Prof. Sharada Srinivasan
Prof. Sharada Srinivasan

Ultrasound technology offers parents-to-be a glimpse of their unborn baby, but some parents misuse the images to determine whether to abort the baby based on its gender.

“A lot of elimination happens before birth,” says Sharada Srinivasan, Canada Research Chair in Gender, Justice and Development, and a professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. She studies daughter elimination in India and other Asian countries.

Before ultrasound was available, she explains, baby girls were killed as soon as they were born, or they were deprived of the necessities of life so they would die “a natural death.” Now, ultrasound allows parents to learn their baby’s gender before birth; if the baby is female, the parents may decide to undergo an abortion.

She says the availability of ultrasound technology contributes to the gender imbalance. “You have far greater access to these technologies, and you’re far more likely to actually design your family to have sons and not daughters.”

Srinivasan adds that social pressure is one of the driving forces behind daughter elimination. Parents often view daughters as an economic burden, because they take dowries to their marital families. “It’s the same woman: she can be a burden to her natal family and simultaneously an asset to her marital family,” she explains.

Male offspring are considered to be more valuable, because they are expected to care for their elderly parents. Those parental attitudes may not change, she adds, even among Chinese and Indian immigrants in North America, where studies have revealed a gender imbalance among their offspring. “The extent is nowhere near China or India,” says Srinivasan, “but there are studies that show the diaspora has a strong son preference.”

Daughter elimination creates a gender imbalance that causes problems when boys grow up and are unable to find women their age to marry. “I think that’s a huge concern right now,” she says. Under China’s one-child policy, many parents have killed or abandoned their baby girls in favour of having a son. Between 35 and 40 million men in China are unable to marry due to the shortage of women, says Srinivasan. That number is expected to reach 55 million by 2020.

Some parts of India with a longer history of daughter elimination have a more unbalanced gender ratio, forcing Indian men to “import” women from other regions, she says. Her research also looks at strategies used by single men to find brides.

Although gender-based abortion is illegal, the practice still continues, which shows that laws are not enough to change attitudes. “A lot of change has to come in people’s mindsets,” she explains. “The law is central to changing social norms. You can keep the pressure on, but at the end of the day, people will find ways to duck the law, and that’s what we’re seeing everywhere.”

The Chinese and Indian governments are trying to address gender imbalance by offering incentives to parents who have daughters and improving social security for the elderly. But “there’s only so much governments can do,” she says. Another approach is to register girls as soon as they’re born, making it more difficult for them to disappear.

Even if daughter elimination stopped today, says Srinivasan, the female deficit would be evident for years to come. “That 2000 deficit will hit you in 2020. There’s a bit of a lag in terms of the impact.” She says families and governments have been short-sighted in their approach to gender imbalance and the long-term public impact of private decisions.