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Last Updated: Monday, 22 October 2007, 11:41 GMT 12:41 UK
Harsh reality of India's unwanted girls
By Ashok Prasad
Producer, This World: India's Missing Girls

Sandhya Reddy and some of the girls in Aarti Children's Home
Parents worry about finding the money to pay the wedding dowries of daughters
Sandhya Reddy, Aarti Children's Home
Earlier this year in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, farmer Ram Kumar made a shocking discovery.

Sticking out of the earth was a tiny human hand.

Barely audible, were the cries of a newborn baby.

"There was a girl wrapped in a cloth and buried deep in the ground," said Ram Kumar.

"The baby should not have been alive but somehow it was."

The two-day old baby was rushed to a local hospital to recover from her ordeal. Her grandfather meanwhile confessed to the girl's attempted murder.

With seven daughters to provide for, he claimed he could not afford the burden and expense of having yet another girl in the household.

Doctors named the girl Bhoo Laxmi, the earth goddess. She is one of thousands of baby girls who every week are abandoned, aborted or killed, simply because of their gender.

Dowry burden

Boys are still prized more than girls because they will carry on the family name and traditionally provide for parents in their old age.

One-year-old Harshita was abandoned as a newborn baby

"From an early age, girls are made to feel they are a burden," says Sandhya Reddy, who runs the Aarti Children's Home in the nearby town of Kadapa.

The majority of abandoned children in the home are girls.

"Parents worry about finding the money to pay the wedding dowries of daughters," she says.

Demanding dowry has been banned for 50 years in India but it is a tradition that lives on across all social classes.

So great is the burden that girls are seen to place on a family, that some believe it is better that they are never born.

In the past, infanticide was seen as one solution. Now with advances in medical technology, many parents are resorting to ultrasound scans to determine the gender of the baby.

If it is a girl, parents often pay for an abortion.

Sex selection tests and abortion on the basis of gender have been banned for 15 years in India. But the law has simply forced the trade underground.

UN figures state that 750,000 girls are aborted every year in India.

Nagalakshmi, who lives on the outskirts of Kadapa, is three months pregnant and has paid to find out she is carrying a girl.

She is determined to abort.

Her husband Nityapujaiah says that, as labourers, they cannot afford to have a girl: "I know it's a sin to abort but what can we do?" he says.

Tolerated abortion

Some Indians turn a blind eye to the growing incidence of sex selective abortions, believing it is better that a girl is killed before birth rather than after.

Map of India

But in July 2007, dozens of aborted female foetuses were uncovered in a well belonging to a clinic that was carrying out illegal sex selection tests and abortions in the state of Orissa.

After women's groups took to the streets in protest, half a dozen illegal clinics were shut down.

But the reality is that, with sex selection happening behind closed doors, this trade is difficult to control.

Sex selection is not just restricted to the poor.

It is also routine among India's moneyed middle classes, though rarely spoken about. In the prosperous city of Ahmedabad, the commercial capital of Gujarat state, Pooja Salot is one woman who has dared to speak out.

Married to a multi-millionaire industrialist, Pooja had twin girls 10 years ago. Then when she got pregnant again, she claims her husband turned violent.

"He didn't want another girl. I was forced to have an ultrasound scan," says Pooja. Then, when I was five months pregnant, I was forced to abort."

Pooja claims that abortions of girl children are commonplace among her wealthy friends. "For them a girl will just take money with her to her in-laws. She won't bring wealth in," she says.

Sex selection is worst of all in the wealthy states close to the capital Delhi. In the state of Haryana, many people have had the money to pay for ultrasound testing for the past two decades.

Shortage of brides

Rameher and his wife Sushma were married in 2006

Sex ratios are now some of the lowest in the country, with official government figures showing that there are only 840 girls for every 1,000 boys.

Despite government efforts to end sex selection, it has meant there is now a marked shortage of brides.

Twenty-four-year-old Rameher had to travel nearly 3,000 kilometres (1,800 miles) to find his wife.

He could not get married in Haryana due to a shortage of women and his parents were obliged to make contact with families in poorer states like Jharkhand.

"I was afraid that God hadn't destined a wife for me and that I would be a bachelor all my life," says Rameher.

"Rameher is lucky," says his father Kehar Singh. "There are many men who cannot get brides even in this way because they have no money. They will die unmarried."

Kehar says he will have to do the same for his other three sons.

Back in Kadapa, 20-year-old Ramadevi has just given birth to a baby girl. Before the baby was born, she said she would have aborted the girl if she had had the money.

She did not want a girl and did not know what she was going to do with it.

Brimming with pride, she explains how she has decided to keep the baby.

"Love just poured out of me," she says. "However difficult it is, I will take care of my baby. I've got that feeling."

It has meant survival and hope for one more baby girl.

This World: India's Missing Girls will be broadcast on Monday 22 October 2007 at 1900 BST on BBC Two.

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