The oldest discrimination in the world

Posted on 9 May 2012


Analysis by Ann Cahill, Europe Correspondent

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

THERE is little new about gendercide, other than the 21st century ability to provide a scientific-sounding label, and modern technology’s ability to replace routine killings of baby girls with gender-specific abortions.

Generally, this crime is held at a safe distance from our consciousness, pigeon-holed in far-off China, where it is seen as a natural outcome of the country’s one-child policy.

And when it happens elsewhere, such as India, it is ascribed to ignorance and superstition.

But the profile of this practice has changed in recent years, and research is giving us a more complete picture, showing that this deadly form of discrimination is alive and thriving in some parts of Europe and the US as well.

A few years ago, researchers estimated that 100m baby girls were missing. Normally, 102-106 males are born per 100 females, but rates as high as 140 are being recorded in some parts of the world, meaning there are 25% more boys than girls.

In parts of Europe, the ratio has gone as high as 118 in Albania and 112 in Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Other countries are routinely higher, too, with Bosnia at 107, to Bosnia, and Serbia, Portugal, Spain, Greece, Estonia, Sweden, Poland, and Romania at over 106. Ireland is 105.7.

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, in their book Half the Sky, say more girls are killed every decade than “were slaughtered in all the genocides of the 20th century” — but it has “barely registered on the global agenda”.

There is no legislation dealing with sex selection other than in Sweden, where the National Board of Health and Welfare has ruled that women may abort their children based on the sex of the child alone. The ratio in Sweden of 106.5 is higher than neighbours Norway at 105.4, and Finland at 104 — the lowest in Europe.

The stereotype of ignorant, uneducated peasants having a preference for baby boys was shattered in a report carried out by Doris Stump for the Council of Europe. She recalled being told by women in Armenia and Georgia: “Every women has a right to have a boy.”

There, she found the incidence of sex selection is higher among women in urban environments, who have higher education, and a higher level of income.

Xinrán Xue, a Chinese writer living in London, whose books have raised awareness of this ongoing gendercide, told a hearing in the European Parliament organised by Dublin MEP Gay Mitchell of the reality.

She holds up a picture of a table coloured a typical Chinese red. “In China, we have furniture like this in many houses in the country. It is for killing baby girls. On top is warm water, they wash the baby boy in the top level. If a girl, they drop her into the water. It is not an antique. It is a big public secret in the countryside which people still use.”

In China, it cannot always be blamed on the one-child policy. Many minorities among the country’s 56 ethnic groups can have more children, but they choose boys, and the likelihood of the second, third, and fourth child being a boy is vastly increased. According to the UN, a third of married women have had sex-selective abortions.

The cause, however, is not that modern technology allows gender selection from before conception to abortion. In the south of India, there is no imbalance even though technology is more widespread than in the north.

According to the UN report on gendercide, “Sex selection in favour of boys is a symptom of pervasive social, cultural, political, and economic injustices against women, and a manifest violation of women’s human rights.”

Land and the system of only sons being able to inherit has played a major role in the plight of women. The system of having to provide daughters with a dowry means girls are seen as a burden on their own families and contribute only to the husband’s family — “raising daughters is watering another man’s garden”, goes one Chinese saying.

In these societies, a mother’s status is linked to having a son — if she fails to have a son her life is made very difficult by her husband and his family. She has been reared in this environment, too, and believes women are inferior and so killing a girl is no crime.

This goes even deeper in many societies, as Xinrán Xue points out. Sons are security for an old age where there are no pensions. And only sons can burn incense at their ancestors’ shrine and ensure their parents’ entry to the next world, while in India only sons can light the funeral pyre.

There are 25% fewer women than men in some Asian regions, while China and India are each missing at least 42m girls. This is already resulting in increased dangers for the girls that survive, as the imbalance has led to the kidnapping of women, forced marriage, a sharing of brides among brothers, and a new trade in sex slavery.

It also reflects the desperation of these single men — estimated at 25m in China, who are called “bare branches” and discriminated against for not marrying.

Changing sex-selection, the logical consequence of the most widespread and oldest discrimination in the world — against women — will take a long time, the UN acknowledges. Changing laws to ensure women can inherit is essential, while South Korea has achieved a lot through grants, scholarships, free education, and programmes in favour of girls.

China, too, has introduced similar incentives, although with less success in regions where old legislation on land inheritance continues. In India, there are communication campaigns involving many sectors of society.

Ending gendercide will not be easy, says Xinrán Xue. “Along the Yellow River, when people are talking about their families in the market, they use numbers. But they are not talking about prices, they are talking about the girls as they have been given a number, number 2, the second to arrive in the family, number 3, number 4 — because a girl has no right to have a name.

“Men are the beam to support the roof, and girls are just chopsticks. Useless, and girls think this too, that they are useless, easy to break.

“One piece of chopstick is easy to break, the lot together not so easy. We have been through so much, so much war. But this is the longest war in human history — the fight for women’s right and fight for girls’ right to live.”