Gender inequality is a prominent issue in India’s culture.

There is a famous Sanskrit phrase that bestows India’s greatest blessing upon a new bride. In 1990, the American journalist Elizabeth Bumiller published a bestselling book, named for the blessing, about the lives of contemporary Indian women: May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons.

Bumiller wrote that the India she visited during the Eighties was a country where the birth of a daughter was often viewed as a social and economic calamity. As in other parts of Asia, the practice of dowry had trickled down through the social classes – for economically vulnerable families, the price of marrying a daughter could be several years’ wages. The price of two daughters could be economic ruin. Even among the prosperous, the birth of a son was a cause for celebration, and a daughter, disappointment and social shame.

Twenty years is a long time in economics. Since the liberalisation policies of the nineties, India has experienced unprecedented economic growth, with its economy now ranking fourth in the world in terms of purchasing power. Population has also continued to grow, on track to exceed that of China within 20 years. But cultural habits die hard, adapting to economic and social change. Census data from 1991 shows that for every thousand male children aged below seven, there were 945 females. In the 2011 census the all-India child gender ratio has fallen again, as it has in every census since the sixties, to just 914. In some states, there are fewer than 85 daughters for every hundred of India’s sons.

The causes of this growing imbalance speak volumes about the status of women in much of Indian society. It would seem that the first hurdle in a female life is simply being born: the global media has seized upon the practice of sex-selective abortion, still common despite a vocal campaign and prohibitive legislation during the mid-nineties that drove the market for foetal gender determination underground. The ultrasound technology needed to determine the gender of a foetus is readily available, especially for the wealthy urban classes with access those doctors willing to turn a blind eye to the law, earning a reported $200 million per year from illegal sex-selection procedures. A recent Lancet report showed that the decline in birth gender ratio since 1990 was more pronounced among wealthier and more educated mothers, especially in second births where the first-born child was a girl.