You have probably heard this line a couple of times throughout your life. It can seem like a piece of harmless humor, but it’s poking fun at a very real issue through biting satire.
You may even know that this line comes from the Dictator (2012), where Sacha Baron Cohen plays an autocratic ruler of a fictional middle eastern nation.
With this crass one liner, Sacha Baron Cohen shed some spotlight on an issue that, although important, few are aware of.
Sex selective abortions, where the primary motive of abortion is the gender of the fetus, is not only real, but shockingly common.
In 2010, around 124 million women were ‘missing’: they had been aborted by parents who didn’t want a female child. According to an UNFPA article, this number is predicted to climb to 142 million women by 2020.
Why Sex Selection is a Global Issue
Sex selective feticide is not a new phenomenon. In certain countries, like India and China, the sex ratio of men to women have often been unnaturally high, often reaching a ratio of 130 boys per 100 girls, whereas 106 boys to 100 girls is the norm. This reflects a clear preference for sons over daughters.
The availability of technological tools such ultrasounds have played into this macabre preference. When parents become aware of the gender of a foetus during an ultrasound procedure or similar methods of prenatal screening, those who prefer sons may then opt for a sex selective abortion.
“My husband didn’t want another girl. When I was five months pregnant I was forced to abort. (In his eyes) girls would depart and the money would leave with them,” said Pooja Salut, Ahmedabad, married to a multimillionaire industralist.
As illustrated by Ms. Salut’s case, sometimes sons are valued significantly more than daughters. In some places, only sons can inherit their parents’ wealth and assets, and they alone are expected to care for ageing parents and conduct the last rites for their parents.
Sons are considered flagbearers of the family name, while daughters are seen as burdens, especially if an expensive dowry is requested by the groom’s side while discussing marriage.
In India, daughters are categorically labeled as second class children, clearly inferior in terms of value to a son. Daughters, once married, often reside with their in laws, and are thus unable to take care of their parents in old age. Daughters don’t continue the family name, and daughters cannot help their fathers in work, especially if said work is physically intensive in nature.
“We accept the first girl, the second should be killed, then the third will be a son,” said Rassamal, a traditional healer in India who advises people to kill new born girls.
The danger of sex selective feticide or infanticide is clear and present. In India, a daughter is killed every 50 seconds. In places where people don’t have access to ultrasound or similiar tests, parents often abandon new born daughters on the street, or they take the matter into their hands, killing their daughters hours after their birth. Daughters are thus strangled, stifled by pillows, poisoned or even crushed with rocks.
With almost 116 boys born for every 100 girls, China has the worst sex ratio at birth, followed by India, where 110 boys are born for every 100 girls. It’s safe to assume that China’s current state is due to the enforcement of the infamous one child policy, first started in 1979. In these countries, women are seen as low value children, and thus it’s a common practice to only have one daughter, if at all, because otherwise they won’t be able to pay the dowry for more than one daughter’s marriage.
Abortion is illegal in Bangladesh as well, but that doesn’t stop parents from committing sex selective foeticide. It should be noted that sex ratios at birth have declined from 124 to 111 in 2011, which is an encouraging indicator of progress. Young women in particular are more receptive to conceiving and raising female children, whereas older women still exhibit strong male preference in many contexts.
Indeed, women are more valued now than before in Bangladesh, and one of the main reasons that parents opt in to sex selective abortions is the desire from the mother’s end to raise a small family and not spend as much time with child rearing as the previous generation did.
The Fight Against Sex Selection
These notions of equality are empowered, in part, by several programs that impart livelihood skills and provide other forms of support for women, such as microfinance loans, the increasing participation of women in the apparel industry and a mandatory 10% quota for female recruitment in government services.
Similar NGO and government- led initiatives are also taking the fight against sex selective abortions in India. The Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao Campaign is a key government initiative that seeks to empower girl children in 100 selected districts with low sex ratio. There are also several US-based initiatives that are seeking to raise awareness about the issue, such as My Savera and the Invisible Girl Project.
There’s also UNFPA, which launched a program in 2017 called the Global Programme to Prevent Son Preference and Gender-Biased Sex Selection, with an aim to work with both the government and local partners to collect relevant data, and then work alongside partners to design and deliver human rights-based and gender equality-based solutions.
While these campaigns are laudable, the core issue remains the problematic mindset that drives parents to abort children because they are female.
In marketing, we often talk about conducting behavior change campaigns to address endemic issues of these magnitude. To bring about more normal sex ratios in these countries in a sustainable manner, authorities and other active agents must organically change the perception of women being second class citizens who are burdens to be married off and thus disposed of.
Once such problematic issues are properly addressed, then both hyperlocal and national scale interventions can move forward, provided there is a proper action map in hand with realistic KPIs and a definite timeline where every objective and task can fit comfortably.
China too, has recognized the shifting tides of progress.
Jiangxi province announced new guidelines in June 2018, requiring women who are more than 14 weeks pregnant to get signed approval from three medical professionals to perform an abortion. Although the measures are meant to help prevent sex-selective abortions, Chinese citizens and activists alike have expressed concern about the state trying to regulate female reproductive decisions.
“Your womb is being monitored,” said an anonymous user on the Weibo microblogging site.
“What is the purpose and basis of this policy? The reproductive rights of women in this country seem to be a joke,” said another Weibo user. And yes, someone did make the obligatory Handmaid’s Tale comparison.
At any rate, this is a catch 22 for China. Determining which action will bring the lesser of two evils is no easy task.
Why Playing the Devil’s Advocate on Sex Selection is More Delicate than You Think
“If this can happen to me it can happen to (my daughters) when they grow up. And that is the reason I’m fighting it.”
That’s Mitu Khurana from Delhi, who had to battle her in laws when they tried to pressurize her into aborting her pregnancy, having illegally obtained knowledge of the gender of the twins she was carrying to term.
These are real women, who faced (and continue to face) harrowing odds as they try to make the world just a little bit better for their children. Daughters have as much right to live and thrive as sons.
At the same time, arguing that sex selective abortions are illegal can be similar to shoving your hands into a thorny bush.
Detractors against the practice argue that female foetuses shouldn’t be discriminated against. That implies that foetuses also have a right to life, the same as a newborn baby or an elderly man in his seventies. Such a position is detrimental to the pro-choice argument, where foetuses are categorically held to not be the same as actual babies that can be carried to term.
Supporters of sex selective abortions argue that the choice to abort a female foetus isn’t necessarily a prejudiced one.
It may be as trivial as picking Pepsi over Coke while walking through the beverages aisle, because some simply prefer Pepsi or Coke over the other option.
According to the Observer, it is ‘disputed that “gendercide” exists in this country on any significant scale’, dismissing the possibility of sex selective abortions being a major issue for first world nations such as the United Kingdom.
Trivializing this matter can also lead to a slippery slope. When Fiona Bruce, a UK MP, announced her intentions to push through a bill that will make abortions on the basis of sex selection illegal in 2015, many women’s rights groups and unions protested against the move.
Such groups are well aware of the grey area where it can seem, if you squint hard enough, that pro-life activists and those who stand against sex selective abortions are cut from the same cloth. And although that’s a tempting opportunity for sweeping generalizations, we shouldn’t be distracted from the heart of the debate.
“We should be up in arms at the thought of would-be parents deciding that girls are not worth conceiving,” wrote Cristina Odoph in a rousing column for the Telegraph. “In a country where the culling of baby seals brings out street protests, the culling of baby girls is happening without a murmur…”
I don’t want my daughter to learn that a girl’s life is worthless.”
Taking Things One Step at a Time
As it stands, the issue of sex selective abortions remains a delicate issue, with proponents and detractors pursuing measures and lines of questioning provocatively enough to rub the other party the wrong way.
However, if we stop for a moment to consider that the issue’s core concern is the future existence of girls, who are being aborted simply for being female, then perhaps we can stop squabbling long enough to brainstorm and execute measures that help the mothers and unborn girls alike.
I am not sure if that will ever happen, but for the sake of the million plus girls who are aborted each year, I can’t help but hope against hope.