Missing Girls: Sex-Selective Abortions in the South Caucasus

by Melanie Krebs

AutorenfotoAt times during fieldwork you get the impression that nothing will surprise you anymore. You have heard the most unexpected stories in the strangest situations and what seemed to be alien at the beginning has become part of everyday life. And then something happens that catches you completely off guard. For me it was the casual comment a member of PINK Armenia, a sexual rights organization in Yerevan, made during an interview:  “… and then we have all the abortions of girls. In this way we have outnumbered China and India over the previous years.” Looking at my shocked face he asked, “You did know that, didn’t you?” No, I did not. But as I learned over the next days, I was the only one. It seems the fact that (according to the CIA factbook) there are 114 boys born for every 100 girls in Armenia was the best-known secret in the country. And Armenia is no exception in the South Caucasus: The rate in Azerbaijan is 112 boys to every 100 girls and with 108 to 100, Georgia is better but still higher than the “natural” rate of 105 to 100.

Asked for the reasons, explanations came quickly: There still exists a patriarchal society where women feel inferior to men, the governmental rhetoric of still being at war in Armenia and Azerbaijan, stressing the importance of soldiers for the countries future and—last but not least—the widely accepted practice of abortion for family planning. In the South Caucasus, abortion is still legal until the 12th week and possibly later for specific medical or social reasons. But even if it was legal and affordable, many abortions are carried out unsafely either because it is after the 12th week or because women in rural areas avoid going to a trained doctor in a bigger city. The risk of complications leading to infertility or even death is quite high in this context. But it is not only the physical risk: even though abortion in these countries is not stigmatized, as in other countries, women still suffer from psychological problems after an abortion, as film maker and women’s rights activist Adrineh Gregoryan states.

A doctor at a Yerevan hospital just nodded when I asked her about the problem. “Well, you know our women are not used to contraceptives”, she told me. “In Soviet times the best idea about family planning was to have an abortion. But back then, people could afford as many children as they wanted. Now they can only afford one or two. So they go for the boys.” This view is backed by dropping birth rates and statistics showing that, while for the first child in a family a boy or a girl is equally welcomed, the gap between newly-born boys and girls widens significantly when it comes to the second or third child. Another explanation, in Armenia as well as in Azerbaijan, is the unresolved conflict between the two countries, leading to a greater significance of the role of soldiers within the political as well as the social environment.

The problem is that all these explanations fall short if we look at comparable societies and their birth rates. The importance of soldiers and martyrs in neighboring countries like Iran and the northern regions of the Caucasus is also strong, but these regions do not share the alarming birth rates of the South Caucasus. It may be that the “tradition of abortion” and the falling birth rates in general are a huge part of the problem—but why do the former Soviet countries in Central Asia with a similar “tradition”, deeply rooted patriarchal structures, equal abortion laws and even bigger economic problems not also show similar figures for missing girls? The birth rates in Central Asia are not decreasing as they were in the South Caucasus over the last decades but the tendency to have fewer children is also visible. Does that mean there is a risk that sex-selective abortion will soon be a problem there as well? If this is the case there is still not much these countries could learn from the South Caucasus to deal with the problem.

Armenia is now discussing a law that forbids doctors to give information about the sex of the fetus and even bans ultrasound until the woman is 30 weeks into her pregnancy. This would mean that abortions, even for medical reasons, are no longer possible. However this would not change the fact that boys are preferred over girls.

“It doesn’t make sense to ban abortion or even ultrasound”, an activist who didn’t want to be quoted with his name said. “What we really need is to change our culture.” The discussions that emerged around the subject might be the right way to start.

Click here to access the Kyrgyz version of this article on BBC Kyrgyz and here for the Uzbek version available on BBC Uzbek.

About the author:

Melanie Krebs received her PhD in Central Asian Studies in 2010 at the Humboldt-University (Berlin) and is currently an independent scholar.