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Women’s Month 2019 | Sex selection: an ordinary or violent act? by Christo Gorpudolo

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/

This article is part of the series `Women´s Month 2019´, in which members of the ISS gender committee reflect on women´s issues on Bliss. Other articles of this series can be read here and here.


About the authors:

Christo Z. Gorpudolo is a student of MA in Development Studies, Social Justice Perspectives (SJP).


Women’s Month 2019 | ‘Empty’ laws and Peruvian women’s ongoing struggle for therapeutic abortion by Zoya Waheed and Romina Manga Cambria

Laws and regulations are policy tools that are seen as strong and effective in securing rights, but should we assume that this is always the case? Looking at therapeutic abortion, evidence from Peru leads us to believe otherwise. Legislation of protection laws often fails to be translated into practice.

In 1924, a therapeutic abortion law was passed in Peru. Ninety-five years later, this law, which allows for legal abortions when the physical or mental health of the mother is at stake, only exists on paper. There are many reasons why this law has not been implemented, ranging from a lack of awareness of the existence of the law to ambiguity when it comes to the law’s contents. While progress of some sort has been made over the last five years with the introduction of guidelines for abortion providers, it is important to understand that much more progress is needed for these women in Peru and elsewhere, as access to safe therapeutic abortion is still limited.

K.L and L.C: Keystone cases in the struggle for safe therapeutic abortions

The Human Rights Watch indicates that women across the world often opt for unsafe procedures because legal abortions are seldom provided in public healthcare facilities. Additionally, due to the uncertainties in the circumstances under which abortion is legal, healthcare providers fear punishment if they were to carry out a therapeutic abortion. Women are also often unaware of their right to therapeutic abortion, and in the cases they are, they’re refused the abortion due to the fear carried by healthcare providers. In other cases, women are refused legal abortions due to the bias carried by some healthcare professionals, who may not always agree that the mother’s life is in danger, and would thus see the abortion as unnecessary. Additionally, due to the social stigma attached to abortions, women may not want to get an abortion due to the fear of being judged.

Two cases were particularly relevant for discussion in Peru. In 2001, K.L., a 17-year-old Peruvian girl, was forced to carry an anencephalic fetus to term, a condition that made unviable the life of the fetus after being born. She gave birth and was forced to breastfeed the baby for four days until it finally died. These events caused her severe depression that required psychiatric help.

In another case in 2006, L.C. was a 14-year-old girl that fell pregnant after being raped repeatedly, which led her to attempt suicide. She survived, but woke up quadriplegic. Her mother requested a therapeutic abortion in order for her spinal column to be operated on to try and regain mobility of her body, but it was denied. Doctors claimed it was prohibited because the pregnancy no longer posed a threat to her physical health, so she was forced to continue the pregnancy.

After the cases of the K.L. and L.C., the Peruvian state was internationally condemned by the ONU´s Human Rights Committee for denying therapeutic abortion to these teenagers. As a response, in June 2014, the Peruvian Ministry of Health published the “Guía Técnica Nacional para la interrupción del embarazo por indicación terapéutica”, or the National Technical Guide for the Pregnancy Interruption by Therapeutic Indication, approved by a Ministerial Resolution Nº 486-2014/MINSA. This guide was looking to standardise the procedure and give more information to the health practitioners about it.

Despite its approval, there are still a lot of medical practitioners that refuse to implement it. As an example of this, in 2017 the Committee on Consumer Protection had to sanction a private healthcare facility with a fine for not approving a therapeutic abortion request, despite the evidence of mental health damage.

Persisting barriers (read: failures)

Despite the clarity of the law, it has not been implemented to the extent it should have. Often, people assume that passing a law and putting it in the penal code is enough to implement it. But when those responsible for implementing it don’t know enough about it, how is it supposed to protect those it aims to safeguard?

Even after the introduction of the guidelines, it is evident that the application of the law is scarce. Additionally, there isn’t much knowledge to be found on the application after the guidelines were created. The state is not taking the responsibility it should by ensuring medical facilities fully implement the law. Even though the discussion has been opened again, it’s clear that it’s not enough. A transformation in the norms and values that surround the topic of abortion must be addressed if the application of such laws is to be successful.

This article is part of the series `Women´s Month 2019´, in which members of the ISS gender committee reflect on women´s issues on Bliss. Other articles of this series can be read here.

Image Credit: openDemocracy. The image has been cropped.

zoyaAbout the authors:

Zoya Waheed is a Pakistani SJP student at ISS. She is the secretary of the Gender committee and is committed to women empowerment.



Romina Manga Cambria is a Peruvian GDP student at ISS. She’s inherited her feminism from her mother. She’s part of the Gender committee.

Women’s Month 2019 | Seed keepers, memory keepers: native women and food sovereignty by Leila Rezvani

When North America was colonised, the relationship of indigenous people with food was also colonised. But a group of women acting as seed keepers for their communities are fighting back, practicing decolonisation in their daily work and addressing the legacy of food colonisation through the reclamation of seeds and the traditions, practices, and affective relations that nurture human-plant-environment relationships and keep Native communities thriving, healthy, and connected.

Understanding the colonisation of North America begins with understanding food. Europeans thought that Natives could be ‘civilized’ through their stomachs. Targeting Native diets and methods of food provisioning was a way to control and disempower. Native populations of humans, non-human animals, and plants were decimated due to disease and violence. In what is now called the United States, native groups were forced onto individual allotments, often marginal land away from ancestral homes. Sedentary farming was viewed as the rational form of land use, shaping the native in the white yeoman farmer’s image.

And in residential schools, Native languages, dress and diets were forcefully repressed and replaced with English, European clothing and foods like wheat and dairy, which were largely absent from Native diets previously (Vernon 2015).

The legacy of this physical and cultural violence is clear: today, at least 60 Native reservations struggle with food insecurity, and Native families are four times as likely as other US families to report having not enough to eat (PWNA 2017). This places many Native communities in a relationship of dependence with the US Government: the USDA provides canned goods, powdered milk, processed cheese and white sugar, contributing directly to high rates of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity (Vernon 2015).

Fighting back

Native women are addressing the legacy of food colonisation by asserting their communities’ right to grow food for themselves—food that nourishes human bodies, cultural tradition, and the wider web of non-human species and environments. These women and the groups they work with not only promote food sovereignty but practice it: Winona La Duke of the Anishinnaabe founded the White Earth Land Recovery Project, which bought back 1,200 acres of tribal land that had been appropriated by the US government and began a project to revive the collection of wild rice, an important traditional food.

Rowen White of the Mohawk Nation founded Sierra Seeds, a company selling locally adapted and heritage varieties, and directs the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network (ISKN). In the winter of 2018, the ISKN came to an agreement with Seed Savers Exchange, a public access seedbank of rare and heritage varieties, to identify and rematriate[1] varieties of corn, beans and squash that originated in Native communities (White, n.d.).

Rufina Juarez, a Chicana Indigenous woman, helped organise the 14-acere South Central Farm, maintained by 350 primarily Central American families as a space to grow culturally appropriate, nourishing food in 20-by-30-foot plots. The farm was a haven for immigrants to grow food that connected them to the places they left behind: nopales, corn, squash, tlapanche and papalo greens, lettuces, strawberries, cabbages (Mark 2006). The farm was bulldozed in 2006 even after farm advocates were able to raise money to meet the $16 million asking price. (Juarez 2010, Gordon 2006).

And still, new challenges constantly arise: climate change alters traditional migratory routes of important game animals like caribou, land grabbing for industrial monocropping or extraction removes land from indigenous stewardship, and biopiracy[2] and corporate consolidation of the seed industry deteriorates crop biodiversity (Cultural Survival 2013). Native women continue to organise in the face of these challenges, recognising that colonisation is an ongoing, evolving process, deeply tied to the machinations of globalised capital.

Enduring practices

The work of seed keeping and the maintenance of community tradition it entails is often, but not exclusively, spearheaded by women. Collaboration between many stakeholders, Native or not, young and old, male, female, or otherwise, is key. I chose to highlight these initiatives because women are central and powerful, but are not burdened with speaking for ‘nature’, from an essentialised, gender-based position. Rather, their work builds on traditions of care, affectivity, and community network building that women and others have performed for generations, throughout the trauma of colonisation and the attempted, but unsuccessful, erasure of native foodways.

[1] “Rematriate” means returning the seeds to their place of origin. “Repatriate” is more commonly used, but here I chose to retain the word used in White’s article, which consciously imputes a feminine quality to the seed and the land to which it is returning.

[2] Biopiracy describes the process by which biological or genetic material (commonly from medicinal or crop plant or animal species) is obtained and exploited for commercial use without the knowledge or consent of the original ‘owners’ or stewards of the material. The most common situation is multinational pharmaceutical or agrochemical/seed companies using indigenous plant knowledge to locate commercially valuable species, stela them, and then patent them so they become exclusive property of the corporation. The term was originally coined by Pat Mooney of the ETC Group and popularized by Vandana Shiva of Navdanya.

‘Combating Food Insecurity on Native American Reservations'(2017) , pp. 1-4Partnership with Native Americans and Northern Plains Reservation Aid.
‘Maintaining the Ways of our Ancestors: Indigenous Women Address Food Sovereignty’ (Last updated 13 October 2013) (a webpage of Cultural Survival). Accessed 16 February 2019 <https://www.culturalsurvival.org/news/maintaining-ways-our-ancestors-indigenous-women-address-food-sovereignty>.
Alvarez, L. (Last updated 2019) ‘Colonization, Food, and the Practice of Eating’ (a webpage of The Food Empowerment Project). Accessed 13 February 2019 <http://www.foodispower.org/colonization-food-and-the-practice-of-eating/>.
Gordon (14 June 2006) ‘LA’s South Central Farm Shut Down and Bulldozed’ Tree Hugger. Accessed 16 February 2019 <https://www.treehugger.com/corporate-responsibility/las-south-central-farm-shut-down-and-bulldozed.html>.
Mark (9 June 2006) ‘Could the battle for South Central Farm be coming to a close?’ Grist. Accessed 25 February 2019 <https://grist.org/article/mark2/>.
Juarez, R. (2010) ‘Indigenous Women in the Food Justice and Sovereignty Movement: Lessons from the South Central Farm’, NACCS Annual Conference: Chicana/o Environmental Justice Struggles for a Post-Neoliberal Age, 1 April 2010. San Jose State University pp1-10.
Vernon, R.V. (2015) ‘A Native Perspective: Food is More than Consumption’, Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development 5(4): 137-142.
White, R. ‘Indigenous Seed Keepers Network: The Long Way Home; Seed Rematriation at Taos Pueblo’ (a webpage of Native Food Alliance). Accessed 13 February 2019 <https://nativefoodalliance.org/indigenous-seedkeepers-network/>.

This article is part of the series `Women´s Month 2019´, in which members of the ISS gender committee reflect on women´s issues on Bliss.

Image Credit: https://www.stopthewall.org/apartheid-wrong

About the author:

leilaLeila Rezvani is a Master’s student in the AFES major. She comes from Southern Vermont, USA, and is interested in the politics of scientific knowledge production, seed systems, plant breeding and thinking about how the agro-food system could be more just for plants, people and non-human animals. She misses the mountains and hopes to work for a small seed company or farm someday (soon).