GENEVA — Gender-biased sex selection reflects and fuels a culture of discrimination and violence, and must be addressed urgently by all segments of government and society as a matter of women’s human rights, five UN agencies have stressed.
A joint statement issued today by OHCHR, UNFPA, UNICEF, UN Women and WHO* reviews the evidence behind the causes, consequences and lessons learned regarding 'son preference' or sex selection favouring boys in many parts of South, East and Central Asia, where ratios as high as 130 boys for every 100 girls have been observed.
“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,” the statement notes, citing one man’s testimony that “the birth of a son enhances my status, while that of a girl lowers my head.”
“There is huge pressure on women to produce sons…which not only directly affects women’s reproductive decisions, with implications for their health and survival, but also puts women in a position where they must perpetuate the lower status of girls through son preference," according to the statement.
"It is also women who have to bear the consequences of giving birth to an unwanted girl child. These consequences can include violence, abandonment, divorce or even death, the statement adds.”
Against the backdrop of such intense pressure, women seek to discover the sex of a foetus through ultrasound. The discovery of a female foetus can then lead to its abortion. Sex selection can also take place before a pregnancy is established, or after the birth of a girl, through child neglect or infanticide. Over decades, the practice has caused a sex-ratio imbalance in many countries, particularly in South Asia, East Asia and Central Asia.
There is also the possibility of an increase in violence against women resulting from such an imbalance. For instance, the lack of women available for marriage in some areas may lead to the trafficking of women for forced marriages from other regions, or the sharing of brides among brothers.
In some countries, pre-natal sex determination and disclosure are illegal, while others have laws banning abortion for sex selection. But such restrictions are also bypassed by the use of clandestine procedures, which may put women’s health in jeopardy.
“States have an obligation to ensure that these injustices are addressed without exposing women to the risk of death or serious injury by denying them access to needed services such as safe abortion to the full extent of the law, and other health care services,” experts from the UN agencies warned.
“Renewed and concerted efforts are needed by governments and civil society to address the deeply rooted gender discrimination which lies at the heart of sex selection,” the experts noted, recommending a multi-pronged approach to resolving the problem.
The statement proposes concrete steps to tackle the issue, including the collection of more reliable data on the extent of the problem and the factors driving it; guidelines on the use of technology for health professionals; supportive measures for girls and women, such as incentives for families with only daughters; and other legal and awareness-raising actions.
“States should develop and promote…policies in areas such as inheritance laws, dowries and financial and other social protection in old age...that reflect a commitment to human rights and gender equality,” the statement suggests. “States should support advocacy and awareness-raising activities that stimulate discussion and debate…around the concept of the equal value of boys and girls.”
The statement cites the Republic of Korea as one country where the preference for sons has largely been overcome through a combination of strategies, including attention to gender equality in laws and policies, advocacy, media campaigns and economic growth.
The experts reaffirmed the commitment of UN agencies to support efforts by governments and Non-Governmental Organizations to redress the situation.
* Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) and the World Health Organization (WHO)
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