Female infanticide

Female infanticide is the deliberate killing of newborn female children. In countries with a history of female infanticide, the modern practice of sex-selective abortion is often discussed as a closely related issue. Female infanticide is a major cause of concern in several nations such as China and India. It has been argued that the "low status" in which women are viewed in patriarchal societies creates a bias against females.[1]

In 1978, anthropologist Laila Williamson, in a summary of data she had collated on how widespread infanticide was among both tribal and developed, or "civilized" nations, found that infanticide had occurred on every continent and was carried out by groups ranging from hunter gatherers to highly developed societies and that rather than this practice being an exception, it has been commonplace.[2] The practice has been well documented among the indigenous peoples of Australia, Northern Alaska and South Asia, and Barbara Miller argues the practice to be "almost universal", even in the West. Miller contends that in regions where women are not employed in agriculture and regions in which dowries are the norm then female infanticide is commonplace,[3] and in 1871 in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, Charles Darwin wrote that the practice was commonplace among the aboriginal tribes of Australia.[4]

In 1990, Amartya Sen writing in the New York Review of Books estimated that there were 100 million fewer women in Asia than would be expected, and that this amount of “missing” women “tell[s] us, quietly, a terrible story of inequality and neglect leading to the excess mortality of women.” Initially Sen’s suggestion of gender bias was contested and it was suggested that hepatitis B was the cause of the alteration in the natural sex ratio. However it is now widely accepted that the numerical worldwide deficit in women, is due to gender specific abortions, infanticide and neglect.[5]

In seventh-century Arabia, before Islamic culture became established, female infanticide was widely practiced. This is attributed by scholars to the fact that women were deemed "property" within those societies. Others have speculated that to prevent their daughters from a life of misery, the mothers would kill the child. With the arrival of Islamic rule the practice was made illegal, however Michelle Oberman believes "there is little reason to believe that call was heeded".[6]


Among the Inuit of Northern Alaska and Canada, the practice of female infanticide was a common occurrence.[7]


Matteo Ricci

China has a history of female infanticide spanning 2,000 years.[8] With the arrival of Christian missionaries in the late sixteenth century, the missionaries discovered female infanticide was being practiced-newborns were seen thrown into rivers or onto rubbish piles. In the seventeenth century, Matteo Ricci documented that the practice occurred in several of China's provinces and that the primary reason for the practice was poverty.[9]

In 19th-century China, female infanticide was widespread. Readings from Qing texts show a prevalence of the term ni nü (“to drown girls”), and drowning was the common method used to kill female children. Other methods used were suffocation and starvation.[lower-alpha 1][11] Leaving a child exposed to the elements was another method of killing an infant: the child would be placed in a basket which was then placed in a tree. Buddhist nunneries created "baby towers" for people to leave a child; it is however unclear as to whether the child was being left for adoption or if it had already died and was being left for burial. In 1845 in the province of Jiangxi, a missionary wrote that these children survived for up to two days while exposed to the elements, and that those passing by would pay no attention.[12]

The majority of China's provinces practiced female infanticide during the 19th century. In 1878, French Jesuit missionary Gabriel Palatre[13] collected documents from 13 provinces and the Annales de la Sainte-Enfance (Annals of the Holy Childhood) also found evidence of infanticide in Shanxi and Sichuan. According to the information collected by Palatre, the practice was more widely spread in the southeastern provinces and in the Lower Yangzi River region.[14]

Chinese anti infanticide tract circa 1800.

In China, the practice of female infanticide was not wholly condoned. Buddhism in particular was quite forceful in its condemnation of it. Buddhists wrote that the killing of young girls would bring bad karma; conversely, those who saved a young girl's life either through intervening or through presents of money or food would earn good karma, leading to a prosperous life, a long life and success for their sons. However the Buddhist belief in reincarnation meant that the death of an infant was not final, as the child would be reborn; this belief eased the guilt felt over female infanticide.[8]

The Confucian attitude towards female infanticide was conflicted. By placing value on age over youth, Confucian filial piety lessened the value of children. The Confucian emphasis on the family led to increasing dowries which in turn led to a girl being far more expensive to raise than a boy, causing families to feel they could not afford as many daughters. The Confucian custom of keeping the male within the family meant that the money spent on a daughter's upbringing along with the dowry would be lost when she married, and as such girls were called "money-losing merchandise". Conversely the Confucian belief of Ren led Confucian intellectuals to support the idea that female infanticide was wrong and that the practice would upset the balance between yin and yang.[15]

A white paper published by the Chinese government in 1980 stated that the practice of female infanticide was a "feudalistic evil"[lower-alpha 2] The state's official position on the practice is that it is a carryover from feudal times, and is not a result of the states one-child policy. Jing-Bao Nie argues however that it would be "inconceivable" to believe there is no link between the state's family planning policies and female infanticide.[16] Now,it is a common practice in the world.


The dowry system in India is one given reason for female infanticide; over a time period spanning centuries it has become embedded within Indian culture. Although the state has taken steps[lower-alpha 3] to abolish the dowry system, the practice persists, and for poorer families in rural regions female infanticide and gender selective abortion is attributed to the fear of being unable to raise a suitable dowry and then being socially ostracized.[18]

In 1857, John Cave-Brown documented for the first time the practice of female infanticide among the Jats in the Punjab region. Data from the census during the colonial period and from 2001 propose that the Jat have practiced female infanticide for 150 years. In the Gujarat region, the first cited examples of discrepancies in the sex ratio among Lewa Patidars and Kanbis dates from 1847.[19][20]

In 1789 during British colonial rule in India the British discovered that female infanticide in Uttar Pradesh was openly acknowledged. A letter from a magistrate who was stationed in the North West of India during this period spoke of the fact that for several hundred years no daughter had ever been raised in the strongholds of the Rajahs of Mynpoorie. In 1845 however the ruler at that time did keep a daughter alive after a district collector named Unwin intervened.[21] A review of scholarship has shown that the majority of female infanticides in India during the colonial period occurred for the most part in the North West, and that although not all groups carried out this practice it was widespread. In 1870, after an investigation by the colonial authorities the practice was made illegal.[22]

According to women's rights activist Donna Fernandes, some practices are so deeply embedded within Indian culture it is "almost impossible to do away with them", and she has said that India is undergoing a type of "female genocide".[23] The United Nations has declared that India is the most deadly country for female children, and that in 2012 female children aged between 1 and 5 were 75 percent more likely to die as opposed to boys. The children's rights group CRY has estimated that of 12 million females born yearly in India 1 million will have died within their first year of life.[23] In the Indian state of Tamil Nadu during British rule, the practice of female infanticide in Tamil Nadu among the Kallars and the Todas was reported. More recently in June 1986 it was reported by India Today in a cover story Born to Die that female infanticide was still in use in Usilampatti in southern Tamil Nadu. The practice was mostly prevalent among the dominant caste of the region, Kallars.[24] [25]


In 2011, CNN reported that a relief agency called female infanticide "Pakistan's worst unfolding tragedy" and that of 10 newborns thrown into the dumps of Karachi, nine are female. The NGO Edhi Foundation recorded 1,200 infants dumped in 2010, which was a rise of 200 over 2009.[26]


The Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF) wrote in their 2005 report, Women in an Insecure World, that at a time when the number of casualties in war had fallen, a "secret genocide" was being carried out against women.[27] According to DCAF the demographic shortfall of women who have died for gender related issues is in the same range as the 191 million estimated dead from all conflicts in the twentieth century.[28] In 2012, the documentary It's a Girl: The Three Deadliest Words in the World was released, and in one interview, an Indian woman claimed she had killed eight of her daughters.[27]


  1. "As soon as the little girls are born, they are plunged into the water in order to drown them or force is applied to their bodies in order to suffocate them or they are strangled with human hands. And something even more deplorable is that there are servants who place the girl in the chamber pot or in the basin used for the birth, which is still filled with water and blood and, shut away there, they die miserably. And what is even more monstrous is that if the mother is not cruel enough to take the life of her daughter, then her father-in-law, mother-in-law, or husband agitates her by their words to kill the girl."[10]
  2. "Infanticide through drowning and abandoning female babies is an evil custom left over from feudal times."[16]
  3. Although the Dowry Prohibition Act was passed in 1961 it had the consequence of young brides then being killed.[17]


  1. Jones 1999-2000.
  2. Milner & A.
  3. Einarsdóttir 2004, p. 142.
  4. Darwin 1871, p. 365.
  5. Michael et al. 2013, pp. 97–102.
  6. Oberman 2005, p. 5.
  7. Milner 2000, p. 167.
  8. 1 2 Mungello 2009, p. 134.
  9. Mungello 2009, p. 137.
  10. Mungello 2008, p. 17.
  11. Mungello 2008, p. 9.
  12. Mungello 2008, p. 10.
  13. Harrison 2008, p. 77.
  14. Mungello 2008, p. 13.
  15. Mungello 2009, pp. 136-137.
  16. 1 2 Nie 2005, p. 50.
  17. Parrot & Cummings 2006, p. 160.
  18. Oberman 2005, pp. 5-6.
  19. Vishwanath 2006, p. 278.
  20. Cave-Browne 1857, p. 121.
  21. Miller 1987, pp. 97-98.
  22. Miller 1987, p. 99.
  23. 1 2 Krishnan 2012.
  24. George 1997, pp. 124-132.
  25. Elisabeth Bumiller May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons 0307803430 - 2011 "That assumption was shattered in June 1986, when India Today published an explosive cover story, "Born to Die," which estimated that six thousand female babies had been poisoned to death during the preceding decade in the district ..."
  26. Sayah 2011.
  27. 1 2 Mashru 2012.
  28. Winkler 2005, p. 7.


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  • Darwin, Charles (1871). The Descent of Man: And Selection in Relation to Se (Volume 2 ed.). John Murray. 
  • Einarsdóttir, Jónína (2004). Tired of Weeping: Mother Love, Child Death, and Poverty in Guinea-Bissau (2nd Revised ed.). University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 978-0299201340. 
  • George, Sabu M. (1997). "Female Infanticide in Tamil Nadu, India: From Recognition Back to Denial?". Reproductive Health Matters. 5 (10). JSTOR 3775470. 
  • Harrison, Henrietta (2008). "A penny for the little Chinese: The French Holy Childhood Association in China, 1843- 1951.". American Historical Review. 113 (1): 72–92. doi:10.1086/ahr.113.1.72. 
  • Jones, Adam (1999–2000). "Case Study: Female Infanticide". Gendercide.org. 
  • Krishnan, Murali (20 March 2012). Shamil Shams, ed. "Female infanticide in India mocks claims of progress". Deutsche Welle. 
  • Mashru, Ram (18 January 2012). "It's a girl: The three deadliest words in the world". The Independent. 
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  • Mungello, D. E. (2008). Drowning Girls in China: Female Infanticide in China since 1650. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-0742555310. 
  • Michael, Marc; King, Lawrence; Guo, Liang; McKee, Martin; Richardson, Erica; Stuckler, David (2013). "The Mystery of Missing Female Children in the Caucasus: An Analysis of Sex Ratios by Birth Order". International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health. 39 (2): 097–102. doi:10.1363/3909713. 
  • Milner, Larry S. (2000). Hardness of Heart/Hardness of Life: The Stain of Human Infanticide. University Press Of America. ISBN 978-0761815785. 
  • Miller, Barbara D. (1987). Nancy Scheper-Hughes, ed. Child Survival: Anthropological Perspectives on the Treatment and Maltreatment of Children. Springer. ISBN 978-1556080289. 
  • Milner, Larry S. "A Brief History of Infanticide". Infanticide.org. 
  • Nie, Jing-Bao (2005). Behind the Silence: Chinese Voices on Abortion. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-0742523715. 
  • Oberman, Michelle (2005). "A Brief History of Infanticide and the Law". In Margaret G. Spinelli. Infanticide Psychosocial and Legal Perspectives on Mothers Who Kill (1st ed.). American Psychiatric Publishing. ISBN 1-58562-097-1. 
  • Parrot, Andrea; Cummings, Nina (2006). Forsaken Females: The Global Brutalization of Women. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-0742545793. 
  • Sayah, Reza (20 July 2011). "Killing of infants on the rise in Pakistan". CNN. 
  • Winkler, Theodor H. (2005). "Slaughtering Eve The Hidden Gendercide". Women in an Insecure World (PDF). Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces. 

Further reading

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