by Cath Elliott
There have been a number of articles in the UK press over recent weeks highlighting the increasing prevalence of sex selective abortions. Even though abortion on the grounds of gender is not permitted under UK law, there is currently nothing to stop women from travelling overseas to deal with unwanted female foetuses.
Female foeticide is illegal in India, but it still appears to be easily accessible, as this report from the BBC illustrates:
"Sex selective abortion - female foeticide, as it is known - has been illegal in India since the early 1980s. Having a scan to find out the sex is also against the law.
But the law has simply forced the practice underground and UN figures state that 750,000 girls are aborted every year in India."
I can understand why, in certain cultures, women are driven to female foeticide. In patriarchal traditional societies it's easy to see how girl children come to be considered a burden: when marriage still means a dowrie to be paid; when the family business is still the son's inheritance, and when the care and financial security of the elderly is the responsibility of sons and not daughters, what possible motivation can there be for families to cherish their baby girls?
The United Nations Population Fund recently published a series of studies highlighting the sex-ratio imbalance in Asia, which it produced for the 4th Asia Pacific Conference on Sexual and Reproductive Health. The future implications of this gender imbalance are spelled out clearly:
"The ramifications of such an imbalance will not only continue for decades, but will affect an enormous proportion of the Asian population. While men of marriageable age will suddenly find a dramatic shortage of potential brides, it is girls and women of all ages who will truly feel the brunt of this dynamic. In addition to forecasted increases in gender-based violence, trafficking, discrimination and general vulnerability of women and girls, it is crucial to understand what has led to this imbalance in the first place: a deeply rooted preference for sons, which leads parents across cultures and geographic locations to decide against allowing a girl to live, even before her birth, and the increasing availability of technology that enables them to do so with ease."
India, China and other nations facing this issue have already begun taking steps to deal with it, from outlawing prenatal sex determination tests to trying to raise the status of women in those countries, but should the UK and other western states now be thinking about becoming more proactive in tackling this problem?
In the UK, the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003, protects girls and women taken overseas for the purpose of genital mutilation, and the new Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act protects girls and women at risk of forced marriage both at home and abroad. Is it perhaps time for a similar law to be introduced to deal specifically with sex selective abortion, that would prevent women from travelling abroad and aborting their female foetuses? Or is the only answer to ensure that women and girls are valued as equal citizens across the globe?
Can we really afford to wait that long?