Ani's 19-year-old son was killed in 2020 during the Second Karabakh War and the 48-year-old has been dreaming of having another boy. In 2022 Armenia registered a high sex imbalance; experts maintain that the war and the country's fragile security situation may have triggered an increase of sex selection at birth.
Ani's 19-year-old son was killed in 2020 during the Second Karabakh War and the 48-year-old has been dreaming of having another boy. In 2022 Armenia registered a high sex imbalance; experts maintain that the war and the country's fragile security situation may have triggered an increase of sex selection at birth. © Armine Avetisyan

Post-War Trauma Prompts Armenia’s Sex Imbalance 

Experts note that the conflict and still-volatile security may be behind the rise of a skewed ratio between boys and girls.

Thursday, 22 June, 2023

Ani hopes that the child she is expecting means a new start. The 48-year-old’s world was shattered on the autumn day in 2020 when her 19-year-old son was killed fighting in the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorny Karabakh region. Desperate to fill the void he left she sought to replace him with another child - and she wanted it to be a boy. 

“One year later I got pregnant, naturally, but I lost the baby due to complications. The fetus was developed enough, it was a girl,” Ani (not her real name) told IWPR. She cannot say whether she would have carried on with the pregnancy if she had known the baby was a girl. “I had double feelings: I wished it was a boy, it turned out to be a girl…”

Ani fell into depression but was determined to have another child. In 2022 she applied to the state programme that provides free in-vitro fertilisation for parents who lost children during the 2020 war. 

Ani’s desire for a boy is not isolated. Nearly 4,000 Armenian servicemen died in the 44 day-war and many grieving parents have sought to have boys to replace their dead children. Experts maintain that the post-war trauma may have played a role in the rise of Armenia’s sex imbalance at birth after years of stability.

In 2022, the Statistical Committee of the Republic of Armenia recorded 112 boys for 100 girls, up from 109 boys to 100 girls registered in 2021. The standard biological ratio isof 105 boys to 100 girls, according to data from the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). 

“Before the war we had a pretty good index, we had a decrease every year,” Health Minister Anahit Avanesyan told IWPR. “Unfortunately, after the war, there was a certain change again in the society’s mood and perception.”

Armenia has been battling against high rate of prenatal sex selection for decades. The conservative, patriarchal society values boys over girls and with technology allowing the sex of the baby to be known at an early stage, some families opt for an abortion in the case of a female fetus. 

The sex ratio at birth started rising in the early 1990s as the country became independent: it peaked in 2000 with 120 boys for 100 girls and in 2013 was still 114 male births per 100 female. Selective abortions are thought to have left the country short of an estimated 80,000 girls.

“It is a problem of national mentality; the society, both here and in the wider region, favours sons over daughters as the continuation of the family,” psychologist Sona Hovakimyan told IWPR.

Awareness campaigns and measures like announcing the sex of the baby at a later stage managed to slowly contain the imbalance, which dropped in the late 2010s. Then, in 2020, the war broke out, leaving a country traumatised.

According to psychologist Hovakimyan, mothers who have lost a son may seek to have a male child to fill the gap left by their dead child. 

“When having an abortion, a woman goes through all the stages of loss again but it is the woman's decision whether she is ready to take that step or not. In that decision, it is very important for a woman to know her possibilities, to understand her fears,” she noted.

UNFPA research in 2022 showed that the preference for boys over girls is on the rise in Armenia. 

About 91 per cent said that “sons continue the lineage” and 83 per cent stated that “boys are the defenders of the motherland”. In a similar poll conducted by UNFPA in 2017, respondents were 64 per cent and 17 per cent respectively. 

The defeat in the 2020 war and the increasingly volatile security situation along the border with Azerbaijan are thought to be behind the sharp increase of respondents who see sons as “defenders of the motherland”.


“The issue of gender selection deepens even more when the family is expecting a third child,” says Zaruhi Tonoyan, coordinator of the UNFPA’s programme to combat gender discrimination. “In fact, from the second child on, families prefer to have a child whose gender will differ from the gender of the first, also considering that the birth rate is decreasing.”

This is what happened in Alla’s family. 

“My firstborn, my daughter, is five years old. My husband adores her, he says he wouldn't exchange her for 1,000 boys. But his family dreamed of a grandson and he kept saying that our second child had to be a boy,” Alla (not her real name), told IWPR. The 28-year-old lives in a village in the eastern region of Gegharkunik, which borders Azerbaijan -the UNFPA research showed that the region has the highest prevalence of families favouring boys over girls. 

Alla’s in-laws repeatedly told her that a woman’s duty was to give birth to a boy child to continue the family name.

“The topic was discussed so much that I was inclined to think that our second child ought to be a boy. When I got pregnant two years ago, I found out it was a girl… We were not expecting a girl. A boy was needed,” she recalled, adding, “I don’t want to talk too much about it. I had an abortion. I had to.”

After the abortion, Alla developed health problems; doctors said it will take her body a long time to recover.  

“I committed a sin, I did it without realising it. I've gone to 1,000 doctors, but I can't get pregnant. God punished me,” she said as she showed a small shrine she had set up in a corner of her room. She said that her day starts and ends with a prayer, in the hope “to be forgiven and have another child”.

In 2013, UNFPA recorded that the imbalance was particularly dramatic for third births: the level of 173 sons born for every 100 daughters was the world’s highest.

Experts maintain that the root of the problem needed to be addressed.

“We should learn to value girls, women should be valued in society. We need to have conversations about it, so that we can prevent the issue of gender-based selection,” Tonoyan said. “We are taking a step back. We had a positive index, which we need to achieve again by continuing awareness activities regarding this issue, as well as capacity building among healthcare workers, who should provide proper counseling to women for the latter to make informed decisions.”

Ethnographer Hranush Kharatyan agreed. 

“There is a need to change the mentality, to value the role of women. Gender equality wil make the issue [sex selection at birth] disappear,” he told IWPR.

In Yerevan, Ani says that she is now ready for a girl. 

“The new child is the beginning of a new life and will not be a replacement for my lost boy… You know, it is very difficult to be honest with yourself,” she continued. “But you have to be. When you are very honest, you realise that you are selfish, that you want nature to adapt to you and give you what you want. However, this is a matter that should not be interfered with. A girl or a boy, the child must be born.”

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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