Discrimination begins before birth
The poor gender ratio continues to challenge planners and experts because women are assigned a peripheral role in the success story of the nation. It is time to change strategies and approaches
Since Amartya Sen first brought global attention in the 1990s to Asia’s “missing women,” the problem of prenatal sex selection has worsened in a number of countries in the region, with some reporting up to 25 per cent more births of boys than girls.
In recent decades, the issue of increasingly imbalanced sex ratios at birth has caused concern, starting in a number of Asian countries, but now also spreading beyond that region. Today, an estimated 117 million women across Asia are “missing.” Although this trend is concentrated in countries of South Asia and South-east Asia (India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China and Vietnam), we are now seeing an emerging prevalence of the problem in some countries of Eastern Europe and the Caucasus.
Prenatal sex selection is driven by deep-rooted cultural norms that favour sons and place a low value on girls. Son preference stems in part from socioeconomic influences and traditions where only sons inherit property and are expected to care for ageing parents, conduct funeral rites and carry on the family name. Daughters are considered a burden by some as they may require dowries and “be of no benefit” to their families once they are married. These cultural and economic forces create huge pressures on women to produce sons, which ultimately affect women’s sexual and reproductive lives with implications for their health and survival. It also puts women in a position where they are forced to perpetuate the lower status of girls through son preference.
Regardless of its origins or the forces that perpetuate it, prenatal sex selection is gender discrimination at its worst.
Tens of millions of female foetuses have been aborted over the past generation, as new technologies have made it easier for parents to identify the sex of a foetus. The resulting skewed sex ratios at birth have been especially pronounced in countries, such as India, even though such prenatal sex screening is illegal.
In addition to being a symptom and perpetuator of extreme gender inequality, prenatal sex selection brings many other ills to society. For example, many men in India and China will soon face the prospect of not finding brides. The sex imbalance in these and other countries threatens to increase trafficking of women, and this in turn increases women’s vulnerability to domestic and sexual violence, all of which reinforce inequalities and can propel discrimination for generations.
Much has been undertaken in affected regions, by governments, civil society, communities and academia, to halt the trends and address the human rights, social policy and public health dimensions. At the international level, the issue was addressed in the Programme of Action of the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development. UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, has focused on the issue since the 1991, first at country and then, regional levels.
UNFPA has been working with a broad spectrum of stakeholders, including community networks that advocate against sex selection and sensitize health-care providers, and faith-based organizations that help raise awareness of the problem and how it reinforces discriminatory attitudes towards women and girls.
Many countries have undertaken extensive measures to meet the challenge through actions to reduce the preference of sons. For example, conditional cash transfers for parents of daughters, advocacy campaigns, or policies to empower women and improve their access to social security schemes, including pension systems.
Improving gender equality and enforcing national laws and policies on banning sex- selective procedures requires urgent concerted efforts by all segments of government and society as a matter of rights and for charting each country’s own development process. It requires strong political commitment as well as actions downstream at the community level to address complex socio-economic and cultural realities. And we must thank the groups and partners that have led and rallied to India’s campaign against sex selection.
We must accelerate our efforts and give priority to actions and policies that foster norms of gender equality and demonstrate a zero tolerance for prenatal sex selection.
Gender equality is at the very heart of each country’s development process. Empowered women and girls contribute to the health and productivity of families and communities and improve prospects for the next generations. Empowered women also propel economic growth. Therefore, we must all join forces to ensure that sex selection is understood as discrimination against women and girls and to put a stop to it once and for all. I reaffirm UNFPA’s commitment to join hands with governments, civil society and other partners in their efforts to reduce and ultimately eliminate this harmful, discriminatory practice. (Courtesy: UN Information Centre for India and Bhutan)
— Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin is an Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director, UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund.