Nepal’s ‘missing girls’
The spread of ultrasound clinics to detect the sex of babies is leading to a slaughter of daughters in Nepal, sharply skewing the country’s gender balance.
A recent survey has shown that 77% of expecting mothers undergo ultrasound scans, and 12% abort their babies after identifying their gender.
For every 106 boys born, there are only 100 girls, and 12 of Nepal’s 77 districts are already reporting a widening gender gap. Nepal’s national census next month is expected to reveal the true number of ‘missing girls’ in its total population.
The study conducted by the Center for Research on Environment, Health and Population Activities (CREHPA) shows that deep-rooted patriarchal values and preference of a boy over a girl child is entrenched in Nepali society.
“Nepal easily tops the list of Asian countries that prefers a son over a daughter and the crime of sex-selective abortion continues unabated,” said Bandana Rana of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
Despite prevailing laws, sex-elective abortion in Nepal is increasing, experts told a ‘Gender-Biased Sex Selection’ workshop organised by the Sancharika Samuha media group in Kathmandu last week.
Sex-selective abortion is illegal in both Nepal and India, but the practice continues in both countries where sons inherit ancestral property and daughters are not considered worth the investment.
Even if there is no clear preference in the first pregnancy, 44% of women in the CREPHA survey said that they would want a son the second time they are pregnant, and only 28% said they would like a daughter.
Their reasons included persecution and hostility from husbands and in-laws for giving birth to a daughter, lack of control over their body, the economic dependence on their husband’s family, respect for having a son, among others.
The practice is more prevalent in Hindu families, Muslims in Nepal’s Tarai and among the groups practicing dowry. It is less common among Nepal’s indigenous groups, where the preference for boys is less pronounced.
Many pregnant mothers are taken by in-laws to private clinics in the cities or across the border in India seeking ultrasound scans to find out the gender of their babies. Many then abort the baby if it is a girl, risking their health.
Anyone identifying the gender of a baby with an intention of committing sex-selective abortion can face three to six months in jail. Those involved in sex-selective abortion can be served with up to additional 12 months of imprisonment.
But the culprits are often not identified or prosecuted, claims advocate Sonali Regmi, adding that society’s denial of women's independent identity was the main reason for the abortions. Indeed, it is often not the mother that wants the abortion, but her husband or in-laws.
“A woman still doesn’t have an identity apart from being someone’s mother, wife, daughter and sister. The biggest reflection of this is the fact that citizenship is still not issued in the name of mother,” says Regmi.
Abortion was legalised in Nepal in 2002 nd as per the law, is legal up to 12 weeks of gestation, up to 18 weeks in case of rape or incest, and at any stage of the pregnancy if it poses danger to the physical or mental health of the expecting woman, or if the foetus suffers from a severe physical deformity.
Prior to this, Nepal had a strict anti-abortion law, and women seeking the service were imprisoned. The practice of relatives accusing young daughters-in-law of abortion just to put them behind bars was prevalent.
While legalisation of abortion gave an avenue for women to pursue safe services, it also led to the proliferation of ultrasound clinics across the country allowing parents to terminate pregnancies if they were girls.
Activists estimate the number of ‘missing girls’ every year as high as 50,000 babies aborted after parents find out through ultrasound scans that they are girls. This did not include abortions carried out without parents knowing the gender of their babies.
Speaking at the workshop, Sancharika Group's Nitu Pandit said the media had a role in spreading the message: “We need to continue raising awareness about sex-selective abortion, and push the state for corrective measures to reduce it.”