On Tuesday last week, I testified at a hearing of the Congressional Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations, entitled “Improving the Status and Equality of Women and Girls—Causes and Solutions to India’s Unequal Sex Ratio.”
Gender-biased sex selection—the illegal misuse of medical technologies to determine the sex of a fetus in order to ensure a male child—has led to an alarming decline in the number of girls across India and elsewhere in the world. By some estimates, India is missing approximately 40 million girls. In the state of Haryana, there are only 832 girls for every 1,000 boys—a dramatically skewed ratio. This clear preference for sons is yet another manifestation of worldwide devaluing of women.
The problem requires an urgent and global response. So one might think that attention to son preference by the U.S. Foreign Relations Committee would be cause for celebration.
If only. The truth is that the people shaking their fists the hardest about the issue are actually those who are most hostile to women’s rights. Anti-abortion advocates have seized upon and rebuilt the issue as a Trojan horse for their own agenda. What they’re really trying to do? “Protect” women’s rights by denying women rights.
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It is imperative that we stop gender-biased sex selection (GBSS). And it is imperative that we understand why we must stop it.
GBSS is a cultural practice driven precisely by devaluing and discrimination of women. Stopping it, therefore, is not about denying individual women their “choice.” It is about promoting the rights and worth of girls and women. What, after all, are the particular and age-old drivers of son preference? The view of girls as risks and burdens. Daughters are expensive—often requiring dowries, rarely able to bring in income. Daughters are “bad investments”—traditionally leaving their families for their husbands’ and not helping care for aging parents. Daughters are dangerous, inviting the risk of real assault or indiscretions that could besmirch family “honor.” Daughters are expendable.
So families have acted on son preference since long, long before the latest technologies facilitated, for a relatively small number of people, sex-selective pregnancy termination. Yet strangely, it is only when abortion enters the equation that certain individuals—like those I debated at the hearing—get interested in “saving” girls and women.
In reality, only 5 percent of abortions in India are connected to GBSS. At the same time, 47,000 women die as a result of unsafe abortion each year; the vast majority of these deaths occur in low-income settings. Deaths from complications of unsafe abortion account for 13 percent of all maternal deaths worldwide.
If you want to “protect” women, make sure they have access to safe abortions. And get to the root of the problem by challenging and changing the cultural and institutional norms that enshrine the devaluing of girls. We also need more reliable data to better measure the extent of sex-selection practices and progress made toward challenging them. And we need better law and enforcement on inheritance lines, dowry, and legal and safe abortion. Most of all, women and girls require access to information, health services, education, and security. When we make daughters welcome in households, neighborhoods, and nations, we are all able to thrive. What they don’t need is to have their rights taken away under false claims.