The unborn girls of the South Caucasus

31-year-old Azerbaijani resident of Bilasuvar, Ramila - whose name has been changed for purposes of anonymity - is the mother of three children. Her third child is a seven-year old son. To “get” a son was not an easy task for Ramila. To obtain the proud status of "the mother of a son" among relatives, she had to pay with the lives of her two unborn daughters:

"They were twins. So cute, so helpless ... But I already had two daughters. My mother-in-law and the whole family from my husband’s side were angry with me, saying, why should our son stay without a son, without someone to carry on the family name? When I had my ultrasound done and then found out that I was carrying two girls, my husband said, ok, you choose: either you give birth to these two girls and we stop making babies or you have an abortion and we will still try to have a son. I chose the latter because I wanted to be able to walk with my head held high, as the mother of a son. I did not want to be called "ogulsuz" (without a son). It is so humiliating ... But I also cannot forget my girls...” said Ramila with tears in her eyes.

Children of the "unwanted" gender...

A mother of two daughters, 36-year-old Nara Mesropyan said that she had gotten three abortions because of the gender of the child, which she discovered every time right after the 4th trimester: 

"Three times I got pregnant with girls, and I already had two daughters. For me and my husband it was very important to have a son. Yes, of course, I was suffering after each abortion, I felt like a murderer. But the desire to have a son was very strong. After all, my daughters will get married and leave but, of course, a son would stay with us", says Nara, whose son recently turned 7 years old.

Yes, in most cases, a pregnant woman in the South Caucasus does not only belong to herself. And she is not the one always responsible for the fate of her unborn child. Once she is pregnant, the pressure from the family and the husband begins. Many women simply ‘take and fill’ the orders of their husbands and other family members. Sometimes these orders reach the point where a woman is told which sex of the baby she is supposed to give birth to. 

Many women pay visits to gynecologists. They make special calculations and say that there are formulas that show when you are supposed to become pregnant so that you get the desired gender; male. Others simply wait to find out the baby’s sex, and then decide.

"I have two daughters. When I became pregnant for the third time my husband said: go and find out if it's a boy and then you can give birth, if not – then have an abortion. And I had an abortion because I think he is right, why do we need three girls?", says 35-year-old Sofia, a Tbilisi resident.

“Girls, where do you get a good ultrasound? I really need to know the sex of the baby, because if it's a girl it is necessary for me to have an abortion”, said one 24-year-old resident of Georgia in an interview.

A resident of Armenia, 27-year-old Anna is the mother of two daughters. She claims that according to her doctors’ calculations, in order to have a baby boy she must get pregnant in 2016.

"Starting from the 12th week, I was examined six times but the doctors could not tell the baby's sex: either the legs were crossed or the posture was sedentary. In one hospital they roughly said that it is a girl and I immediately started to wonder: should I give birth or not? I was certain: if it is a girl - that means an abortion", said Anna, trying to hide her eyes, feeling guilty for the decision that she wanted to make.

She said that her mother-in-law was against the idea of having another girl. In her time she gave birth to three daughters, and then "finally" she managed to give birth to a boy.

"The mother-in-law said: ‘I'll pay for you to just go and have an abortion, why do you need a third daughter? You have to struggle for a son’, and so I decided to go for an abortion...", says Anna.

There are plenty of such stories, in all the countries of the South Caucasus.

Boys against girls?

Sex - selective abortion appeared in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Echo-scope examination, which enables people to find out a child’s sex during pregnancy, appeared around the same period – during the 90’s. And it turned out that most families wanted sons, but they do not want to give too many births. Therefore, they make a selection, to achieve their desired results.

In 2012, a study called "Gender imbalance among newborns in Armenia: demographic data and analysis" was conducted. It showed that 1500 girls are not born every year because of selective abortions.

According to the State Statistics Committee of Azerbaijan, during the first five months of this year 53.6% of newborns were boys and 46.4% were girls. Advisor of the Azerbaijani office of the United Nations Population Fund Farid Babayev stated that the dynamic of imbalance began to grow in 1998, with the result that in 2016, Azerbaijan was ranked second in the world for sex selective abortions

According to a UN report, Azerbaijan has the highest rate in selective abortions. And according to Azerbaijani experts in the field of selective abortions, Azerbaijan has a leading position in Central Asia, as well. In accordance with a study which was conducted in 2013 by the UN Population Fund in Azerbaijan, for every 100 female births there are 116 male births; in Armenia - 100 female / 114 male; in Georgia - 100 female / 113 male. 

A figure this high is a serious problem that can affect the demographic situation of the Caucasus.

"Every year in Azerbaijan, especially in recent years, there are six to seven thousand more boys born than girls",  says head researcher at the department of "Azerbaijan's population and social development" of the Institute of Geography of the National Academy of Sciences of Azerbaijan, Zakir Eminov.

"Because of artificial intervention and sex selection, the biological equilibrium between the sexes is being disturbed – more boys are born and the number of newborn girls is decreasing. It has been estimated that in the period from the beginning of the 90s until 2010, 25 thousand girls were not born", says head of the Georgian office of the United Nations population Fund (UNFPA), Lela Bakradze.

Lela Bakradze

Lela Bakradze

Due to selective abortions until 2060, nearly 100 thousand mothers will not be born in Armenia. Selective abortion which is a violation of balance, will create a lot of social problems ", warns Hayrapetyan.

According to him, this imbalance particularly increased in 2000-2001, when in the country 120 boys were born for every 100 girls. For four years in a row in Armenia, for every 100 girls born there 114 - 115 boys born, and this is higher than the norm of 10% proportion disbalance.

We would like to note that accurate statistics on selective abortion are hard to come by, as patients do not always tell doctors their reasoning for wanting an abortion. Sex selective abortions often occur during a woman’s third pregnancy, particularly when the first two children are girls.

Also, a study conducted by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) showed that in Georgia, there are regions where this phenomenon is especially common, for example, in Kakheti, Kvemo Kartli, Samtskhe-Javakheti, Mtskheta-Mtianeti and Shida Kartli.

Garik Hayrapetyan said that in Armenia, too, there are some areas that are "leading" in selective abortion: "In the regions of Gegharkunik and Aragatsotn the ratio of boy-girl births surpassed the worst index in the world. In these areas for every 100 girls there are born 124 boys .That is, selective abortions in the mentioned areas are more common", says Hayrapetyan.

Garik Ayrapetyan

Garik Ayrapetyan

Karine Saribekyan, the director of the department of maternal and child healthcare of the Ministry of Healthcare of Armenia, says that sex selective abortions are hard to classify and count, because statistics are only given for the number of boys and girls born. 

Karine Saribekyan

Karine Saribekyan

“Rarely do we see sex selective abortions during the first pregnancy. And it is not so noticeable during the second pregnancy, either. In cases of families who already have two children, the ratio between boys and girls is very big – 100 girls and approximately 160 boys. If families will continue to give preference to boys, we will continue to lose girls. There are about 2000 girls per year that are not born just because of the fact that they are of the female sex ", says Saribekyan.

It's not sexist, it's just a tradition’ ; why do parents want a boy? 

Why the presence of one, two or three daughters in the family is considered to be a problem, while the same number of boys evokes admiration and envy from the neighbors and relatives? Why is being a family without a son considered to be demeaning, insulting, and the absence of a girl child does not cause any sadness or discontent? What is wrong with girls?

Of course, there are some assumptions. After all, in all three countries a boy is considered to be the future, a potential bread-winner for his parents. Also, a son can continue to carry the family’s name. Parents prefer boys, sure that in the last years of their lives they will be the ones to stay by their side. The strength of the traditions of our countries has brought us to the point where the number of newborn boys is dominant.

It is necessary to learn the opinion of experts on these issues. According to the head of the Georgian office of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Lela Bakradze, based on the research that their organization conducted in 2014, the reason is primarily hidden in gender discrimination due to the fact that in patriarchal societies it is believed that sons are better than daughters: "Since Georgia is a patriarchal society, it is believed that there should be at least one boy in the family", says Bakradze.

Also, the results showed that in Georgia the preference for boys has been around for a long time now: "In Georgia, during the Soviet time, the birth rate was relatively high. They would often give birth until they had a boy. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the background of the socio-economic problems, the birth rate dramatically decreased ", said Bakradze.

Garik Hayrapetyan says that a similar trend is observable in Armenia as well. In Armenian society, the role of men is considered to be more important than the role of women, and this phenomenon can be encountered in all spheres of life: "Our society is dominated by men, not women. Our studies show that parents tend to put all their hopes in sons, believing that in the future they will be the ones to look after them.”

Director of the Women's Crisis Centre in Azerbaijan, Matanat Azizova, has long been studying this social phenomenon. She also notes that in Azerbaijan, according to tradition, there has to be a boy in the family. According to Azizova, it was laid down at the time when there were frequent wars and because a lot of men died in wars, there was not enough manpower to plow, plant and hunt ... A large number of boys meant that the family will have its piece of bread at dinner, and will not die of hunger.

Matanat Azizova

Matanat Azizova

This tradition has been preserved, and the cult of a boy in the family still exists. The tradition is revered not only by men but also by women themselves. Often, especially in the regions, you can hear women proudly say: "I gave this family a son!” For women, the presence of a son psychologically means that she became a member of this family, that she is worthy of respect and honor, as she gave birth to an heir and thanks to her, her husband's family name will be continued", says Azizova.

According to experts, there are many cases where a woman was forced to have an abortion after the confirmation of child’s sex being that of a girl. There have been instances where women have been thrown out of the house because of the fact that she gave birth to a daughter, as a punishment for giving the family a girl and not a boy. She was also subjected to beatings and other forms of violence.

"Therefore, selective abortion is both psychological and physical violence", says Azizova.

In turn, a gynecologist from Georgia with more than 20 years of experience I. M. (decided to remain anonymous), shared her observations. She has experience working in the regions of Georgia, such as Samtskhe-Javakheti and Kvemo-Kartli, as well as in the capital: "The majority of abortions are carried out to terminate a female fetus - because families want a son, a successor of the sort , a carrier of the family name - and this is important for all three countries: Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. And, of course, this decision has to be made by the man of the family. Maybe it is not said out loud, but implicitly shown by expressing dissatisfaction with the bride, who has given birth to the “wrong” children. Much fewer selective abortions are made to terminate a male fetus when there are two boys at home and the third one is anticipated to be a girl. I rarely hear about any cases of selective abortions during the first pregnancy”, said the doctor.

The law

Abortion is not prohibited in Georgia, Armenia or in Azerbaijan. And, according to experts who regularly address these issues, a total ban on abortion will not change the situation, quite the contrary: all of this will go underground. In all three countries, abortion is permitted up until 12 weeks of pregnancy. Up until the 22nd week, women have the right to have an abortion only for legitimate reasons, such as health, social problems, divorce, rape and so on. When we talk about selective abortion, we mean the period after the 12th week. This is the period when doctors can easily determine the sex of the child, and that is the period when you need a good reason to have an abortion.

After numerous discussions on June 17, 2016 the Armenian Parliament adopted amendments to the law "On reproductive health and reproductive rights" and a number of related laws in order to change the implementation of administrative responsibility for violating the acceptable standards of abortion. Garik Hayrapetyan thinks it is plausible that in three years there have been taken concrete measures to combat this issue because there are countries where the same trend has lasted for 15-20 years.

In turn, Armenia's Minister of Health Armen Muradyan, during a discussion of the bill in Parliament, said that they want to make changes to the 10th article of the law that would ban abortion in the period from 12 to 22 weeks of pregnancy.

Armen Muradyan

Armen Muradyan

It is prohibited to terminate the pregnancy based on gender of the fetus. However, it will be allowed to terminate the pregnancy before the 12th week on the basis of a written application of the pregnant woman. After this period it will only be allowed to do that under the expert opinion or because of social reasons: father's death, taking the pregnant woman into custody, rape, threat to the life of the fetus or the pregnant woman, presence of serious diseases or abnormalities in the fetus",  said Muradian.

He also noted that in case of abortion, doctors would be required to submit all the necessary documentation. The law stipulates that doctors, who will violate the specified requirements will be fined from 40 thousand (about $85) to 100 million (about $210) drams.

"There are reasons to expect positive changes thanks to the bill, but there are some fears as well. Such laws with prohibitions and restrictions have their own risks. This may lead to the fact that many women will resort to unsafe methods of abortion that will lead to maternal mortality", says Asatryan.

In Georgia, as we noted before, abortion is permitted by law as well until the 12th week of pregnancy. In addition, it is forbidden to tell parents the sex of the child, but even if doctors, despite the prohibition, will reveal it, it is not followed by punishment.

In Azerbaijan, lawmakers have already been discussing this question for ten years - should doctors be forbidden from reporting on the sex of the child? In 2009, the Azerbaijani parliament examined such a bill. The bill was supposed to come into force in 2010, but the affair has continued up until today. In 2016 during the summer session, the National Parliament was supposed to discuss this issue, but, as per usual, it 'forgot.'

Will prohibitions and laws solve the problem? 

Lawmakers in Armenia are divided as to the effectiveness of possible laws on selective abortion. There are concerns that further clamp downs on abortions would lead to women choosing to have illegal abortions performed. Vagan Asatryan, the head of the International Center for Human Development, says that from the point of view of ethics, professional skills in performing abortions also need to be improved. 

A representative of the Public Defender of Georgia, Ekaterina Skhiladze, who investigates and studies questions of gender inequality, noted that when abortions are performed systematically, as is done in the countries of the South Caucasus, it results in grave gender inequality, violence and other issues. 

Eka Skhiladze

Eka Skhiladze

"The state's role in this matter is to continue working for the destruction of stereotypes, to raise awareness on the issue, to improve and facilitate access to reproduction services. I can say that until now, there were no concrete steps taken by the government in this direction. All of this falls onto the shoulders of a number of NGOs ", stressed Skhiladze.

Lela Bakradze believes that in order to change the situation, it is important to work with the community, it is necessary to increase gender sensitivity, create gender transformation in the society, so that the girls become as important and valuable to society as boys are. She also noted that since 2010, there has been a positive trend towards the decrease in breached gender balance at birth. According to Bakradze, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), together with the World Bank is going to conduct an information campaign, both through the media and local trainings of medical personnel, discussions with young parents to raise awareness.

"We need to encourage the strengthening and establishment of de facto gender equality. It is expressed by the equality of rights and opportunities for both women and men in all areas. One important aspect is the right of inheritance, which in practice is often violated in favor of sons. In the past, people always relied on their sons, since it was thought that they are the future breadwinners of the family and will support their elderly parents. But now we live in a different time, women have become more independent and self-sufficient and practice proves that the daughter also can support her parents,” said Bakradze.

Gynecologist I. M. shares that she refused to do selective abortions in the past: “It’s not that I don’t do it for religious reasons; the reason lies elsewhere…”

 According to the doctor, nothing will change until Georgia adopts a law on the protection of pregnant women.  She recalls that in Soviet times there was such a law. "As a woman, a mother and a doctor I would like to see Georgia adopting this same law “On the protection of pregnant and nursing mothers", when it was impossible to dismiss a pregnant woman from work - while now it is quite common - and when she was given a year of paid leave for child care and then another two unpaid years with a mandatory preservation of her workplace. Until we do not increase the welfare of the people, we had and will have selective abortion", says the gynecologist.

Matanat Azizova claims that the ban could trigger the emergence of other but no less acute problems: "The ban could lead to corruption. In some countries, this may have some positive effects and results, but given the high level of corruption and bribery, it will not resolve the problem".

The expert believes that the problem should be solved in another way. According to her, in the United Nations Declaration on the elimination of violence against women there is a paragraph stating that if a country has traditions that cause problems, the government is obliged to fight against these traditions.

"If a country has gender discrimination – we have to fight, if it has widespread violence – we have to fight. We have to fight not through prohibition but through education, through laws that protect rights, through the establishment of good healthcare services, through the creation of good services and conditions for women, through economic prosperity and so on", says Azizova.

What does many boys mean for a country's society? 

What will happen in 10 to 20 years if sex selective abortions continue? What will this lead to? 

Garik Ayrapetyan suggests that the lack of balance could lead to the growth of criminal activity in the country: "If we continue to think this way and do not solve this issue in society, then the situation will remain unchanged and our country will come face to face with a serious issue." 

Matanat Azizova and Lela Bakradze think that selective abortions will lead to a demographic crisis. 

We'll be saved not by the law, but by the hearts of parents...

In the end, Anna decided not to go ahead with the abortion. She refused to end the life of her child because it was a girl: "I stopped at the last moment. I understood that the child inside of me was fighting for life. From the very beginning she had hidden her sex...This small angel was even smarter than me..." recounts Anna. 

Her husband, the father of two daughters, agreed with the decision of his wife. According to her, the husband was happy that she decided not to go through with the abortion: "He was the only one in the family who said that it didn't matter whether it was a boy or a girl, and that the main thing was the health of the child." 

Anna is happy to be giving birth to a third child. And she is sure that parents can be saved from these disastrous decisions only thanks to their hearts: "You can give a bribe to a doctor to get around the law, and find a thousand other ways to get rid of a child. But if your soul doesn't allow you to do it, strong laws aren't needed..." she says. 

This article was prepared in the framework of the project, "Taboo themes of the South Caucasus."

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