Don’t Use India’s Missing Girls to Deny Women Reproductive Rights

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.

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.

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  • Arachne646

    Keep it legal, keep it safe! That’s an oldie but a goodie, as far as I’m concerned.

  • joemog

    If they banned abortions, families would go back to doing what they did in earlier ages-kill female babies. It would do nothing to raise the value of girls.

  • JC

    It is NOT about promoting the RIGHTS AND WORTH of girls and women. it is about acknowledging the EVILS AND INSENSITIVITIES OF A PATRIARCHAL CULTURE!! Why do we make it sounds like girls are so pathetic that they cannot be loved? They are in other cultures. It is not the issue of sex-selected abortion that I am debating, it’s the interpretation of it that I find demeaning to women and girls. Take a culture run by men that sets it up so that boys provide more income, and that having a girl is a financial debt, and make it so only boys carry on the family name, and you set it up to want boys. But it isn’t based on true desire, but false measures. Saying it has to do with girls not having worth is cruel, and doesn’t address the cruelty of the patriarchy.

  • JC

    I don’t think you are being tough enough on this kind of unmistakable evil committed against females. Just saying boys are valued sounds casual and dismissive, and does not address the evils of some patriarchal societies. Sure, I guess you could say boys are “valued” more and use nice language, especially when the men set UP SOCIETY THAT WAY. They set it up so only boys can carry on the family name, and that boys provide for them financially. Then they tell you you can have only ONE child. So it’s part of the evil of patriarchy. The women in these cultures are no different than women in other cultures. The more independent women become, the more they openly express no gender preference, or even preference for girls. This is without having any special incentives to have a girl, meaning no monetary gains. So to say that boys are just “valued” more and that’s why girls are killed seems to miss the point, and is extremely kind to the evil practice of gendercide. Let’s not empower these patriarchal cultures, but expose their evil and also their cowardice. After all, if you have to create special privileges for boys, you must be afraid on some level that women will prefer girls.