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Attitudes, inequalities at root of ‘missing’ girls

For anyone wanting to reduce the number of abortions in Canada, my advice is to start well before conception.

To be clear, reducing abortions is not a personal interest of mine. Pregnancy terminations may happen in circumstances that I find saddening or even distasteful, but women's reproductive health rights are a value I hold higher than avoiding squeamish feelings. The reasons behind abortions that make me unhappy are deep and tangled, and I'd rather deal with those than clamp down on an essential health service.

Take the issue of sex-selective abortions: This week, the Canadian Medical Association Journal published two related studies that found a higher-than-expected ratio of boys to girls born to immigrants from India over the past two decades. One set of researchers estimated that over the past two decades, there were at least 4,472 "missing" girls – that is, daughters not born to Indian immigrants in Canada, mainly in families in which both parents were from India.

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I find this upsetting. I also resist a suggestion made in a CMAJ editorial in 2012, that one solution would be to prohibit parents from learning the sex of a fetus until after 30 weeks' gestation. Noting that it would be unfair to "paint all Asians with the same broad brush" and apply that guideline to any specific ethnic group, the editorial suggested that women of all ethnicities might "make a temporary compromise," and forgo learning their baby's sex in advance.

Good luck with that idea. I'm mystified when parents are desperate to start painting their nurseries blue or pink, but that behaviour doesn't seem to be changing any time soon. Besides, it would be unfair to punish all prospective parents for the actions of a very few. More importantly, I'm against forcing anyone to have a baby that they don't want.

It's certainly frustrating when immigrants seem inclined to repeat the mistakes of their forefathers despite the mess such practices created in their homeland. Both India and China are grappling with shockingly skewed demographics because of a traditional preference for boys. The 2011 Indian census recorded 37 million more men than women, while 2015 figures found an excess of 33 million men in China.

The resulting "marriage squeeze" is having many unfortunate effects. In an article about the Asia-wide lack of women, The Wall Street Journal reported that unmarried men commit far more crimes than married men and that some social scientists believe imbalanced sex ratios have led to sexual assaults and bride trafficking. Surely this isn't what parents dream of for their sons.

But it's short-sighted to brand this an immigrant problem or to react by restricting women's rights. This is a problem of tradition and history, and modern Asia is troubled by it, too. While India and China are scrambling to find real fixes, the Journal noted that South Korea seems to have turned around a centuries-old preference for boys in a single generation.

Sex-selective abortions took off in South Korea after 1980, when ultrasounds became widely available. By 1990, the Journal notes, 116.5 boys were born for every 100 girls (the average in most Western countries, including Canada, is 105 boys to 100 girls). Korean advocates for women and girls didn't respond by attempting to restrict reproductive freedom. Instead, they targeted issues of women's inequality; for example, pushing for legislation to allow families to use the mother's surname, instead of the father's, as was traditional. The government was also persuaded to subsidize child care up to the age of 5, and to give incentives to companies offering paternity leave. The results were extraordinary: By 2014, the ratio of male to female babies was at the 105-to-100 level that health experts consider natural.

If we want the same result for Canada's South Asian babies, this is the template to follow. Restricting access to health information or abortions might help to fix the numbers, but it's the stories behind the numbers that matter.

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I don't just want the "right" number of girl babies to show up every year. I want to end discrimination against the girls currently living with parents who had them reluctantly, and to make sure that women have options if they're abused for not producing boys. I want senior citizens to know they'll be taken care of even if their sons don't bring home wives, and I want 35-year-olds to feel valued by their communities whether or not they have partners.

Maybe the result of all that would be fewer abortions in Canada. But that's not the goal we should prioritize.

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About the Author
Journalist and editor

Denise Balkissoon is an editor in the Globe’s Life section and a columnist in Comment. The National Magazine Award-winning writer is also a co-founder of The Ethnic Aisle, a blog about race and ethnicity in the Greater Toronto Area. More

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