In India - the world's second most populous nation (after China) - there is a shortage of girls. A large part of the problem is a perception that girls are a financial burden. This preference for boys has led to the abortion of millions of female fetuses, or in some cases, even the murder of girl babies. VOA's Steve Herman in New Delhi reports.

The girls of India are disappearing. On average there are only about 930 girls for every 1,000 boys.

Boys tend to be preferred because they carry on the family name. But families here also fear the financial burden of girls - when it comes time to pay huge traditional dowries to their daughters' future husbands upon marriage.

Sabu George, an academic and activist, says modern medicine makes it possible for Indian couples to now know the sex of their child before it is born.

"In our country ultrasound is becoming a weapon of mass destruction. Instead of saving lives, what we are finding is that millions and millions of girls are being eliminated before birth," she said.

Using ultrasound tests to determine a fetus's gender is illegal in India. But Corinne Woods of the U.N. Children's Fund says that has hardly stopped the practice.

"What's known is that act is being flouted. You go in for an ultrasound and you're handed a pink candy or a blue candy," she said.

Woods says the pink candy is frequently the signal to request an abortion - especially among India's middle and upper classes, where activist Sabu George sees even more discrimination against women than among the lowest classes.

"Improved socio-economic status of women seems to be becoming very, very anti-girl. In part because the most educated families have the least number of children and the smallest number of children are obtained by eliminating girls," George said.

Researchers say one out of every 25 female fetuses in India is aborted - an estimated half million a year.

Parents who cannot afford expensive tests may take matters into their own hands. In some rural areas girl babies have been reported to be killed immediately after birth - strangled, suffocated or buried alive.

And, often, girls who survive infancy die quite young activists say because they are given less food and medical care than their brothers. Those who do survive will generally get less of an education - in both quality and quantity - than the boys in the family.

Corinne Woods at UNICEF says her organization and others hope to replicate the success they have had with educating villagers about malnutrition to get them to change their attitudes about girls.

"Creating a culture at the village level of the value of girls is key," she said. "And also creating a culture whereby the women's group in the village is saying 'don't do this.' So it's peer pressure."

In the central Indian city of Bhopal a gynecologist and janitor at a hospital were arrested recently following the discovery in a pit behind the medical facility of the remains of an estimated 400 female fetuses and newborn babies.

India's government is proposing to set up orphanages to raise unwanted girls, hoping that will cut down on the number of abortions and infanticides. But some experts express little hope, saying the idea has been tried before and in many of the orphanages the girls suffered terrible neglect.

Researcher Sabu George predicts that despite political and legal measures, attitude changes will be slow in coming.

"As long as this indifference continues our numbers of missing girls will continue to increase. And in the next 10 years we are very likely to exceed China in terms of having the country with the largest number of girls eliminated before birth," George said.

Social scientists are ringing the alarm about the long-term ramifications. They say history has shown societies with a surplus of young men who have no hope of marriage suffer from instability and surges in crime and violence.