India's children's minister has called for mandatory tests to determine the sex of an unborn child in an effort to counter high levels of female foeticide.

But women's rights activists have described her suggestion as "shocking" and say legalising the tests would only increase the problem.

Male babies are preferred in some regions of India, and abortions are sometimes carried out if families discover the sex is female. A 2011 study in the British medical journal The Lancet found that as many as 12 million girls had been aborted in the past three decades in India.

Maneka Gandhi, the women and child development minister, said in a speech on Monday that recording the sex of a foetus from the start of pregnancy and then monitoring its progress would be more effective than banning prenatal sex tests.

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The tests are officially illegal in India in a policy designed to stop unborn girls being aborted by parents who would prefer a boy.

"When a woman becomes pregnant it should be registered and that way you will be able to monitor right until the end whether she gave birth or not and what happened," Gandhi said, during a speech in the western city of Jaipur.

"Every pregnant woman should be compulsorily told whether it is a boy or girl."

Parents and doctors can be jailed for up to five years for requesting or conducting a prenatal sex test, but they are still thought to be widespread, particularly in impoverished rural areas.

'Enormous pressure'

But women's rights groups said a change of policy would be a mistake and result in women from rural areas coming under even more pressure from their families to have an abortion.

"This is not a very productive idea. In fact it could make things worse," Ranjana Kumari, director of the Delhi-based Centre for Social Research think-tank, told AFP.

"This might work among educated women, but not for large numbers of women living in rural areas who are still under enormous pressure to live up to the social and cultural traditions to have a boy."


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The All India Democratic Women's Association, a Delhi-based advocacy group, said Gandhi's proposal was "shocking" and appeared to try to absolve the medical profession of responsibility for foeticide levels.

"It will fuel a proliferation of illegal facilities for getting rid of unwanted female foetuses," the organisation said in a statement.

"What is required is a continued and stringent implementation of the present act, which has clearly acted as a deterrent wherever it has been used effectively.

"The Modi government must not pander to the interests of commercial interests at the expense of the girl child."

India had 940 women for every 1,000 men, according to the last official census published in 2011, up from 933 in 2001 in a trend that some campaigners say vindicates the current policy of banning sex tests.


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Source: AFP