to balance the sex ratio.

However when in 2011, the Chief Minister, once again Jayalalithaa, decided to extend the cradle baby scheme to other districts namely,Cuddalore, Perambalur, Ariyalur, Villupuram and Tiruvannamalai , due to the falling sex ratio in these districts, there was criticism. Critics claimed that the scheme makes parents more prone to abandoning their children, particularly girls. I do not understand how such a statement can be made when the sex ratio clearly indicates that, female fetuses, and (more likely due to India’s pre natal sex determination laws,) infants are being killed off. The babies that end up in the cradle would have very likely ended up in the grave, or at least faced an extremely grim future. The critics however are right that the scheme has to be supplemented with more work in restructuring our society.

The above efforts while laudable do not address the widespread prevalence of patriarchy, a society structured around the male. This issue will have to be addressed at a level which requires a countrywide awakening. Patriarchy cannot be eradicated by a series of half measures which considers some evils to be lesser evils and thus acceptable, we will have to fight inequality at every level, however subtle, because it is the attitude in itself which is dangerous and needs to change.

Not all the symptoms of patriarchy are as heinous as female infanticide, some of them materialize as seemingly trivial issues like asking a girl why she would choose to study mechanical engineering, isn’t that a man’s field? It manifests itself in the scourge of dowry which even the educated and wealthy indulge in, at the root of it all is the myopic vision of a woman as a second rate citizen who needs to be under the watchful eye of a male, either he father or a husband. That leads to the burden on the parents for finding a husband for their daughter, right from the day she is born. Large dowries are paid off to ensure the woman can be handed over to a male custodian, astrologers are consulted if a woman remains single for too long and she fasts on certain days of the week so she may find that man, because she can never be an independent individual in society. She has to be under somebody’s watchful eye. The rich provide their daughters with all that society requires, the poor dreading the consequences of not fulfilling social requirements, conclude that death is better for their daughters.

It is easy to brush aside the mentioned subtler forms of patriarchy though they, like female infanticide, are just symptoms of the same disease. Ignoring some of the issues leads to wrongs greater than the ones ignored, which is why I never mince my words when people ask me why, being a girl, I don’t settle down fast instead of studying so much. I have scant regards for the ‘feelings’ of those who start their sentences with “You are a girl…” It is more than my ego or theirs at stake here, it is the wellbeing of our entire society and the lives of little babies all over India, eaten up by a cancer we choose to close our eyes to.


  • Chunkath, S. , & Athreya, V. (1997). Female Infanticide in Tamil Nadu: Some Evidence. Economic and Political Weekly, 32(17), WS21-WS25+WS27-.


  • Kandwami, D. (2005). Cradling Humanity, Saving Lives. Herizons, 19(2), 11.



One thought on “The Case of the Missing Girl Child – Focus on Tamil Nadu, India

  1. Pingback: The cradle babies of Tamil Nadu « Stylus on Papyrus

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