ADELAIDE, SOUTH AUSTRALIA: Deep rooted historical preference for sons over daughters continues to be customary in some East and South Asian countries devaluing women and posing long term threats to society.
This disturbing situation, often leading to female feticide – or sex selective abortion – has been particularly prevalent where males are more valued for religious, social, cultural and economic reasons.
The patriarchal traditions embedded in some Asian Pacific populations have created a critical gender imbalance with a huge surplus of men, leaving women struggling for recognition and equality in families, workplaces and society.
The complex issue of so-called discrimination at the womb has come sharply into the spotlight at the 2023 Congress of the Asia Pacific Initiative on Reproduction (ASPIRE) in South Australia.
Indian fertility specialist, Dr Jaideep Malhotra, said according to the latest United Nations population projections the worldwide sex ratio was expected to even out by 2050.
“But this projection is about numbers of men and women in the world, not real equality,” she told the ASPIRE meeting of leaders in assisted reproduction from the Asia Pacific region and beyond.
“In terms of health and survival, educational attainment, economic participation and opportunity, and political empowerment, the 2023 Global Gender Gap Index prepared by the World Economic Forum estimates that the gender gap in East Asia and the Pacific will not close for another 180 years.
“This compares with 67 years in Europe and 96 years in North America,” Dr Malhotra explained.
Dr Malhotra said the cultural values of patrilineal descent were ingrained in countries like China, India, Pakistan and Nepal and they also persist in Vietnam and Japan where male offspring are considered essential to maintain bloodlines and provide economic security for their families.
“A general trend towards declining family size, previously fostered in countries like China through stringent policies to restrict the number of children born, has deeply rooted the preference for male offspring,” she said.
“As a result, women are often under immense family and societal pressure to produce sons and, if not, girls can be born into unwelcome family environments as unwanted children.
“This also causes discrimination against girls in nutritional and medical care and, in worst cases, illegal abortions, girl babies being given away for adoption or abandoned.
“While there is an argument for parent autonomy and their rights to control their family structure, the topic of designing one’s own family is highly contentious and controversial.
“Advances in reproductive technology make embryonic sex selection possible and people in higher socio-economic circumstances can afford to access this treatment. But for those on lower socio-economic levels there is a slippery slope that can lead misguided people into the dark side practice of sex selection.”
Dr Malhotra said an unbalanced sex ratio could have a ripple effect across many aspects of society with some countries unable to sustain a birth rate that matches or exceeds its death rate.
“This in turn can result in a decreasing population and fewer able-bodied workers entering the workforce, ultimately leading to a stagnant or shrinking economy and reduced gross domestic product.”
Dr Malhotra said the United Nations Population Fund had launched a global program to prevent son preference and gender-based sex selection and governments in various countries were working on gender equality interventions.
“Public advocacy campaigns are also being rolled out to help combat traditional attitudes towards girls, but in some places the issue is so ingrained it will take a long time to achieve real change,” she added.
“Good stewardship is needed whereby countries implement policies through legislation and programs addressing women’s rights, education deficits and socio-economic disadvantage so that they are seen as independent and empowered members of society.”
Dr Malhotra said the Federation of Obstetric and Gynaecological Societies of India (FOGSI) had initiated a range of programs to support women in pregnancy care and parenting, and in the prevention of domestic violence against women.
The ASPIRE Congress is being held at the Adelaide Convention Centre.
Media Release, 10 September 2023