Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Abortion Used for Sex Selection in Azerbaijan

Azeri women determined to produce a male heir are risking their health in abortion clinics.
By Sabina Kiryashova

Twenty-four-year-old Nailya has come to a Baku women’s clinic to have the first abortion of her life. Nearby, 30-year-old Latifa is having her third.


Though they’ve never met, the women have one thing in common: they’re determined to produce a male heir and say they will continue terminating pregnancies until they get the baby boy they want.


“We already have a daughter, and my husband loves her very much, but he wants me to give birth to a boy, and I want this too,” said Nailya.


Latifa said her husband has hinted that he may leave her for another woman and cut off all financial support unless she produces an heir. Not surprisingly then, she feels she has little choice but to continue having abortions until a son is born.


“What if he leaves me with nothing? I have never worked. Where will I go? Who will then marry my daughters?” she said.


Such abortions have become increasingly common in Azerbaijan in recent years, particularly since the use of ultrasound to determine the sex of the baby has became widespread.


Up to four of the eight women who come into gynaecologist Gulustan Aslanova’s clinic each day for abortions do so because they are expecting an unwanted girl.


Research conducted by the Women’s Crisis Centre in a main Baku maternity hospital found that abortions carried out because of the sex of the child are currently third behind those done because of the family’s financial situation and ones for contraceptive purposes.


Azad Isazade, a psychologist at the centre, said that in Azerbaijan, as in many eastern countries, preference has always been given to boys. That is rooted in the pre-Islamic, pagan period when men were needed for farming and newborn girls were buried alive.


That no longer happens, but some families see the lack of a male heir as a tragedy or even a curse.


Isazade said that men who urge their wives to abort unwanted girl babies and usually influenced by their relatives and friends.


Nailya’s in-laws are dreaming of another grandson.


“Every time that there is a family get-together, my father-in-law, as the head of the family, makes a toast for us to have an heir at last. In these moments I want to die from shame, as my husband looks at me with reproach, and my sisters-in-law look at me haughtily,” she said.


Producing a male heir is particularly important in villages, said Isazade, though abortions are less common there as it is seen as cheaper for a woman to simply continue bearing children until a boy is born.


Svetlana Kulieva, an obstetrician-gynaecologist at the National Clinical Hospital, often sees extreme reactions when men realise their wives have given birth to a little girl.


“There were cases that when the husband found out that a daughter had been born he did not even want to meet his wife at the hospital,” said Kulieva.


She warned of the dangers of repeated abortions, which can cause sterility and increases the danger that the long awaited boy will suffer from birth defects.


“By subjecting their bodies to constant stress, women risk giving birth to a sick child or being left without children of either sex,” continued Kulieva.


Repeated abortions also have serious psychological consequences, including the fear of a future pregnancy and even worries about motherhood, warned the director of the Women's Crisis Centre, Metanet Azizova.


Azizova said that it is rare for families without a male heir to collapse completely, but she knows of cases when a man whose wife cannot bear him a son pays another woman to carry his baby.


“The woman gave birth, and the man began to support two families, but he gave his preference, of course, to the family with the boy,” said Azizova.


Like many Azeris, 33-year-old Valeh longs for a son. He adores his wife and two daughters, and when he discovered she was pregnant with a girl couldn’t bear to ask her to have an abortion.


“I don’t want to be responsible for her being in pain,” he explained.


But when doctors advised Valeh’s wife not to give birth again for medical reasons, he believed he had only one solution.


“If she can’t give me a son, I will have to take a woman ‘on the side’ who will be able to do this for me,” he said.


Occasionally, preference for one sex over another can also be seen in reverse, when the mother wants a girl, but discovers that she is expecting a boy. Not surprisingly, husbands are usually against abortion in these cases.


“I have encountered serious psychological traumas among women who in their fifth to sixth month of pregnancy learned that they were expecting a third or even fourth boy,” said Isazade.


Sabina Kiryashova is manager of the IWPR office in Baku. This story was produced as part of IWPR’s Women’s Perspectives programme.


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