Forms of Violence: **Infanticide**

What is infanticide?

Many societies have practised infanticide, which refers to the death of children under 12 months old, including the Greeks, Chinese, Japanese, Inuit, and those living in India, Brazil, England, Italy, and France, among others (de Hikari et al., 2009). One author argues that infanticide has been the most widely used method of population control during much of human history (Harris, 1977). There is often little known about infanticide in specific societies because it is unlikely to be discussed openly, and disclosure is rare. Moreover, death in the first year may go by ‘unnoticed’ by community members and medical professionals (Scheper-Hughes 1993). A distinction is sometimes made between active infanticide, i.e deliberate killing, and passive infanticide through medical, nutritional, physical or emotional neglect.

We do know that, for example, in India and China, infanticide is commonly practiced against girls because of a preference for male children. The UN Study on Violence Against Children (UNVC, 2006) cites a study conducted in India in which 1,000 women were interviewed regarding pregnancy outcomes. It found that 41 per cent of the early neo-natal female deaths were due to female infanticide. One study in the state of Tamil Nadu estimated that eight to ten per cent of infant deaths in 1995 could have been due to female infanticide. The Study concludes: “Further research is required to better understand the nature and extent of the phenomenon across countries” (UNVC, 2006: 52). According to Sahni et al. (2008), infanticides in the first few days are often reported as still-births or not reported at all within the inadequate birth registration system. A preference for sons not only affects infant girls’ chances of being killed but also means there is a greater risk that girls will be ignored, neglected and abused later in life.

Yet infanticide is a significant and recognised problem in other countries too. The Committee on the Rights of the Child in its Concluding Obervations (para. 30) for Benin reveals that the infanticide of so-called "sorcerers’ children”, infants with disabilities, children born in the breech position (where the baby enters the birth canal with the buttocks or feet first rather than with the head first), continues to be practised in some communities. Other reasons for infanticide include “the desire to control the size and composition of the family, maximise reproductive success and ensure social stability” (de Hikari et al. 2009: 353). Parents may choose to invest in offspring who are already healthy while, for example in the United States, second or subsequent children born to young, less educated mothers are at greater risk. Indeed, lack of prenatal care is also a risk factor. 

A study among Aymara men and women in the Andes of Bolivia also found a higher rate of infanticide for girls, and that the justification was both biological (deformities and twinship) and social (illegitimate birth, family size and poverty). The study found that, “Communities generally did not condemn killing when reasons for doing so were biological, but the taking of life for social reasons was rarely justified” (de Hilari et al. 2009). According to the authors of the study, contrary to Western assumptions about filicide (the killing of one’s own child), it is “not necessarily a random, unpredictable crime committed by mentally ill almost all instances, parents who commit filicide simply cannot raise children under the circumstances dictated by their particular position in place and time” (Ibid: 358).

The Committee on the Rights of the Child has made a number of references to infanticide in its Concluding Observations to countries, including the Russian Federation (2005), the Maldives (2007), Niger (2002), China (2005) and India (2000). 

What can be done about it?

Programmes and initiatives will vary according to cultural context. They begin with the education of community members about alternatives to infanticide. According to de Hilari et al. (2009: 352), “at a programme level, planners and implementers should target ethnic groups with high levels of infanticide and train health care workers to detect and address multiple warning signs for infanticide (for example, domestic violence and child maltreatment)”.

While the temptation may be to blame ‘evil’ or ‘unstable’ parents, in particular mothers, initiatives to address the practice must take into account the gendered, economic and social dimensions of the practice. Solutions will thus rarely be straightforward. For example, with respect to female infanticide, Zeng et al. (1993: 298) write:

"The principle of equality between men and women should be more widely promoted through the news media to change the attitude of son preference and improve the awareness of the general public on this issue; the principle should also be reflected in specific social and economic policies to protect the basic rights of women and children, especially female children. [...] Government regulations prohibiting the use of prenatal sex identification techniques for nonmedical purposes should be strictly enforced, and violators should be punished accordingly. […] Family planning programmess should focus on effective public education, good counseling and service delivery, and the fully voluntary participation of the community and individuals to increase contraceptive prevalence, reduce unplanned pregnancies, and minimise the need for an induced abortion." 

Further information can be found on the websites for the Society for the Prevention of Infanticide and Gendercide Watch

For more resources on infanticide, click here



De Hilari C., Condori I, Dearden K. (2009), ‘When is deliberate killing of young children justified? Indigenous interpretations of infanticide in Bolivia’, Social Science & Medicine 68, pp. 352–361.

Harris, M. (1977), Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Cultures, New York: Random House.

Sahni M., Verma N., Narula D., Varghese R.M., Sreenivas V., Puliyel J.M. (2008), ‘Missing girls in India: Infanticide, feticide and made-to-order pregnancies? Insights from hospital-based sex-ratio-at-birth over the last century’, PLoS ONE, 3 (5).

Scheper-Hughes, N. (1993), Death without weeping: the violence of everyday life in Brazil, Berkeley, CA, USA: University of California Press. 

UN Study on Violence Against Children (2006). Accessible at: 

Zeng Yi, Tu Ping, Gu Baochang, Xu Yi, Li Bohua, and Li Yongping (1993), ‘Causes and implications of the increase in China’s reported sex ratio at birth’, Population and Development Review 19 (2). 




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