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PAKISTAN: Our unwanted daughters

Amir Murtaza

Is it ethical to let parents to choose their children's sex? I strongly believe that parents do have the right to desire, but not to decide their children’s sex. Maybe some readers have different viewpoints; and I respect them.

However if for a moment, I conceded to my hypothetical opponent’s point of view, I would like to ask: Do we have a right to interfere with Mother Nature? Or more appropriately, to what extent could we distort nature?

Here, I don’t include some parents choice of using traditional herbs recommended by indigenous healers or the words of wisdom given by Yogis about the forms of intercourse that are likely to produce boys or girls.

Instead, my argument is against the worldwide trend of sex-selective abortion that has wiped out thousands of females each year, especially in developing countries. The advent of new technologies such as ultrasound scanning has made it possible for couples, especially in developing countries, to discover the sex of their unborn baby and, in many cases, to proceed to abort, if it was a girl. Do we ever doubt that such practices depict strong gender bias against female infants?

Such practices have been reported from China where according to current population statistics, males outnumbered females by a massive 40 million. In India the practice is partly responsible for the low and declining population ratio of women to men. A review of available literature and news reports informed me that not only sophisticated diagnostic services in urban areas but cheap mobile ultrasound clinics travel to small towns and villages, offering testing services for pregnant women. Thereafter when the parents, discover their foetus to be a female, often opt for abortion, either legal or illegal.

We do not requi re the knowledge of a demographer or social scientist to realize the consequences of such heinous practices. Apparently long term indulgence of such practices tilted the sex ratio to such an extent in certain areas of China and India that it forced the respective governments to ban ultrasound testing for purposes of sex selection. The efficiency of such bans however remains highly questionable; and the ban has not helped in obtaining the desired results.

There is little doubt that Pakistan too is guilty of similar happenings resulting in men slowly outnumbering women. In a country where safe abortion is still not considered as a right of the woman, how can one expect authentic data regarding sex-selective abortions? This lacuna only leads us to assume—though not to measure—that sex selective abortions are a reality in this country.

An extensive discussion with a foreign qualified gynecologist lent weight to this assumption that sex-selective abortion was a reality; not extensive yet; but nonetheless, a sound reality in this country. She said: “in the western world people generally do not express a strong preference for children or one gender or another. However in developing countries, including Pakistan, where society has been constructed under the rigid norms of patriarchy, gender based discrimination continues even at the time of birth.?

According to this professional, it had roughly been estimated that a many females were excluded from the population because of sex-selective abortion practices in Pakistan. No doubt male babies were more desired than female in every class structure of the society. The preference for male children was part of most evident gender inequality in the country.

Several reasons could be highlighted as being responsible for the increasing desire for a male child in Pakistan such as:

?Boys supported the parents in old age while girls cannot, due to their transitory role in the family;
?Family continuity, according to our religion and culture, depended on sons;
?Family property or wealth transferred to male children remained within the family; while girls cost the family in property and wealth after marriage;
?Families had to expend substantial finances on girls?education, marriage and dowry; and
?Boys brought in dowry and increased family wealth when they enter into marriage;

Additionally, an important reason that contributed to a woman’s own desire for a son was because a wife’s status?particularly in all patriarchal societies like Pakistan—was not consolidated until she produced a son. Thus we have a plethora of reason, with some of them actually supported by logic. That is why our parents show preference for children of one particular gender over the other.

While looking at our social structure, I often ask whether we should afford our parents the opportunity to determine the sex of their babies before birth; and permit them to destroy the foetus if it does not match their desire.

A known human rights activist believed that abortion was essentially a woman’s right, but in the developing world, including Pakistan; this right had been used solely against her. We know that abortion in Pakistan is legally sanctioned to save the mother’s life or to preserve physical and mental health of the mother.

In cases of rape, incest or for economic reasons abortion is not allowed. Thus while abortion has been used as a tool to victimize the women of this country, nonetheless, sex-selective abortion remained the most cruel form of violence and discrimination against women.

The elimination of unwanted daughters, anywhere in the world is an appalling practice. However it is my opinion that one can find no excuse for its occurrence, even at the current nominal level, as it is in Pakistan. I have no doubt that abortion for sex-selection should be declared wrong in every region of Pakistan.

However most importantly, though it is a reality of our surroundings, we need to ascertain the cause, consequence and quantum of sex selective abortions in Pakistan. Independent research must be initiated with a view to share the findings with a broader audience; and to generate a public policy debate on the issue.

"...in developing countries, including Pakistan, where society has been constructed under the rigid norms of patriarchy, gender based discrimination continues even at the time of birth."

Posted on 2009-08-06
Asian Human Rights Commission

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