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Armenian Politicians Moot Sex-Selection Ban

Authorities decide to copy other countries’ success in legislating against option for aborting female foetuses.
By Arpi Harutyunyan
  • UN Population Fund’s Armenia representative, Garik Hayrapetyan. (Photo: IWPR)
    UN Population Fund’s Armenia representative, Garik Hayrapetyan. (Photo: IWPR)
  • Karine Saribekyan, head of the Armenian health ministry’s mother and child health department. (Photo: IWPR)
    Karine Saribekyan, head of the Armenian health ministry’s mother and child health department. (Photo: IWPR)

Parliamentarians in Armenia are discussing a ban on doctors revealing the sex of a foetus before the 30th week of pregnancy, which they hope will reduce selective abortions. They recognise, however, that legislation could open up a new avenue for doctors to take bribes from parents who want sons, not daughters.

“The bill hasn’t been circulated yet. We will discuss its problems with members of parliament, and then send it to the government,” Ara Babloyan, chairman of parliament’s health committee, said on May 20.

The proposed law is based on a study on births in Armenia in 2012-13 which the health ministry conducted with help from the United Nations, and which concluded that every year 1,400 fewer girls are born than should naturally be the case.

“In Armenia, abortion and selective birth of children by gender is becoming very worrying. We are destroying the country’s future mothers,” said Garik Hayrapetyan, head of the United Nations Population Fund office in Armenia.

He said that if nothing was done, Armenia would lose over 90,000 female babies by 2060.

The birth ratio in Armenia in 2012 was 114 boys for every 100 girls. The natural ratio is between 102 and 106 boys to every 100 girls. The most distorted figure was in Gegharkunik region, where the ratio was 124 to 100.

“The fact that families prefer to have boys is a chronic problem that cannot be resolved immediately. We need to do long-term work on it,” Gayane Avagyan, head of the health ministry’s maternity and reproductive health department, told IWPR. “Another factor is the country’s birth rate. People used to have four to five children, which ensured a gender balance, but now they have two. Third and no less important, modern technology allows people to discover the sex of the child even very early on in pregnancy.”

According to a opinion poll conducted alongside study, couples are six times more likely to want a boy than a girl, and selective abortion becomes more common in a third or fourth pregnancy, when couples are desperate to have a son.

“We have a patriarchal society, and people prefer boys to girls on the grounds that boys continue the family line,” Hayrapetyan said, citing the responses given in the survey.

Avagyan said the health ministry had discussed the issue many times with women’s groups, psychologists, the United Nations and other organisations, and it had looked at the experiences of other countries in combating sex-selective abortions. She said officials had concluded that the best place to start was by passing a law similar to ones that had worked in other countries.

The parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe passed a resolution on the issue in 2011, singling out Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Albania as countries with particularly worrying records in sex-selective abortions. (See also South Caucasus: Selective Abortion Means Fewer Girls Born.)

Naira Zohrabyan, a member of parliament from the Prosperous Armenia party who took part in the PACE discussion, worried, however, that a new law might do more harm than good.

“In a country like Armenia where corruption in the healthcare and education systems has reached unprecedented levels, a law like this would be pointless and would become just one more source of corruption,” she said. “I personally will vote against it, since not only will it fail to solve one problem, it will create another one.

“We need to think about running the right kind of publicity campaign to change our way of thinking. Until that happens, no law is going to help.”

Lyudmila Sargsyan, a member of the parliamentary health committee, also doubted whether the law would be effective.

“I’m not sure whether this is an effective way of fighting this battle. You can’t rule out that doctors will start telling parents the baby’s sex in return for money,” she said.

Marietta Gevorgyan, a mother of two girls, aborted a third pregnancy when she discovered she was due to have another girl. She too does not believe the law will work.

“At the moment, doctors aren’t allowed to reveal the sex of a foetus before the 19th week of pregnancy, but everyone finds out – even very early on,” she said.

Avagyan insisted that the health ministry would find mechanisms for preventing doctors from informing parents.

“Surveillance cameras will be installed in doctors’ surgeries, and doctors will face legal action if they break the law. In some cases, they could even lose their jobs,” she said.

Arpi Harutiunyan is a freelance journalist in Armenia.

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