Sex Selection and Violence Against Women: Global Challenges

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on January 10th, 2013

The outpouring of anguish and protest at the brutal gang rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi has sparked reflection about the various manifestations of misogyny that are deeply entrenched in India – and from which other cultures, including our own, are far from immune. Among the dots being connected to violence against women is the widespread practice of sex selection.

Shalini Nataraj, director of advocacy and partnerships for the Global Fund for Women, mentions sex-selective abortion both in her comments on KQED Forum and in an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle. Nataraj names sex selection as an aspect of the “rising tide of crimes committed against women” and puts it in the context of both “the social and cultural paradigms that enable and trivialize rape globally” and the women’s organizations that are battling these conditions.

Mira Kamdar, author of Planet India: The Turbulent Rise of the Largest Democracy and the Future of Our World (2008), also raises sex-selective abortion, son preference and India’s “growing gender gap” as part of “deep-seated culture of misogyny” in her article in The Atlantic. Like Nataraj, she makes a point of acknowledging that violence against women is not confined to India. In Planet India, she provides additional context and nuance about the sex selection crisis, explaining that instead of fading away with modernization and economic improvement as many expect, it is in fact getting worse: 

One of the most perverse effects of India’s rising prosperity is the increase in sex-selective abortion, which is practiced far more commonly by the rich or aspiring middle class than by the poor. Indians want to improve their economic prospects. They see one sure way of doing so: avoid having a girl child and the expense of a big dowry...
A society with skewed sex ratios, millions on the move as they migrate from place to place in search of livelihoods, and a gross devaluation of women is naturally a society prone to violence against women in all its forms.
Kamdar also notes the new reproductive technologies, most of them developed in the US, that exacerbate the problem of sex selection. “Truly insidious,” she writes, “is the practice of sex-selective sperm sorting followed by artificial insemination. This technique is virtually untraceable.”

Another commentary, this one by early-childhood educator, Harvard College administrator and Time columnist Erika Christakis, is headlined bluntly, “Rape in India: A Result of Sex Selection?” In her widely noted piece, Christakis focuses less on the broad social, political and cultural dynamics underlying sex selection, emphasizing instead “fundamental demographic forces” and “the problem of `missing girls’ as an issue of international security.” And though she acknowledges sex selection in countries including Albania, Georgia and Armenia as well as in India and China, she doesn’t mention either sex selection – or for that matter violence against women – as problems in North America or Western Europe.

Fortunately, Christakis does quote Mara Hvistendahl, whose book Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men (2011) provides the most comprehensive and accessible account to date of sex selection, including the significant roles played by Western influence and technology in India and China, and the high-tech sex selection practices such as sperm sorting and embryo testing that are increasingly being marketed and promoted in the US.

Neither sex selection nor violence against women look exactly alike or erupt from precisely the same underlying dynamics in different parts of the world. But as important as it is to understand the differences, it is also crucial to consider – and to confront – the similarities and interlocking influences.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Posted in Marcy Darnovsky's Blog Posts, Media Coverage, Reproductive Justice, Health & Rights, Sex Selection


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