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South Caucasus: Selective Abortion Means Fewer Girls Born
As the Council of Europe prepares to debate serious gender imbalances in the three states of the South Caucasus, doctors in Armenia and Azerbaijan say banning pre-natal sex selection would drive the medical procedures involved underground.
A report due to go before the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, PACE, says there is strong evidence of pre-natal sex selection in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, as well as Albania.
While the report, delivered by PACE member Doris Stump, noted that abortion was the commonest method of sex selection in low-income countries, new reproductive technologies could also be used for the same purpose, particularly by the better-off.
Abortions at up to 12 weeks are legal in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. Parents are able to find out what sex the foetus is.
The report will be considered at a PACE session on October 3-7 and if its recommendations are adopted, the four member states concerned will be obliged to alter their legislation accordingly.
“We should take a stance against prenatal sex selection in the strongest terms, because of its potential social consequences and because it perpetuates a culture of gender inequality which is contrary to human rights and the universal values upheld by the Council of Europe.” Stump’s report concluded. “We should be careful, however, not to use prenatal sex selection as a pretext to limit legal abortion.”
Figures cited by the PACE document show that 112 boys are born for every 100 girls in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, while in Georgia the ratio is 111 to 100.
The United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, puts the worldwide sex ratio at birth at between 105 and 106 boys for every 100 females. That ratio applied in the South Caucasus until 1991, when the three states separated from the Soviet Union.
Since then, parents in all three countries have shown a definite preference for male children, resulting in the deliberate abortion female foetuses, particularly when a family already has one or two daughters.
Last year, 19 per cent of pregnancies in Armenia, for example, resulted in a termination. Most abortions were sought by women who had two or three children.
Gayane Avagyan, a gynaecologist in Armenia, said doctors often tried to persuade women not to go ahead with a termination if they knew it was because the foetus was female. But this was pointless if the couple had already made up their minds.
“My husband did not force me to have an abortion,” Ruhiya, a 32-year-old from the Azerbaijani capital Baku, said. “He adores our two older daughters and wouldn’t have been against having a third. He dealt with all the pressure from relatives – about not having an heir – by saying that raising three daughters ensures you a place in heaven. But at the same time, he really dreamed of having a son.”
Ruhiya had four ultrasound scans until she was sure she was expecting a girl, and had an abortion at 12 weeks, the latest date the procedure is allowed without medical reasons.
Daughters in Azerbaijan tend to leave home on marriage to live with their husbands’ family, so parents without a son may be left to fend for themselves in old age.
Ruhiya reflected this concern, saying, ”He’s a lot older than me and he’s worried that when he retires on his pension, our family will be penniless. We’re both university lecturers, so we can’t expect big pensions.”
She soon became pregnant again and gave birth to a son.
Stump’s report recommends outlawing sex-selective abortion except in the case of severe genetic disease, launching a massive awareness-raising campaign, and introducing new ethics guidelines for doctors.
Karine Saribekyan, head of the women’s health department at Armenia’s health ministry, said her government was aware of the implications of a PACE decision calling for changes to national law.
“Every family wants to have children of both sexes, but abortion on the basis of gender is wrong,” she said. “If a couple aren’t prepared to raise a child, then they shouldn’t plan a pregnancy.”
The three South Caucasian republics have yet to legislate against selective sex selection. Both China and South Korea have had significant success with awareness-raising campaigns and other actions. Since banning selective abortion, China has reduced the male-to-female ratio at birth from 120 to 100 in 2005 to 113 to 100.
Doctors and health experts in Azerbaijan and Armenia are calling for caution, saying any ban on using medical techniques to determine sex before birth could encourage people to turn to illegal practitioners.
Avagyan said that if legal terminations stopped being available, women would resort to more dangerous methods.
“There have been many cases when women have taken medicines [to induce abortion] in the wrong doses and have suffered serious problems as a result, such as haemorrhaging or parts of the foetus remaining inside the mother. Sometimes these medicines are fake and the pregnancy continues,” she said.
Matanat Azizova, director of the Women’s Crisis Centre in Azerbaijan, expressed similar concerns.
“Introducing a ban on finding out the sex of a child would just lead to more corruption in medical institutions,” she said. “The solution has to lie in educating people... and in raising the status of women in society. We will achieve nothing with strict bans.”
Garik Hayrapetyan, assistant representative of the UNPF office in Yerevan, also warned that bans might be counterproductive.
“I think that speedy adoption of this [PACE] resolution, and a ban on announcing the sex of babies, would not be the right decision, at least for Armenia,” he said. “I am quite certain it would lead to increased corruption; the information would cost more money.”
As the debate continues among experts, a continuing preference for sons will store up demographic problems for Azerbaijan and Armenia, as well as often causing anguish in families.
Karine Nahapetyan and her husband Suren kept their decision to seek a termination from their young daughter, but she later found out and was very upset.
“She told us she didn’t love us, and started punching me in the stomach and calling me a bad mother,” Karine said.
Karine’s husband Suren added, “Of course I’m sad this has happened – maybe my daughter will never love me. But you need to understand that I can only raise two children, and that if the second were a girl, we’d have to have a third child so that we’ve have a boy. I know that my wife suffers because of this, and that it’s me who made her have the abortion, but an Armenian family isn’t complete unless there’s an heir to carry on the name.”
In Azerbaijan, too, Azizova said the cultural preference continued to be for sons.
“Despite the existence of a law on gender equality, in our society men’s status is sadly higher than that of women. That’s particularly obvious in the provinces,” she said.
Parandzem Hovhannisyan is a correspondent for MediaLab in Armenia. Aliya Haqverdi is a freelance journalist in Azerbaijan.
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