Azeri Alarm at Abortion of Female Foetuses

Legislators plan to curb disturbing practice which threatens demographic crisis.

Azeri Alarm at Abortion of Female Foetuses

Legislators plan to curb disturbing practice which threatens demographic crisis.

Wednesday, 20 January, 2010

Activists in Azerbaijan say women pregnant with girls are being forced to undergo abortions or even being abandoned by their husbands because their families are determined to have male children.

The situation has got so serious that parliament is discussing banning abortions after the sex of the child is known to prevent the gender proportions in the population becoming dangerously unbalanced.

Shafarat Rzayeva, a 25-year-old, was 17 when she married a man who had already divorced one wife because she had not given him a son. She too had only girls, and was thrown out of his house.

“They sent me together with my two daughters to my father’s house. We are still not officially divorced, but my husband and his relatives have not asked after us for a year already. I can understand why he doesn’t want me, but why are our children to blame that they are girls?” she asked.

“I gave birth to two girls, twins, and that was when my troubles started. When I got pregnant again, and the scan showed it would be a girl, it was just hell. My husband and mother-in-law beat me every day for no reason.”

And when she went into labour, her husband refused to take her to hospital.

“They said why should they pay for another girl. I had to give birth at home, and they called in a relative who was a midwife. Instead of helping me, she just shouted. The child died, and I only just survived.”

Three days after the death of her child, she was thrown out of the house, in a case of domestic abuse that activists say is depressingly common in the country.

“In Azerbaijan women are often faced with abuse from their husbands and his family because a daughter has been born. The birth of a girl, rather than the desired boy, often costs women dear, right up to the break-up of the family,” Matanat Azizova, director of the Women’s Crisis Centre, said.

“And cases when husbands, the husbands’ parents or other relatives force the women to have an abortion and get rid of the girl are fairly common.”

Islamic scholars assure Azeris that Islam not only outlaws choosing between boys and girls, but also abortions. However, their words have no effect in a country where boys are considered significantly more prestigious than girls. One woman who suffered from the prejudice is Malahat Zamanova, the 34-year-old mother of a son and a daughter.

“Azeris love boys more than girls, it’s in our mentality. My husband forced me to go for an abortion six times before I gave birth to a son. Every time when I was pregnant when the time came to find out the sex of the child, I was so scared. Every time I had to go through this hell and I could not explain to my husband what torture it is to have an abortion, especially so many times,” she said.

The trend is having a significant effect on the proportion of boys and girls born in the country. According to the State Statistics Committee, in the first nine months of 2009, 109,500 children were born, 54.1 per cent of them boys and 45.9 per cent girls.

Currently, the population as a whole shows almost equal numbers but if the abortion of female foetuses continues then the country could become unbalanced.

“If we carry on like this, then soon the proportions will change, and the number of men in the country will seriously exceed the number of women. And this could lead to a demographic crisis,” said Faiza Aliyeva, head of the investigative institute of obstetrics and gynaecology.

According to the statistics committee, 25,000 abortions were conducted in 2008, up from 22,000 the year before. More than 60 per cent of them took place in the third month of pregnancy, which is when the sex of the child can be easily discovered by ultrasound scans. That, experts say, is likely to mean the majority of the aborted foetuses were female.

“Recently, the interest in ultrasound among pregnant women has risen. Eighty per cent of women who we examine want to know the sex of the child. And the majority of them want a boy, either voluntarily, or at the urging of their husband or relatives. Many women become sad when they hear it is a girl, and some even start to cry,” Aliyeva said.

The potential demographic effect of the trend has spurred officials to take action, and a group of parliamentary deputies has drawn up a bill on reproductive health and family planning.

“The law would ban women from finding out the sex of the child before the third month of pregnancy and ban abortions after the third month. And it also bans anyone from choosing the sex of the future child during artificial insemination. I think these points would serve to reduce the number of abortions and would lead to a normalisation of the gender proportion among babies,” Malahat Hasanova, a member of parliament, said.

Samira Ahmedbeyli is an IWPR reporter.

Support our journalists