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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Increasing female feticide in India could spark a demographic crisis where fewer women in society will result in a rise in sexual violence and child abuse as well as wife-sharing, the United Nations warned.
Despite laws banning tests to determine the sex of an unborn child, the killing of female fetuses is common in some regions of India where a preference for sons runs deep.
As a result, the United Nations says an estimated 2,000 unborn girls are illegally aborted every day in India.
This has led to skewed sex ratios in regions like Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh as well as the capital, New Delhi, where a census in 2001 showed there are less than 800 girls for every 1,000 boys.
"The 2001 census was a wake-up call for all of us and much public awareness have been created on female feticide since then," Ena Singh, assistant representative for the United Nations Population Fund in India told Reuters.
"But initial figures show sex ratios are still declining as female feticide is becoming more widespread across the country and it is likely to be worse in the next census in 2011."
In most parts of India, sons are viewed as breadwinners who will look after their parents and carry on the family name, but daughters are viewed as financial liabilities for whom they will have to pay substantial dowries to get married off.
Activists say female feticide is rising because of the availability of technologies like ultrasonography and amniocentesis to determine the gender of fetuses at the request of the parents.
If the fetus is found to be a girl, it is aborted.
As a result, the government says around 10 million girls have been killed by their parents -- either before or immediately after birth -- over the past 20 years.
Experts warn that fewer women will spark a demographic crisis in many parts of country.
"There already is this phenomenon all over the country where there is a lot of sexual violence and abuse against women and children across the country," said Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, a New Delhi based think-tank.
"But when there are less women in the population and more men of the same age group, there is certainly going to be much more demand for women for marriage, for sex and this pressure will certainly increase violence against women."
Experts say practices such as polyandry -- where several men, often brothers, share the same wife are already emerging in areas where there are fewer women.
Brides are also now being sold and trafficked by their parents to areas like Haryana and Punjab where bachelors are being forced to look beyond their own culture, caste and social grouping to find a wife.
Activists say these women have to adapt to an alien culture with a different language, diet, and social norms and are often treated as second-class citizens by the community who view their value based on their ability to produce male off-spring.
"There is this myth that fewer women will give them better status in society but this is a fallacy," said activist Sabu George.
"Women in India are already being treated as commodities to be bought and sold and their plight will worsen as sex ratios continue to decline."