According to the United Nations Population Fund, there is a variation in the ratio of male to female birth—since the 1990s, 25% more male births than female have been recorded in different areas. Prenatal sex selection reflects a subtle act of violence rooted in social, political, economic, and cultural factors that re-enforces the persistent low economic status of women and value of girls in some communities. This could lead to an overall impact on the mental and physical health of women as well as the creation of a gender imbalance within the population.
Prenatal sex selection is a practice that involves the use of medical techniques to choose the sex of an offspring. Although it has been linked to medical practices that help balance the family, it also leads to sex-selective abortion, where predominantly the lives of girls are halted before birth. It is a form of violence against women that systematically discriminates against girls before birth and at conception, limiting women’s agency in matters relating to their reproductive health rightsplace women at an unequal hierarchical position within the family as decision makers on the sex of a child as well as family size.
This form of gender-based violence (GBV) as with many other forms of GBV is complex. It is rooted in cultural preferences for sons, societal ideas of the roles and responsibilities of women and men, and unmerited privileges for or the rights of men over those of women. In some places, continuity of family lineage and care for ageing parents, as well as wage-earning capacity are all factors that contribute to this form of discrimination. Generally, sex selection results from social, economic and cultural biases that favour men over women.
These cultural, economic and social biases raise the yet unanswered question: ‘are we collectively doing enough and investing in a society free of all forms of violence and befitting women?’
It has been nearly 40 years since The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence against Women (CEDAW) was adopted by the United Nations—a convention that has been ratified by 187 countries. However, sex selection, deeply rooted in economic and social biases, still exists in majority of these 187 countries, including Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, and India.
The practice of sex selection also affects girls after birth. Studies have shown that unwanted girls may endure neglect or be deprived of opportunities, creating a further disincentive for mothers to have daughters, since they don’t want to see their children suffer. UNPF (2018, no Page) provides the rationale.
In some agrarian economies, girls are at risk of being in poor health, lack of care or malnourished, to keep their brothers strong and healthy as a source of protection or an assurance for a bigger farmland or harvest and or to continue the family linage.
Sex preference also affects women’s mental health within the family. Studies have shown that in some instances, women who give birth to only girls may be under huge societal pressure to produce a male child.
To combat this form of violence against women and girls, we have to begin a discussion on identifying and eliminating harmful gender stereotypes and roles that have given rise to the overt act of selective birth. We need to look more closely at the economic market systems that support higher-earning value of a particular sex and the social structures that link specific traits or attributes to power and success, as these are the subtle but yet violent act that hinders the birth of many girls.
United Nations Population Fund (2018) ‘Gender biased sex selection’ Accessed March 23, 2019 https://www.unfpa.org
NCBI (2011) ‘The consequences of son preferences and sex selective abortion in China and other Asian countries’ Accessed March 23, 2019 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3168620/
About the authors:
Christo Z. Gorpudolo is a student of MA in Development Studies, Social Justice Perspectives (SJP).