30 Dec 2018


“I TRY not to reveal the baby’s gender,” says Sameena. “It is heartbreaking to see the parents’ faces fall when they know it’s a girl.”

It’s a situation that Sameena has seen quite often in her 15 years as an OB/GYN specialist. “I have seen many women who have had abortion histories — and when questioned, many of them talk about the baby being a girl.”

It is no secret that in Pakistan, female foeticide is a widespread practice. According to the Edhi Foundation, 890 newborn baby girls were killed in 2008, almost a 1,000 in 2009, and 1,210 in 2010. These are the reported cases and only the ones in the big cities. Approximately 200 pregnancies are reportedly aborted because of the baby’s gender. In the cases of those babies who do survive, the girls are the ones who are either neglected or not given as much care as a boy.

These are probably the reasons why Punjab Health Minister Dr Yasmin Rashid has said a bill will soon be tabled, that would put a ban on revealing the gender of a baby.

“The embryo has to be at least around 20 weeks for the sex to be known, and if the abortion takes place afterwards, the baby is quite big when it is aborted,” says Sameena.

Amina Bibi, 23, was pregnant for the second time with a girl — which did not sit too well with her husband and in laws. “My mother-in-law took me to a woman who terminated my pregnancy,” she said. A tear rolls down her cheek, as she speaks. “I can never forget how ‘normal’ they all were after that.”

Female foeticide and infanticide, combined with the number of females who die as a result of unequal opportunities or access to resources, are what make the ‘missing women’. It is a term coined by Amartya Sen, a Nobel Laureate for economics, to indicate the difference between the women present on the planet and those that would have been here if the sex ratio been ‘natural’ worldwide. Sen estimates that more than 60 million women are demographically missing from the world as a result of sex-selective abortions and female infanticide.

Dr Shershah Syed, one of the country’s most renowned gynaecologists, says that if it comes about, the law would be an excellent step forward. “There is no real need for parents to check the baby’s gender,” he says. “In my experience, girls are unwanted. But this is certainly not limited to any one area or class in particular. It’s true for urban and rural areas both. The reason is obvious: when boys fall ill or need nutrition or care, more concern is given by families, including the mother. Girls are usually not taken care of to that extent. They won’t be taken to the hospital when they are ill, while boys will be taken for treatment on the slightest pretext.”

Nabila Malik from the Rahnuma Family Planning Association of Pakistan says that such a law, against the revelation of gender, exists in the UK. “Pakistan has been seeing a constant decline of the female population, while the male-female ratio is unnatural,” she says.

Rescue services have their own experiences.

“Around 90 per cent of the babies we rescue from abandonment are girls,” says Faisal Edhi. “For the last 15 to 20 years, with the rise of technology, we are also finding immature embryos. This is the case all over Pakistan.”

The Pakistan Bureau of Statistics shows that while the sex ratio at birth revolves around 105 male births per 100 female births, in Pakistan, it is estimated to be 109.9.

“Forty-nine per cent women versus 51pc men is indicative of an issue somewhere,” says Fauzia Viqar, chairperson of the Punjab Commission for Status of Women.

Nabila Malik, while condoning such a gender-cognisant law, voices concern about such practices. “We need to know how the government will clamp down on private practices that will perhaps charge more and end up telling the parents the baby’s gender,” she says. In China, South Korea, and India, these are booming businesses. “Eventually, it will be the more privileged class that will be paying for it, because the others won’t be able to afford it.” Along with any law, the government must do more to raise awareness, and change the mindset, she says.

Dr Shershah too says that until the social mentality changes, laws will merely ‘ban’ things.

Strategies could include a campaign for raising awareness about not just human rights but also for caring for girls. But the poorer a country is, the more of an economic burden the girl-child becomes. Unfortunately, not everyone will understand it from a human rights’ perspective, but they may understand from an economic perspective.

“We must invest more in girls’ education, in their labour-force participation, in order to make them more desirable to their parents,” says Nabila. “If gaps in policies are not removed, gender-based violence will not be curtailed.”

Published in Dawn, December 30th, 2018