HYDERABAD, India/UNITED NATIONS, New York — Prenatal son selection in several Asian countries is likely to have severe social consequences in coming years, according to a new series of studies commissioned by UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund.
Life could become harder for many girls and women outnumbered by males, as pressures to conform and comply increase. A growing number of men will be unable to find wives, which may lead to a rise in sexual violence and trafficking of women.
India and China, with the most dramatic imbalance between births of boys and girls, are stepping up efforts to address the issue. But authors of the reports say more concerted measures to promote gender equality are urgently needed.
Viet Nam and Nepal are poised to endure the same scenario unless action is taken, the research shows clearly for the first time.
The studies on the causes, likely consequences and possible remedies for sex-ratio imbalance in each of the four countries and a regional analysis were presented at the Fourth Asia-Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health, which began in Hyderabad today.
Son preference is deeply rooted in many Asian countries, for both cultural and economic reasons. Daughters may be seen as a liability, especially where dowries must be paid. Older parents typically rely on sons, and their wives, for support. And sons may be needed to perform last rites or ancestor worship.
With family sizes falling, Asians have increasingly used ultrasound or amniocentesis to determine the sex of foetuses and aborted unwanted females. The resulting skewed sex ratios at birth (SRBs) have been noticeable in China for over 15 years, rising to 120 males for every 100 females born in 2005 (the natural ratio is around 105 to 100) and as high as 130 in several provinces. In India, the 2001 census revealed that SRB had risen to 108 nationwide, and to 120 in some northern and western states.
Sex ratios among later births are much higher than for firstborn children, reflecting the greater pressure on women to have a son after bearing only daughters. In China, sex selection is more prevalent in rural areas; in India it is more common among better-off urban families.
Up to now, there has been scant research on the likelihood that SRBs will increase in Nepal and Viet Nam, which have social conditions and values similar to those in parts of India and China, respectively. At UNFPA’s initiative, research teams organized focus groups and interviewed officials and health providers. In each country, they found pervasive son preference and acceptance of the notion that couples without sons might choose to avoid bearing daughters. They also learned that those who wanted to could easily do so.
The team in southern Nepal, for instance, found that most people knew they could find ultrasound clinics and abortion providers in India willing to flout regulations prohibiting sex selection.
“Viet Nam is in almost the same situation now as China was ten years ago,” that country’s study concluded, predicting SRB could become seriously imbalanced within a decade.
In the UNFPA-sponsored studies, renowned social scientists analyzed the son selection trends and their implications. French demographer Christophe Guilmoto, author of the India and regional reports, warned that future deficits of adult women will affect “the stability of the entire marriage system”. Many men, particularly the poorest, will be unable to marry, creating a pool of potential social unrest and conditions likely to increase sexual violence against women.
The authors also reviewed the most promising approaches being taken to reduce son preference and prenatal sex-selection, which is prohibited in all four countries studied. In India, civil society groups, including medical professionals, have mobilized to raise public awareness. New laws target discriminatory inheritance rules and domestic violence.
A programme in China combines public education with practical steps – such as increasing old-age support – to improve women’s status and counter the neglect that leads to a higher mortality for girls than boys. This “Care for Girls” campaign is now being scaled up to the national level.
Comparable initiatives are recommended for Nepal and Viet Nam.
“Sex ratio imbalances only lead to far-reaching imbalances in the society at large,” UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid told the Hyderabad conference in a statement delivered by Deputy Executive Director Purnima Mane. “And in response, we must carry forward the message that every human being is born equal in dignity, worth and human rights.”
UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, is an international development agency that promotes the right of every woman, man and child to enjoy a life of health and equal opportunity. UNFPA supports countries in using population data for policies and programmes to reduce poverty and to ensure that every pregnancy is wanted, every birth is safe, every young person is free of HIV/AIDS, and every girl and woman is treated with dignity and respect.
William A. Ryan
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