Skip to content Skip to cookie consent
Skip to content


The world’s missing women

With the arrival of sex testing – usually through scans – abortion has become the urban equivalent of infanticide, the practice of killing girl babies at birth

1996 Available in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese

Footsteps magazine issues on a wooden desk.

From: Population – Footsteps 27

A discussion about population growth, family planning and other relevant themes

Kala Devi lives with her husband and seven daughters in the slums of Delhi. When I met her, she was pregnant again. Despite the expense, she had been for a scan. Finding it was a boy, the family had brought sweets for everyone to celebrate. If it had been a girl, she might well have had an abortion.

Travelling on the train, it is possible to see adverts offering abortions – legal in India since 1972 – for around 100 rupees (about $3). With the arrival of sex testing – usually through scans – abortion has become the urban equivalent of infanticide, the practice of killing girl babies at birth. There are an estimated 60 million ‘missing’ women in Asia, creating a serious population imbalance.

Boys work for the family, look after their parents in old age and carry on the family name. Girls leave and get married.

But in India it is the dowry system that drives the desire for boys. The practice, though illegal, is still widespread. The bride’s family pays the groom’s family the equivalent of several years’ income for most workers, as a dowry. Dowries can land families in debt for several years.

In 1994 the Indian government made sex determination tests illegal – but still the practice continues. ‘Pay Rs 500 and save Rs 50,000!’ is a popular advertising slogan for having a scan to find the sex of a baby. In other words, pay $15 for a scan which could avoid the risk of having a girl child whose dowry will eventually cost $1,500.

In African and Latin American countries – together with those countries in Asia which are largely Muslim – the situation is very different. Most of these countries have very strict abortion laws at present. But there is pressure for change – particularly in Southern African countries. Christians are concerned but are often not sure how to take action.

The UN conference in Cairo agreed that abortion should not be seen as a form of birth control. Christians around the world face an enormous challenge – to pray, to influence the attitude of society and to influence new laws. Tearfund’s policy document states that ‘abortion is always a tragedy and should never be used as a method of birth control. Those women who do have abortions need to be offered care and compassion.’

There are about 25 million unsafe and illegal abortions carried out every year. UK

China Officially, ten million abortions are carried out in China each year, 97% of which are of girl foetuses. China’s one child policy, begun in 1979, means that many couples who want a son abort girl babies, although it is illegal to tell parents the sex of a child before birth. The result is that there are only 85 girls for every 100 boys.

Russia More than four million abortions are conducted in Russia each year. Despite an increase in family spacing services, abortion is used by many women as a form of birth control.

In the UK one in every five pregnancies ends in abortion. This means over 180,000 abortions a year – seven times the figure in 1968 when abortion was legalised.

Tim Chester is Tearfund’s Public Affairs Officer.

Share this resource

If you found this resource useful, please share it with others so they can benefit too.

Subscribe to Footsteps magazine

A free digital and print magazine for community development workers. Covering a diverse range of topics, it is published three times a year.

Sign up now - Subscribe to Footsteps magazine

Cookie preferences

Your privacy and peace of mind are important to us. We are committed to keeping your data safe. We only collect data from people for specific purposes and once that purpose has finished, we won’t hold on to the data.

For further information, including a full list of individual cookies, please see our privacy policy.

  • These cookies are necessary for the website to function and cannot be switched off in our systems.

  • These cookies allow us to measure and improve the performance of our site. All information these cookies collect is anonymous.

  • These allow for a more personalised experience. For example, they can remember the region you are in, as well as your accessibility settings.

  • These cookies help us to make our adverts personalised to you and allow us to measure the effectiveness of our campaigns.