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Where Have South Asian Girls Gone?
[Opinion] Sex-selective abortion is a social issue not a legal issue
Arati Singh (arati)     Print Article 
Published 2007-07-24 11:46 (KST)   
Some four months ago, my analysis on abortion as a religious or women's rights issue invited heaps of comments and suggestions to my reporter's desk in OhmyNews. As a feminist, I opined that abortion should be a very private decision of a woman as it can save women from unwanted motherhood and the related consequences. Now, I read the news and report how in South Asia abortion plays a major part in determining the fate of a female fetus. Sex-selective abortion, as the United Nations Development Fund for Women puts it, is occurring at very alarming rate across South Asia.

Sex-selective abortion is prenatal discrimination against the fetus of an undesired sex by the practice of various methods of abortions. Such practices are more common in some places where cultural norms value male children over female children.

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South Asia, however, is not the first region to practice sex-selective abortion with an aim to eliminate the birth of a daughter in preference for a son. Mainland China, South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore initiated this practice some 20-30 years ago. The consequence of this practice is that now all of these nations have an imbalanced sex ratio. There are 113 males per 100 females in South Korea and it is estimated that by 2020 there could be more than 35 million young "surplus males" in China.

In South Asia, abortion is legalized under different circumstances. Broadly, these circumstances can be classified as mother's mental or physical incapability, rape, deformed child or socio-economic conditions. Sex-selective abortion has not been recognized as a reason for abortion so far. However, it is the most important reason for which abortion is carried out in most of the cases in South Asia. "The reasons for abortion may be given different by the families but the hidden and the true reason is to eliminate the undesired sex," said an officer working in the Regional Office for South Asia-UNICEF, in an interview with BBC.

Among the South Asian countries, sex-selective abortion is most rampant and consequential in India. According to the 2001 census, the sex ratio in India is 107.8 males per 100 females, up from 105.8 males per 100 females in 1991. Indira Patel, an Indian sociologist, claims that 96 percent of aborted fetuses in India are female and that over the last 10 years 20 million female fetuses have been aborted. In the next 13 years, there will be 25 million more young males than females.

Pakistan and Afghanistan have significant numbers of sex-selective abortions but the situation is not as acute as in India. In both countries, the sex ratio among those who are 16 years or younger is 1.8 male to 1 female, which means the male population is growing slowly but quite steadily. In these countries abortion is legally permitted only if the health of a woman is not suitable for giving birth. "But most of the time abortion takes place for the desire to have son," says an anonymous doctor with BBC. She furthers adds, interestingly enough, that sex-selective abortion is more common among middle-class and wealthy Pakistani and Afghani families than among the poor and the uneducated. This may be true due to the associated fear and inaccessibility of abortion among poor people. However, the discrimination that girl children face is an altogether different issue.

In Nepal, where abortion under any circumstances is legal and permitted, sex-selective abortions might be quite firm there too. Nepal is a country that celebrates the birth of a baby boy, as in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh; therefore, elimination of an undesired fetus from a mother's womb must be quite common and regular though it is very difficult to get reports on this particular issue from Nepal.

The vital point here is that the criminalization of abortion under any circumstances is often the solution for this devastating practice of selective infanticide. I disagree with many experts who see the criminalization of abortion as an answer.

Sex-selective abortion doesn't have its roots in the legalization of abortion, though indeed it might have been enhanced by this provision. The root cause of this infanticide goes back to Hindu and Muslim religions, which glorify manhood. In both religions, woman are demeaned and belittled so much that giving birth to a female signifies incapability and inferiority. Being a mother of a son, however, brings social prestige and recognition to the family. An ever-recognized feminist, Kamala Bhasin, says there is a big gulf of differences between parents of a son and parents of a daughter.

The root cause also goes back to the South Asian culture of dowry and the joint family. At the time of marriage, the girl's family has to pay a heavy "groom price" in the form of cash, jewels and gifts to the boy's family. The best way to escape this social compulsion is by not giving birth to a daughter. Most South Asian middle-class families prefer to pay US$50 for an abortion than $10,000 on the daughter's marriage.

South Asian family culture requires the son to stay with his parents after marriage. The son and daughter-in-law are expected to look after the parents through their old age; therefore, families prefer sons, who are like "insurance" for old age. Daughters, on the other hand, are "non-profitable investments." After marriage, they are socially not obliged to take care of their parents.

People must be apprised of discriminational religious values and dogmas, though the task involves high risk due to ingrained social sentiments. Gender awareness can be initiated not only at the grassroots level (as has been done in India, Nepal and Bangladesh) but throughout every class of people.

The system of dowry can be strictly criminalized. It is surprising that despite being recognized as a social evil, no South Asian country has succeeded in effectively controlling the dowry system. Restricting abortion can ensure the birth of a girl child but it will not stop the growing death rates, the harassment by in-laws, the suicides or the divorces related to dowry. Nor will it ensure opportunities for a girl to have better education, food and employment. Sex-selective abortion is a social issue not a legal issue.

The United Nations International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo, Egypt, in 1994, recognized sex-selective abortion and infanticide, along with discrimination against female children, as a social crime. Thirteen years after, the situation looks worse than before. These days, a state-run television in India airs a message with a tag "celebrate on the birth of a daughter." Definitely, girls must be welcomed as their growing absence can make South Asia face worse forms of inevitable crimes such as violence, including trafficking, kidnapping, prostitution and rape. The development workers and governments in South Asia now cannot afford to lose time in creating an environment where the birth of any baby, boy or girl, is celebrated.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Arati Singh

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