‘Missing girls’ far outweigh party politics

29 Oct

IN SEPTEMBER, the World Bank published World Report 2012 – Gender Equality and Development. It highlighted both significant progress in areas like education, and “sticky areas” that are stubbornly slow to improve. One of these “sticky areas” is what it calls “almost four million women missing each year”. In other words, almost four million avoidable deaths of women.

The report points out that these women go missing for different reasons. “Depending on the period in the life cycle, girls and women are missing for different reasons. Missing girls at birth reflect overt discrimination in the household, resulting from the combination of strong preferences for sons combined with declining fertility and the spread of technologies that allow parents to know the sex before birth.

“This is a particular issue in China and north India (although now spreading to other parts of India), but it is also visible in parts of the Caucasus and the Western Balkans.”

“Girls missing at birth” is code for abortion and infanticide. The World Bank analysis is accompanied by a table. China and India top it by a country mile. In 2008, China had 1,092,000 girls missing at birth: India had 257,000. The next nearest figure is 53,000 in sub-Saharan African countries.

On Wednesday, a Seanad motion was tabled condemning gendercide, defined as “selective abortion, infanticide or fatal neglect of baby girls after birth” and calling on the Government “to bring diplomatic pressure to bear on the governments of various states, and in particular China and India, which either promote gendercide or tolerate the problem within their borders”.

The motion was tabled by Senator Rónán Mullen, and supported by Senators Jillian Van Turnhout and John Crown, among others. A chance for cross-party co-operation, you might have thought.

Who could be against condemning the abortion of girl babies, infanticide or fatal neglect of girls, or reprimanding countries that continue to condemn in theory, but tolerate in practice, sex-selection abortion?

The Government, apparently. Senator Ivana Bacik tabled an amendment, supported by Fine Gael and Labour Senators, which read: “Seanad Éireann, condemning in the strongest terms female infanticide and all other violations of the rights of women and girls, commends the Government’s firm opposition to such practices and its efforts to combat all forms of gender-based violence; endorses the Government’s strong support for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls through its official development assistance programme.”

So, “states like China and India” disappear, and so does an overt reference to gendercide and selective abortion. In fact, in Bacik’s speech, the word “abortion” only appears when it is being endorsed as an empowerment for women. The unwillingness to condemn India and China could not have had anything to do with offending powerful trade partners, could it? Surely not.

Bacik’s objection to the word “gendercide” is interesting, as she feels it is not accepted in “mainstream development terminology”. In fact, she suggests that it is a gender neutral term. “The most common occurrence of gender-based mass killings involves young battle-aged men,” she says. I don’t think anyone reading the original motion would have thought that Mullen was talking about young battle-aged men.

Nor could Bacik rest easy with the notion that China and India should be singled out. In May, the British medical journal, the Lancet, found that up to 12 million Indian girls were aborted over the last three decades, leading to enormous social problems.

The Lancet says the practice continues on a vast scale, including among the wealthy.

As Senator Feargal Quinn said in the debate, it is considered better to spend 5,000 rupees on an abortion than 50,000 on a dowry. (Oh, and dowries are illegal, too. But still happening, just like sex-selection abortion.)

Ironically, Ms Bacik condemns China’s one-child policy, without ever drawing the connection that if you are forced to have one child, and you live in a society where women are less valued, the logical conclusion is that fewer girls will be allowed to be born. In 2008 in China, selective abortion and infanticide accounted for over one-quarter of the “missing women” worldwide.

The one-child policy is brutal. On October 21st, the Guardian reported that officials in Lijin, in the Chinese province of Shandong, forced a woman into a late-term abortion. Ma Jihong was taken, seven months pregnant, from her home by 10 family planning officials. She was taken to theatre to induce labour. She died on the operating table.

Nicholas Bequelin, the senior Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, was quoted in the article. “Although the policies are less extreme than in previous decades, it is a mistake to think these issues have disappeared. Sanctions, fines and forced abortions continue to be imposed on rural women.”

It was interesting to see how uncomfortable Fine Gael Senator Fidelma Healy-Eames was with having to take the whip and vote for the amended motion, given that she agreed with “virtually every line” of the original motion. She could see that this issue should transcend party politics.

It is a pity that the Government could not rise to doing the same.

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