Indian baby girl
Indian baby girl Flickr/ Creative Common

Authorities in India may imprison entire families who pressure their women relatives into aborting female fetuses. Under the new initiative – which seeks to reduce the stigma of women giving birth to baby girls – defendants may be jailed for up to seven years.

The Daily Telegraph newspaper of Britain reported that Indian activists estimate that as many as 8 million unborn females were aborted over the past decade -- as young mothers are pressured to produce only boys.

Under current laws, medical professionals who perform ultrasound tests to determine a baby’s gender can be fined or even jailed, however such punishments are rarely enforced.

Now the government wants to go after the families that coerce young pregnant women into often unwanted abortions.

An official at India’s Ministry for Women and Child Development told the Telegraph: "It is important to make families equally accountable. The families go to clinics performing sex-selection tests, so logically they initiate the process of sex selection and female feticide. We are seeking amendments in the present law to make families equally liable for the offense.”

She added: "Nothing has been decided but it is likely there will be a jail sentence between 6 months to 7 years. The jail term will depend on whether the family was just involved in sex selection or both selection and subsequent abortion of the fetus.”

The United Nations estimates that Indian girls die at twice the rate of boys before they reach the age of five.

In some Indian families, regardless of wealth, a girl is often viewed as a financial burden – in many cases, when a girl is married off, the families of the groom demand a dowry payment (which is illegal in India, but still widely practiced).

The high abortion rate of female fetuses has led to a dramatic gender imbalance in India – over the fifty-year period from 1961 to 2011, the number of girls born per 1,000 boys plunged from 976 to 914, according to the census.

Dr Neelam Singh, a gynecologist in Uttar Pradesh, told Al Jazeera: “I feel the demand [for abortions] every day. Parents say it's important to have a son in the family. They want to keep their family name. I see this as the most heinous kind of discrimination towards a girl child."

In Uttar Pradesh alone, males already outnumber females by almost 10 million.

However, some campaigners believe that if the new proposal turns unto law, it may actually makes things worse for pregnant women, not better.

"This should be looked at with great care,” said Ranjana Kumari of the Council for Social Research to the Telegraph.

“The woman is blamed for producing a female child. She faces discrimination, desertion and to some extent violence. So to talk about punishing the family is a risky proposition. The mother will be blamed because she is the one who has gone for abortion. She will be threatened by her family and husband -- who will you criminalize? It is very difficult to establish. The women will get the blame and be penalized.”

Kumari added: "The fundamentals of female empowerment will be absolutely tampered with. Control over our own bodies is a fundamental right for women.”

The Indian state of Maharashtra may raise the stakes even further by treating ‘sex-selective abortions’ as murder, a crime punishable by a life sentence in prison.

Gender imbalance as a result of the abortions of female fetuses is also a problem in China.

A prominent Australian cleric has condemned such practices as “infamous” social policies and believes they will lead to serious demographic issues in Asia.

Speaking at a meeting of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, an anti-abortion activist, thundered: “Unlike Europe and Japan, where societies aged after they had become rich, in China and India they will follow their more prosperous predecessors into serious demographic decline in a few decades, before wealth spreads across most of the community or at least of all the community.”

Pell, who is also the Archbishop of Sydney, added: “As well as coping with the unpredictable consequences of tens of millions of single men -- they can’t all become Catholic priests -- this must raise serious questions about whether we’re entering the Chinese century.”

The Archbishop cited data indicating that in China there are now 32 million more boys than girls under the age of twenty; while in India there are 7.1 million fewer girls than boys up to the age of six.

Clearly, such an imbalance may lead to significant social strife with millions of men unable to find wives.

Valerie Hudson, a professor of political science at Brigham Young University, told Al Jazeera: "When 15 percent of young adult males in your population will never become head of household or heirs you will alienate these men in ways that cannot be fixed. Poor men will be the biggest losers in this equation.”