The below text is copyright, “Broken Bodies – Broken Dreams: Violence against Women Exposed.”:
“According to the wisdom of various Asian proverbs, to have a son is “good economics and good politics” and “as essential as taking food at least once a day.” A boy’s birth is attended by a variety of celebrations and likened to “a sunrise in the abode of gods.” For girls, however, the axioms are very different. Being labelled an abu-banat in Arabic is to be insulted as the “father of daughters”, and one adage in India likens raising a daughter to “watering the neighbor’s garden.” In certain parts of Pakistan, an “endearment” for daughters roughly translates as “May you die.””
The expendable girl child
Around the globe, many girls die because of the lesser value accorded to them. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that more than one million female babies succumb each year as a result of inequitable access to healthcare, differential feeding and other forms of neglect. Some researchers put the global number of “missing” females – those who should currently be living but are not because of discriminatory practices – to between 50 million and 100 million, telling “a terrible story of inequality and neglect.”
Existing in various forms and across many cultures, son preference included a broad spectrum of customs and rituals, the foundations which are favoritism towards male children with concomitant disregard for daughters. In almost all cultures, it is the sons who carry the family name, making male progeny essential to the propagation of the family linage. In many societies, a daughter is destined in marriage to live with her husband’s family. The responsibility for the care of aging parents often falls to sons, who not only support their parents in their dotage, but also perform their parents’ burial rights, especially in communities throughout Asia and Africa. At the very least, not having a son is a source of vulnerability for parents in this life; at its worst, it may prevent mothers and fathers from “securing peace in the next world.”
While scientific data on the prevalence and effects of discriminatory practices against females is very difficult to obtain, population sex ratios, birth sex ratios and infant – and child-mortality rates often are used as indicators to assess son preference. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), regions where son preference is most apparent include Asia (China, Bangladesh, India, Korea, Nepal, Pakistan, Taiwan), the Middle East (Iran, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey) and most parts of Africa (Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Cameroon, Liberia, Madagascar, Senegal), as well as Latin America (Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay).
Although the most typical demonstration of son preference is the neglect of daughters, its most extreme form is female infanticide, or the intentional killing of baby girls. Infanticide of either, sex, whether for economic, social or other reasons, has been prevalent across cultures throughout history. Even today, infants under one year of age in the United Kingdom are “four times as likely to be victims of homicide as any other age group – almost all killed by their parents.”
Infanticide specifically targeting females, however, has largely been supplanted – at least for those who have access to modern technology – by preventing the birth of girls through sex-identification testing and sex-selective abortion, representing “a substitution of prenatal discrimination for postnatal discrimination.” Most pronounced in India, China, Korea and Taiwan, much of the contemporary research on pre-birth sex selection, as well as its historical cousin, female infanticide, focuses on the world’s two most populous countries: India and China.
Prebirth sex selection and female infanticide in India
Based on extrapolations from the 1991 census, approximately 35 million to 45 million females were concluded “missing” in India, a finding which repeated itself in the 2001 tally. In that year, 933 women were enumerated for every 1,000 men. Ratios in specific states in the north of India were even more dramatic and as low as 861 women per 1,000 men. Some of those among the missing are never even born: An estimated 106,000 female fetuses are aborted in India every year following sex-identification testing. A significantly lower number may be killed as newborns – poisoned, suffocated, burned or buried alive. According to one father, “If we kill female babies immediately after their birth, the chance of having a male son is very high.”
Outlawed by British in 1870, female infanticide still retains a foothold in some areas northwest India, where the practice has a long history. In a human rights survey in 2000, the State Department of the United States estimated that there are 10,000 cases of female infanticide annually in India. One traditional practice was to feed unwanted girls milk laced with poison or shredded paddy husk, the latter slitting a baby’s tender throat as it was swallowed. In the face of modern postmortem examination technology, however, today’s methods have become more strategic. A women in Tamil Nadu dispassionately explained how things have changed: “We no longer kill the girl baby with the poisonous sap of the oneander plant, as traces of the poison can be detected. We make the death appear natural. For instance, we starve the baby to death or asphyxiate it.”
Female infanticide, however, has not been perpetrated with complete indifference. Elaborate traditional ceremonies were designed to absolve parents of wrongdoing. According to one Indian custom, after an infant girl is killed, the parents bury her in the room in which she was born and plaster the floor with cow dung to purify the site. Thirteen days after the death, a village priest – a Brahman – must cook a meal using ghee (clarified butter) and eat it in the room. By doing so, he “takes the sin of killing the baby upon himself.”
Given this moral ambivalence towards killing girl infants, it is not surprising that modern methods of fetal sex identification and pregnancy termination have replaced infanticide as the preferred way for some families in India to control the number of daughters they have. Abortion under certain circumstances was legalized in India in 1971. Since then, it has become a burgeoning business, especially for the purposes of sex selection. From 1982 to 1987, the number of sex-determination clinics in Bombay grew from fewer than 10 to 248. One study from that period revealed that of 8,000 abortions performed in Bombay in a single year, 7,999 were female fetuses. In a study of one Bombay hospital, 430 out of 450 female fetuses were aborted, while none of 250 male fetuses were – even when there was evidence of a genetic problem.
Birth order also plays its part in sex-selective abortions. The higher the birth order, the greater likelihood a female fetus will be aborted. While it is generally accepted that one girl is needed “to light the lamp” in each home, a second or third daughter might be viewed as a liability.
Another national legislation criminalizing sex-determination testing was introduced in the mid-1990s, recent research suggests that sex-selective abortion continues to flourish in India as a method for controlling family composition. Some experts argue that disproportionate sex ratios where men increasingly outnumber women will eventually elevate the status of women by creating a greater demand for wives, leading to positive reforms in the dowry system in India. Others contend, however, that sustained sex-ratio imbalances do “not improve the status of women, [but rather] … reflect it.” In the last century, such imbalances increased steadily from 972 women per 1,000 men in 1901 to 930 women per 1,000 in 1971. For the following 30 years, they remained virtually unchanged, fluctuating between 927 and 933. In the meantime, dowry payments have increased significantly, and dowry crimes and many other forms of violence against women do not appear to be abating.
Beyond perpetruating gender-based discrimination, sex-selective abortion triggers a host of other negative repercussions for women and girls. Because the primary modes of sex determination among the lower classes are amniocentesis and ultrasound – the first unavailable and the second unreliable until the second trimester – sex selection often leads to late-term abortions, which in turn can cause an array of reproductive-health problems for pregnant women. In addition, more girls may be wed at a younger age due to a scarcity of marriagable women, further contributing to the poor status of women as these young brides are less likely to complete their education and are less likely to suffer increased morbidity and mortality associated with early child-bearing.
The declining sex ration could also stimulate an increase in prostitution, as well as other forms of exploitation and violence against women. In India, women reportedly have been “imported”, internally and from Bangladesh, to areas where sex ratios are dramatically low. According to one account, these women are “treated as slaves, and subjected to physical and sexual abuse.” Whether or not trafficking and other forms of violence against women can be attributed directly to sex-ratio imbalances remains an area for further investigation.
All text is copyright (IRIN). Full permission is given for reproduction for non-commercial purposes.