For many Indian families, gender reveals are less pink or blue parties and more future financial announcements. Baby girls are “expenditures”; baby boys are “investments.”
In communities where children work, girls generally remain at home while boys can earn money at young ages. After their weddings, while sons traditionally stay in the homes they grew up in, daughters move into their in-laws’ households, to whom their parents can pay lavish dowries (including cars or townhouses).
Although dowries are illegal, a punishable offense, and seen as perpetuating poverty for the already poor and the lower middle income groups, they are nevertheless still widely practiced across the majority of the country, regardless of religion. While Christian families may not loudly champion dowries, many continue to practice it under the guise of culture.
Today, India has 9 million “missing” girls in two decades due to sex-selective abortions, according to a Pew Research Center’s 2022 report.
Despite the current significant disparity, researchers found that bias toward sons is waning among all religious groups in India and say that the annual number of missing girls has dropped from about 480,000 in 2010 to about 410,000 in 2019. Though Christians comprise 2.3 percent of India’s population and “only” 0.6 percent of the missing, Pew nevertheless estimates that Christians account for 53,000 of the country’s missing girls.
Are Indian Christians immune from the cultural preference for a boy? Five Christian leaders weighed in on the pressures they see Christians in their own communities experience and what changes, if any, the church has made on this issue over time. CT also spoke to two Christian leaders from the Khasi community, “one of the world’s last matrilineal societies,” about the special place that girls hold in their families and community.
Seema Justin, principal of the Wesleyan English Medium School in Vapi, a city of roughly a quarter-million people in southern Gujarat. Christians make up 0.6 percent of the entire population.
The head of each family, Christian or non-Christian, is a male, and it is the son who carries the family lineage forward. Families who have only boys do yearn for a daughter, because it is a joy to bring up a daughter. But likely more than one daughter is probably not welcomed, whereas more than one son continues to be celebrated.
Though dowry is prevalent in Gujarat, some families “demand” dowries, whereas in others families it is “understood.” If the groom-to-be is a professional, perhaps a doctor or engineer, his family may demand a luxury car or a bungalow. Conservative Christians can fall into any of these categories, but then there are liberal and mature Christians who do not encourage the practice of dowry because of their fear of God and their obedience to God’s Word. Their preference is a daughter-in-law with strong Christian beliefs, who is well educated with good values. Such Christians are on the rise in Gujarat.
But then there are extreme cases, like one of my Christian female friends who grew up in a family with two sisters. Because her mother had three daughters, my friend’s Hindu neighbors believed she would only give birth to daughters herself. She lived with her husband’s family, and when she gave birth to her first child who was a girl, she faced a lot of opposition from her mother-in-law—a practicing Christian—who belittled her and treated her poorly.
During her second pregnancy, my friend’s mother-in-law did not offer her proper food or care. She had to sneak fruit to the toilet and eat it there. Her mother-in-law tried to force her to get a prenatal sex determination and subsequent abortion if the fetus was a girl. However, this friend did not go through with the sex determination and thus spent each day of her pregnancy with struggle and fear as to what would be her fate and the fate of her daughters, if she bore another daughter. After praying and pleading to the Lord to give her a boy child, she did have a boy baby, and she was spared the torment her mother-in-law would have inflicted upon her for having two girls.
“It was only the Word of God that sustained me,” said the woman (who requested anonymity), confirming the story to CT. “If I was not a Christian, I would have committed suicide.”
Suja Phinehas, vice president of Gilgal Mission Trust, an organization that serves lower-caste people through social development projects in the city of Pollachi in Tamil Nadu. Christians make up about 4 percent of the population of 123,000.
Though not spoken about openly, Christian women face pressures to give birth to a male child. If they are not able to give the family a boy child, they may be forced to break the marriage and step out so that the family could get their son remarried. Sometimes women who don’t give birth to male children are denied any part of the family inheritance.
I am a counselor for families, and during my counseling sessions, after the couple has explained the pressures on them for not having a girl child, I counsel them through the Bible and tell them that God created both male and female in his own image and remind them that both the girl child and the boy child are a blessing from the Lord. After speaking to the couple, I also speak to the parents of the groom. In most cases it is the mother of the husband who needs major counseling, as she is the one insisting on having a grandson who carries on the family and the family name.
Most of my counselees have several questions and insecurities for the future of a girl child, especially about protecting the girl from sexual harassment. There are some mothers who were sexually abused as little girls and do not want their daughters to endure this. They state examples of families and friends who had three or four girl children and have lost everything when they had to pay their daughters’ dowries. Other parents’ concerns are financial: A boy child can be an earning member at an early age, but most families do not send girls out to work.
It is easier to convince Christian families as compared to non-Christians. About 75 percent of what I share with them are biblical examples and Bible verses, like 1 Corinthians 11:12, which reads, “For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.”
I also give illustrations and examples from real life, including stories of families where the son has not taken care of his old parents and where a girl child stood by her parents in their old age. I also tell them how a woman alone is gifted to give birth and how valuable she is.
Change is slowly coming, but it will take a long time for each family to understand and for the outlook of the society to change.
Raaj Mondol, a longtime advocate on the issue of girl children, Delhi. The capital city is home to about 22 million people, but less than 1 percent of them are Christian.
Preference for a son is a part of Christian homes. The Indian church has never acted counter culturally in any way but has always been influenced by what is happening at the societal level, so a lot of these evils, whether it be the practice of dowry, practice of son preference, or domestic violence, are found even in the churches.
No one speaks about these things in the church because of a culture of silence. Sometimes, we even justify these things based on our own interpretation of the Scripture. Some people wrongly quote Psalm 127:3–5, saying that sons are a heritage from the Lord, children a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one's youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.
We are not discipling people culturally. Our discipling is in terms of spiritual life: that is, how to lead your devotional life; how to read your Bible; how to pray, fast, and evangelize. So Christians continue to follow what they have heard and followed from the life they lived before accepting Christ. When it comes to cultural mindset, there is not much shaping or transformation taking place.
The preference for sons and the practice of dowry are interlinked. South India has a huge practice of dowry even among Christians, and I have heard that some churches even receive a tithe from the dowry the groom’s family gets. In those instances, nobody in the church is going to speak out against it. Widely accepted practice of dowry pressurizes Christian parents to save for dowry for their daughters. All these things also are factors that lead to daughter avoidance, and they cannot be seen as one apart from the other.
These problems arise from how we view women in our society. If we view them as inferior to men and as a second-class citizen or a burden on the father’s head, we will continue these practices. Such mindsets have further consequences, like domestic violence, assault, or harassing or accosting her in public.
We as a church have in a way reinforced these teachings, by using the Scripture to project patriarchal supremacy of the man over woman. And it is not easy for the church to preach otherwise without facing resistance.
Christians are certainly better than the other religions when it comes to gender imbalance because there are various examples of Christians who do not practice these social evils. But I would not credit that to the church sermons but to the individual’s walk with the Lord, their own understanding of taking the Word and letting it refine us and change us. I will credit that to the exposure that Christians are having due to education and good books and the willingness to look outside the box.
Sicily Johnson, Indian Evangelical Mission, Rajasthan Gujarat border. The Rajput Garasia have an estimated population of 465,000, and less than 0.2 percent (around 1,000) of them are Christian.
I worked for 10 years among the Rajput Garasia tribe and especially women. Wives have been beaten by their husbands for delivering a girl child. A man is allowed to have more than one wife if his first wife is either infertile or bears him no sons.
Girls are usually not sent to school but take the goats to graze in the forest. They are married at an early age of 12 or 13. Only boys are sent to the village school, and for further studies they must travel some distance to a town. There were no Christians in the village in 1983, when I went there. We worked very hard to impart moral values among these women, teach them hygiene, and convince them to educate their daughters. We have consistently taught them to treat their daughters as they treated their sons and to not grieve the birth of a girl child.
We opened a hostel so girls who wanted to continue their education would have a place to stay. Though this hostel is open for the Christians and the non-Christians, most of the hostelers come from Christian parents. These accommodations have helped families to continue their daughters’ education. We have a girl who graduated from university, and there are about 65 total girls who completed their 12th and 10th grades last year (2022).
The women of the tribe are now willing to send their daughters for education. They do not want their daughters to suffer the way they did. The Christian women no longer find their daughters to be a burden but count them a blessing.
There is this lady in the village who was impressed by the story of the poor widow who put two small copper coins and Jesus taught his disciples through her example (Mark 12:41–44), so much so that she became the first believer of the tribe. She said, “Your God is so nice. He is noticing the poor lady. I want to know more about this God.” We told her about Jesus’ love and care, and she accepted Christ.
There are about a thousand believers in the village today.
Living in an urban setting now, I see that the Christians are no longer what they used to be a few decades ago. There is more stigma around abortion, Christian couples are aware of the concept of sin, and I know a couple who decided to go for abortion 30 years ago and still feel guilty for taking a life. My husband and I led them through the process of repentance and seeking God’s forgiveness and also forgiving themselves for this horrendous crime.
Mismola Mawlong, women’s ministry leader at Mawkhar Presbyterian Church Shillong, and Leaderwell Pohsngap, former principal of Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, from Shillong. The capital of Meghalaya is home to 196,000 people, and nearly half (47 percent) are Christians.
Mawlong: Descent in our community is traced through the mother’s lineage. The children receive the mother’s title (last name), while the husband continues to keep his. Wealth and property pass from mothers to daughters. Unlike the culture in the other parts of India, the husband moves into his wife’s home, especially the youngest daughter who is responsible to look after her aging parents.
If the girl’s family is a wealthy family, property is divided between all the girl children, but the largest share belongs to the youngest daughter, and she will continue to occupy the ancestral house. If the family is not a wealthy family, then the house and the little property will go to the youngest daughter only. Sons might get a share, depending upon the wealth, but not as equal as the daughters. Because of our customs, sons do not like to take their share from their parents’ house and carry it into their wives’ houses—like my own husband who got a share from his parents, but he refused to take it and bring it to our house.
Although it may sound like these arrangements mean that our society is a women-dominated society, men in no way are regarded less in our community. Men are the breadwinners, and women are supposed to take care of the children and raise them up. Men look after the entire family, the house, the property and take care of the health of the family. Children revere their father. Traditionally, the man is honored by his mother’s family and, as an uncle, is consulted in every decision of the family.
When it comes to heads of the family, the Khasi custom is very beautiful. There are two crowns, not one. Both husband and wife are the head of the family.
We celebrate the birth of both a girl and a boy child equally. No doubt that a girl would inherit the family and become the mother of the family, and thus she is a must. But we need to have both a boy and girl to make a family, so we welcome both.
Leaderwell Pohsngap: There is no history available as to when this tribe began to follow the matrilineal structure, so we would like to believe that it is from the very beginning. Definitely the matrilineal system followed in the Khasi tribe is in accordance with the Word of God. Sometimes when I read the Bible in Genesis, I begin to think that it is mostly matrilineal. It says that a man shall leave his father and mother and be united to his wife (Gen. 2:24). In a way that’s what the Khasi culture follows. When a man marries, he moves in with his wife’s family and the children then follow the name of the mother. The Jewish tribe followed the matrilineal system.