The Rise of Female Infanticide in the South Caucasus
Prenatal sex selection has been a growing phenomenon over the last 30 years, most famously in developing nations like China and India. Yet, parts of the Former Soviet Union also have high levels of female infanticide, an issue explored in this post by Molly McParland.
Aid agencies have long drawn attention to an unnatural rise in the percentage of male births from the normal sex ratio at birth (SRB – usually around 105 boys per 100 girls). This has been most famously exemplified by China (currently 118 male per 100 female births), where, exacerbated by the government’s introduction of the One Child policy, parents increasingly terminated pregnancies that would have resulted in ‘less valuable’ girls. However, elevated levels of birth masculinity have been recorded worldwide, and are exceptionally high in the South Caucasus (116 male births per 100 female births in Azerbaijan, 114 in Armenia; the second and third highest in the world respectively).
What accounts for this rise of female infanticide, a practice that was practically unheard of 30 years ago, in the Caucasus? Before 1990, all former Soviet countries exhibited a normal SRB. Following independence, however, the South Caucasus has seen a steep climb in birth masculinity that shows no signs of abating.
The first factor is feasibility. The spread of prenatal diagnosis techniques and technologies, including ultrasonography, combined with an increased access to legal abortions, has made it possible for parents to determine the sex of their child in advance, and terminate unwanted pregnancies. The situation was so serious in South Korea that for 20 years prenatal sex determination was banned by law, and only legalized again following an enormous state-led campaign against female infanticide and subsequent normalization of their SRB.
Limited access to technology has meant areas with greater poverty and less education tend to have more natural SRBs, but this does not explain why some countries, including the South Caucasus’ relatively wealthy neighbours, Russia and Turkey, have maintained normal SRBs, while others have not. Researchers have attributed this rise to two main factors: a strong social bias towards male progeny, and a rapidly decreasing average family size; both of which have become progressively prominent in the South Caucasus.
Despite heavily publicized attempts by the Soviet Union to ensure gender equality, traditional gender relations persevered, and have reasserted themselves even more strongly in the Newly Independent States as countries have looked to historical norms to define their new identities and build social stability. In Armenia, this has meant a return to a patrilineal kinship system, where families revolve around the male line, while daughters are expected to leave for their husband’s families following marriage.
Parents therefore look to sons to provide support for the future, and SRBs become increasingly skewed as births go on – a family that already has one or two girls is statistically more likely to interfere to ensure a male birth, as at least one son is seen as necessary for the survival of a lineage. Additionally, men are still considered the breadwinners of the family, and therefore the more desirable offspring, particularly in countries that have experienced such economic hardship.
The wars that have proliferated in the South Caucasus may also be a contributing factor in the region’s particularly high level of birth masculinity. Armenia and Azerbaijan, especially during their first, formative years of independence, have been heavily influenced by conflict. In Armenia there is an, at times uneasy, ceasefire with Azerbaijan over the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, as well as long-running poor relations with Turkey and an historical memory of genocide, that promotes the idea of the importance of male offspring as defenders of the nation.
This preference has been exacerbated by the rapid decline in the birth rate following independence. Though Armenia does not have China’s One Child policy, poor economic conditions and a change to traditional family structures meant many families felt unable to support multiple children, and the birth rate fell from approximately 2.5 children per woman in the 1980s, to 1.2 children by 2002 (currently 1.5 children per woman). A mistrust of modern contraception has meant abortion is still a primary means of population control, with 2.6 abortions per woman of reproductive age the average throughout the 1990s. Whereas once families would ‘correct gender imbalance’ in their offspring by having more children, this is no longer considered an option. Ensuring at least one of your one or two children is a boy may therefore entail interference.
Though the mass emigration of men to countries such as Russia for work has helped prevent Chinese levels of gender disparity so far, researchers predict that if current trends continue, Armenia will have a surplus of 30,000 men by 2040, in a country of only 3 million.
Policies such as banning prenatal sex determination may provide legal support, but attempts to reverse trends in China suggest that social change is the most powerful tool. Increasing the social status of women, and therefore their desirability as offspring, is essential. G Improving inheritance rights, education and employment for women are among the vital social changes that must take place. In South Korea, an improved welfare system, and therefore less reliance by parents on their children, has also been influential. In some provinces, China has introduced special benefits, including housing and pension subsidies, for families with only female children. To improve the situation, girls must be considered as valuable as boys.