NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemned the blight of India's dwindling number of girls on Thursday, launching a campaign to address the problem the United Nations has said amounts to a national emergency.
"In our neighbourhood, girls are commonly killed in their mothers' wombs and we don't feel the pain," Modi said in a speech in the northern state of Haryana.
"We don't have a right to kill our daughters," he said.
Despite being banned, selective abortion is a growing problem that results in a steady decline in the number of girls being born even as the economy has grown and other social indicators like maternal mortality have improved.
The "Beti Bachao Beti Padhao" (Save the Daughter, Teach the Daughter) campaign is aimed at improving India's child sex ratio - the number of girls born for every 1,000 boys - and gender equality through access to education.
India's child sex ratio dropped from 964 in 1971 to a low of 918 in 2011, according to U.N. data. Between 2001 and 2011, the decline was seen in more than two-thirds of the districts in the nation.
A 2011 study published in the British medical journal the Lancet found that as many as 12 million Indian girls may have been selectively aborted between 1980 and 2010.
This trend, in a deeply patriarchal society where daughters can be seen as a financial liability, has led to an uptick in crimes including rape, trafficking and the emergence of "wife-sharing" in villages where the sex ratio is low, experts say.
"For every 1,000 male child births, there should be 1,000 girl child births," Modi said on Thursday, adding that placing importance on sons above daughters is "a psychological illness of the entire country".
The problem is worse in urban areas, numbers show. In 2011, Delhi, the capital region, had one of the lowest child sex ratios of any state, with 871 girls born for every 1,000 boys.
New Delhi is part of a swathe of northern India where pre-birth sex selection has been especially pervasive, including Haryana, where Modi kicked off the new campaign.
"Beti Bachao Beti Padhao" will focus on 100 gender critical districts where the child sex ratio is particularly low by enforcing existing laws that criminalize pre-birth gender selection, and by improving girls' school attendance, among other measures.
Reporting by Krista Mahr and Aditya Kalra; Editing by Douglas Busvine