The missing daughters of India

April 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Here in the UK we have just finished filling out our census forms. Nothing too shocking is likely to come out of it, except a more accurate representation of the ethnic diversity of Britain and perhaps some interesting figures on the number of couples living outside of marriage.

In India, the country’s recent census reveals a far more noteworthy statistic. It has just recorded the lowest gender ratio  since India’s Independence in 1947. The gender ration says that there are 914 girls to every 1000 boys.

These gender imbalances don’t just “happen” by a quirk of nature. What it means is for every 1000 boys, there are at least 86 girls under the age of six who were killed before or at birth. And what this means is that there is an endemic culture of destroying daughters and protecting sons.

According to campaigning groups, girls are often dying as part of a campaign of neglect. If a daughter is ill, she is not always bought medicine. If there isn’t enough food, she is often the one who goes hungry.  The site Gender Bytes calls this “negligent homicide”,  supported by the fact that girls under five in India have got a 40% higher mortality rate than boys the same age.

An increase in ultrasound technology and the ready availability of tests to determine a baby’s sex has also lead to millions of female foetuses being aborted, according to the medical journal The Lancet.

And those that are born that are unwanted can face hideous circumstances – read some of them here – where mothers won’t feed their babies, or poison them, or abandon them. One shocking part of this report reads: “For despite the risk of execution by hanging and about 16 months of a much-ballyhooed government scheme to assist families with daughters, in some hamlets of Tamil Nadu, murdering girls is still sometimes believed to be a wiser course than raising them”

Social bigotry towards girls has a long cultural history in India, and stats like this bring home the serious human cost of outdated misogyny. The gradual increase of standards of living for women in India, better financial independence and more social mobility across the country will help to challenge these old stereotypes that having a girl is a financial and cultural burden.

Because there is no alternative – the country can’t carry on in this trend, with fewer and fewer women each census. The women who are brought up as second class citizens then raise their daughters as second class citizens – this census should prove a wake up call that it’s time to change the system before any more precious female lives are wasted, and all their life’s potential lost with them.

After all as woman one put it, after killing her second daughter: “ “Instead of her suffering the way I do, I thought it was better to get rid of her.”

This census cost the Indian state 22bn rupees.  I hope the cost can prove to be an investment with desperately needed rewards for women.


Hungarian government takes steps to encourage women to have babies

January 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

Hungary Parliament Building, Budapest

A really interesting story on the Guardian website – originally from Le Monde –  on the declining birth rate in Hungary. The population has dived to 10 million, with a fertility rate of 1.27 births per woman forming one of the lowest in Europe.

A number of factors can go towards explaining this of course – in the 1990s abortion rights were heavily restricted so of course the birth right was higher, and under Communist rule, which ended in 1989, women were seen as an essential part of the workforce, both as workers but also as mothers. The pressure to reproduce was heavily emphasised by the state. Women’s rights groups have sprung up in the last 20 years, namely the Feminist Network which was founded by 50 women in 1990, but it could still be said that the post-Communist years have seen women exercise the freedom to challenge their roles from wives and mothers.

Hungarian women are being offered a massive three years maternity leave in a bid to encourage women to have babies – along with plans to improve part time jobs which currently only account for 3% of employment.

Look across to neighbouring Holland, and part time jobs account for 30%.  The problem here is more the challenges of careful town planning to cope as family numbers grow in a densely populated country. The fertility rate is 1.66 births per woman in Holland.

The maternity leave system is also different in the Netherlands – while woman only receive six months leave for pregnancy, she receives full payment of her salary in that time and excellent workplace-related rights. And, crucially, fathers in Holland get good paternity rights too.

Neighbouring Hungary could learn a lot from these lessons – as could the majority of countries in the EU. Make it easier for families to cope with the financial stress of childbirth, make it easier for women to return to work, and for men to take time off to also care for their children. Share the burden between men and women and the whole country suffers.

Otherwise women are condemned to a choice of either family or career.

Ireland might be forced to face abortion issue

December 17, 2010 § Leave a comment


European Court of Human Rights

When it comes to human rights, life gets complicated. Someone being able to exercise their human rights might have a negative impact on the human rights of someone else – and thus the neverending debates around the subject.

In the case of Ireland an importance ruling for women was made this week – the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Irish abortion laws violated the rights of women.

Controversy surrounds the case, which is slightly more complicated than it sounds – three women took the case to the ECHR, and only one woman was ruled to have had her human rights breached.

The key piece of information however is that the Irish government is likely to now be forced to introduce new legislation.

According to the BBC’s Irish Correspondant, Mark Simpson: “Changing the law would also be a political minefield. Ireland is bitterly divided over abortion, and the Irish government has plenty of other priorities at present with the financial crisis and a general election early next year.

“The European Court ruling means Ireland must now reconsider its abortion legislation. The current government will be in no rush to do so.”

Of course a cynic might point out that addressing unwanted pregnancies could form a key part of the country’s economic policy, but its not economy that makes the Ireland government avoid touching this issue with a barge pole: its religion. And that’s far more complicated to address.

The key part of this case is how the women described that they felt stigmatised and humiliated by not being entitled to an abortion, and all three said they had suffered medical complications on travelling to Britain.

The court described the Irish medical system and courts as inadequate to considering the real effect on women’s health. The system is not fit for purpose – abortion is currently only allowed if it will endanger the woman’s life. But what, exactly, will that entail? Do they consider the physiological effects on the morther? Not adequately enough, according to yesterday’s ruling. It took a referendum in 1983 to establish that the mother’s right to life was equal to that out of the child.

So, for now, abortion remains illegal in Ireland – along with large parts of South America, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa. It is, however, the only major country in Europe to maintain its anti-abortion laws (the only others being the Vatican City and Malta), and that’s interesting in itself: the rest of European countries have policies to address the seissue for the good of their women. Ireland must stop hedging away from this issue.

But, the pressure is rising, and it looks as though their might be a time in sight where women don’t have to make the distressing trip to another country and endanger their physical and mental health.

African women risk their lives for abortions

November 16, 2010 § Leave a comment


A well-written and sobering blog post on the Guardian Development blog here. Out of the 5.6m abortions that take place in Africa every year, a mere 100,000 take place under safe conditions.

This is a statistic that should make everyone feel humble. Without generalising, I imagine that having an abortion is a decision no woman takes lightly – and millions of African women are so desperate not to have the baby that they knowingly risk their lives.

Legalising abortion is a controversial issue that will never satisfy everyone either way – but as this post points out – the loss of the women has wider impacts on society:

“The terrible toll of unsafe abortion goes well beyond the individual woman. Losing their mother and care-giver devastates the lives of children and families, and losing a healthy woman’s many contributions to society weakens her community. Unsafe abortion is also a serious drain on very limited public health resources. African governments spend, on average, $114 per case to provide care for illness and disability associated with unsafe abortion, yet per-capita spending on healthcare averages just $48.”

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