The lost girls: ‘If you have a girl, you feel you’ve let your husband down’
In many ethnic minority communities, the pressure to give birth to sons rather than daughters can be overwhelming – and sometimes heartbreaking. Cahal Milmo talks to Britons with experience of the cultural bias against female babies
Cahal Milmo is the chief reporter of The Independent and has been with the paper since 2000. He was born in London and previously worked at the Press Association news agency. He has reported on assignment at home and abroad, including Rwanda, Sudan and Burkina Faso, the phone hacking scandal and the London Olympics. In his spare time he is a keen runner and cyclist, and keeps an allotment.
Tuesday 14 January 2014
Rupi remembers her second pregnancy with tearful dread. Having given birth to a girl two years before, she had expected the further love and support of her husband and his family. Instead, she came under extraordinary pressure to have an abortion.
The 29-year-old British Indian, who has asked The Independent not to reveal her real name, found out during a private scan that the child she was expecting was a girl. It was at this point that congratulations turned to consternation and the hints began that "it could be taken care of".
She told The Independent: "It was a completely traumatic time. I had this child growing inside, a beautiful thing. But my family weren't happy, they wanted me to have a son. My husband's family were not wealthy and a son is so cherished.
"I'll never forget. My mother-in-law sat me down one evening and said I should think about making the pregnancy go away, that it could be taken care of. It was clear what she meant. When I told my husband what she had said, he said it was something we could consider. I was shocked. I felt as if my baby had become dirty, shameful."
After seeking the help of a community group near her home in Slough, Rupi, who comes from a Sikh family, persuaded her family that she should keep her daughter, now a bouncing three-year-old girl. But she has no plans for further children.
Other outcomes are not so happy.
In communities of different faiths and ethnicities across Britain, there is evidence that women are seeking abortions both in the United Kingdom and abroad on the sole basis that their unborn child is a girl.
The Independent has been told of at least 12 cases in the Midlands where women have travelled to India to terminate a female foetus. In another case, a woman brought to Britain for an arranged marriage was abused by her husband and inlaws after giving birth to daughters before being threatened with a forced abortion if tests showed she was carrying a girl in a subsequent pregnancy.
Whether voluntarily or as a result of pressure from spouses and relatives, mothers-to-be are shaping - or being compelled to shape - their families to service the notion that a son is culturally, economically and socially more desirable than a daughter, according campaigners and clinicians within these communities.
From Chinese to Pakistani couples, Muslim to Hindu to Sikh, the practice is deeply rooted, springing from reasons such as the desire for a male to continue the family name, or the wish to avoid the swingeing financial burden of paying a dowry of up to £25,000 per daughter. More ethereal prejudices include the belief that if a son - and not a daughter - administers the last rites to a father, then the patriarch's soul is speeded to heaven.
Community workers told The Independent that there may be dozens of female foetuses a year in Britain which are being terminated because of "son preference".
Jasvinder Sanghera, a leading campaigner on forced marriages and honour violence against women, who founded the charity Karma Nirvana, said: "There is absolutely no doubt that these terminations, where a mother has an abortion because the child is a girl, are taking place within the South Asian population in Britain.
"I think almost any Asian woman you talk to would say she feels a pressure to have a male child. There will be many, many Asian women out there who are pregnant and who are thinking, 'please, please let it be a boy'.
"If you have a daughter, these women will tell us, they feel they have let their husband or in-laws down. In those circumstances, women are seeking abortions if they can find out that the child is a girl."
Asked what proportion of families would have a preference for a son, she added: "Without a shadow of doubt, more than 50 per cent."
A subject as emotive and private as abortion means that few within affected communities are willing to openly discuss a practice which is barely spoken of even within families. The taboo - and illegal - nature of termination based on gender adds another often impermeable layer of reticence.
But slowly a picture is emerging of the means by which selective abortion of girls - known as female feticide - is being carried out among Britons and the reasons why it is being perpetuated into generations born and raised in the UK. An investigation by the Daily Telegraph last year exposed two doctors who were apparently willing to authorise abortions based on gender, though the Crown Prosecution Service decided to press charges.
Seema, 36, an Afghan based in London who works with women's groups, said: "It goes on. Often it is a woman who is brought from Afghanistan and the tribal areas where these beliefs are very strong. It is not frequent but we hear of doctors who will sign off on the papers."
Within the Indian and Pakistani communities, terminations are often carried out on the Subcontinent itself, where despite legislation banning scans to reveal the gender of a child many clinics are willing to provide a diagnosis to wealthy visitors from abroad for about £50. A termination can then be arranged for around £120.
Dr Sudhir Sethi, a NHS consultant paediatrician who specialises in child health in Leicester, told The Independent he knew of 12 families in the city where mothers had travelled to India to terminate a female foetus. The doctor, who runs an information campaign with religious and community leaders to counter selective abortion, said he had heard of "many other" cases via the network.
He said: "There are no reliable and absolute figures to say how many [are travelling abroad for terminations] but we can say that they are more than just a few, to say the very least.
"There are many travelling to India, not only from the UK but those settled in other parts of the world. It is a lucrative and a thriving business - overseas Indians are more lucrative because of the amount they can pay for this to be done."
Illustrating the problem, the doctor cited the words of a woman from Britain's Punjabi community, the region of northern India where selective abortion is most prevalent: "They go on holiday with a belly and a baby inside, and they return with no baby and no belly."
The terminations are also taking place within Britain, according to community workers.
While many NHS hospitals have a policy of refusing to divulge the gender of a foetus until after the 24-week abortion limit, private scans are available. A mother seeking a termination can then insist her reasons are based on the threat to her mental and physical well-being enshrined in the abortion law.
Dr Sethi said: "I am told that sometimes woolly reasons like detriment to the mother's mental and emotional health have been used to get rid of these unwanted female foetuses."
And yet the cultural underpinning to the desire for a son runs deeply across some of Britain's ethnic minorities and indeed extends among white Britons, where so-called "family balancing" is increasingly cited as a reason for the use of emerging technologies such as sperm washing to select the gender of a child.
As one worker for a helpline for Chinese women put it: "Why shouldn't a woman be allowed to decide whether the child she carries is a girl or a boy? There is a right for the woman to control her body."
Campaigners counter that it is the element of compulsion and the eventual gender-balance problems generated where there can be up to a third more males than females that makes selective abortion such an insidious threat.
The desire to avoid the payment of dowry, the practice of a bride's family providing either physical goods or cash for the "transfer" of a daughter, is cited as a particular reason why a daughter is considered a liability. In a recent legal dispute, a British Indian family recovered a dowry of £25,000, providing an insight into the level that payments can reach.
Mrs Sanghera said: "These attitudes are completely alive and kicking in our communities. And yet nobody is speaking out about them. We should be in no doubt at all, this preference for sons and pressuring a woman to achieve that end is part of the same set of problems as honour abuse and forced marriage. But there is no counter message coming out of our mosques, temples or gurdwaras."
Case workers said this translates into unseen domestic cruelty and a sense of helplessness for many women.
Karma Nirvana, based in Leeds, said it had dealt with a woman brought from Pakistan after marrying her British husband, who then underwent fertility treatment to become pregnant with a boy after she gave birth to two daughters. She had been physically and emotionally abused by her spouse and inlaws over her failure to produce a son.
When a scan showed she was indeed expecting a boy but the baby had mild disabilities, the woman was forced to have an abortion. She was then threatened with a further termination unless her subsequent pregnancy proved to be a boy. She has since left the marriage.
The lost girls: Illegal abortion widely used by some UK ethnic groups to avoid daughters 'has reduced female population by between 1,500 and 4,700'
The lost girls: Why it has been so difficult to prosecute doctors offering terminations where gender has been an issue
The charity said it was also aware of cases where women who have given birth to multiple daughters are simply divorced and a new wife sought who can provide a son.
Judy Barber, a senior call handler for the charity, said: "Many callers report that in their families and communities the birth of a boy is much more welcome than that of a girl. Two callers said that when a girl is born it is 'like a funeral'."
There is evidence that similar attitudes have been continued among second and third generation offspring of migrants. A BBC survey in 2012 found that two thirds of young British Asians believe that families should live according to the concept of "honour", with nearly one in five saying physical punishment of a woman for certain behaviour was justifiable.
Mrs Sanghera said: "The links back to South Asia are very strong and we see very often that these attitudes are transferred from one generation to the next. This is not a prejudice that can be quickly dismantled."
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