Female infanticide is the intentional killing of an infant, and female feticide (or fetal murder) is the intentional destruction of a fetus for the sole reason that it is female. Historically, female infanticide has occurred on a global scale. Various studies have reported its practice among Arabian tribes, among the Yanomani in Brazil, and in ancient Rome. In nineteenth-century India it was common practice to bury a female child alive by placing her in an earthen pitcher, with cane sugar in her mouth and cotton in her hands. Burying the pitcher in the ground, women would chant, "Gur kaayeen punee kateen, aap na ayeen bhayee nuu khaleen" (Eat sugar, weave cotton, don't come back, send your brother). There were many other methods used to kill a female baby: starving her to death, suffocating her by wrapping her tightly in a quilt, poisoning her, strangling her, drowning her, or breaking her spinal cord by snapping it. These methods continue to be used.
In the twenty-first century such practices remain predominant in many Asian and Middle Eastern countries, in sub-Saharan Africa, and within the Asian diaspora in Great Britain, the United States, and Canada. Female infanticide is particularly widespread in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, China, South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan. In China its origins may be traced back to the first millennium.
Incidence of Practice
Female infanticide and feticide are extreme forms of gender discrimination that occur systematically and threaten to eliminate females in the communities where they are practiced. There are unfortunately no specific or reliable data available on female infanticide or feticide. Both practices happen in a clandestine manner, and no specific provision for documenting them exists in most states' usual statistical mechanisms. In general, the sex ratio imbalance worldwide, with a decreasing number of females for every 1,000 males, may be regarded as an indicator of the prevalence and increase of female infanticide and feticide. The missing status of innumerable women (more than 100 million women are reported to be missing worldwide) points toward female feticide, infanticide, and other forms of gender discrimination as resulting in the high mortality of females at most stages of life. On average 105 women exist for every 100 men, but that number is lower in certain countries: 93 in India and Pakistan, 94 in China, 97 in Egypt and Iran, and 95 in Bangladesh.
Female feticide is a recent phenomenon made possible by advances in genetic and information technology. Technology without regulation gives society unlimited access to intrauterine life. Three principal methods have been used for the intrauterine sex determination of the fetusmniocentesis, chorionic villus sampling, and ultrasound scanning. Ultrasound scanning has become the most common method of fetal sex determination because it is quicker, cheaper, easily available, and noninvasive. It results in no recognized side effects or complications for the fetus or mother. It is often misused in countries with a sociocultural preference for male children.
Feticide is fast becoming a socially acceptable means of dispensing with a female child. A significant change in social attitudes developed in the 1980s and 1990s, with determination tests frequently occurring and subsequent abortions in the case of many female fetuses. The request process for these services is more open, with a decreasing sense of moral crisis attached to it. The arguments for seeking testing and female feticide became a matter of choice rather than of circumstantial compulsion. Ironically, more widespread approval of female feticide now exists in many societies due to the acceptance of monetary arguments, the easy availability and willingness of service providers, the pressures most normally small families face, changing standards and ethics, easier methods of abortion, and the relatively simple killing and disposal of the fetus.
At the start of the twenty-first century many remote areas could claim mobile ultrasound clinics (consisting of portable ultrasound machines installed in a van) that visited periodically to offer their services. Since the identification of a fetus's sex is possible with little training and experience, as compared to other methods, both medical and nonmedical personnel may provide ultrasound services. Quacks and untrained midwives perform the often subsequent abortions in most of these rural areas and within low socioeconomic groups, with enormous health hazards to the mothers.
India, South Korea, China, and most European countries have laws banning fetal sex determination. In most Asian countries, however, such laws are flagrantly ignored, and they have become an instrument of corruption, thereby increasing the costs of safe services.
Explanations for Gender Preference
Traditionally, the major causes of discrimination against the female child have been the son preference rooted in a patriarchal society and the prevalence of dowry. Their lack of education, low financial productivity, and negligible presence in high-profile professions and positions have only added to the devaluation of females. There has been significant improvement in most of these factors except dowry. The escalating pace of globalization in developing countries has coincided with the increase in female feticide and suggests a link that merits critical examination.
In addition to the small family norm, the growing cost of raising a child has contributed to the increased intolerance of female children. Starting from birth, the costs of child rearing are affected by those associated with health care and education, marriage and dowry, and consumerism. When a society with a sociocultural preference for sons finds itself facing conditions that require limiting the family size for various reasons in the absence of preparatory and regulatory mechanisms and policies, then an increase in female infanticide and feticide may be predicted. The female child is increasingly seen as a high input and no output investment, reducing the child to little more than a commodity in the eyes of society.
In India the dowry is one of the major reasons why a female child is often unwanted. The amount and nature of a dowry have changed enormously in the contemporary world. There appears to be a direct link between consumerism, competitive expansion of capitalism, and the increasing economic aspirations brought about by globalization and the escalation in dowry demands and related offenses such as harassment of the bride's family, the acid burning of a bride, and even her murder. The advertisements for sex determination in the 1980s bore slogans like, "Pay five hundred now to save fifty thousand later." The gender-based oppression of women in India starts at birth in the form of infanticide and feticide, and continues to their death in the form of sati (or suttee), a Hindu ritual whereby a wife self-immolates at the funeral pyre of her husband.
The number of female babies killed by feticide is greater than the number killed by infanticide. A debate has emerged as to why an increase in female feticide has occurred despite laws prohibiting it, policies that are supposed to promote the female child and global efforts toward women's empowerment. It gives rise to a discussion of whether the causes thus far identified as making female children unwanted are inclusive of all the factors associated with female infanticide and feticide in the present-day situation. The causes routinely attributed to the increase in female feticide, and the policies adopted by states and civil society, do not address its connection to escalating globalization, thus leaving a large gap between the goals of and actual measures for abolishing female infanticide and feticide.
This grave human rights violation of denying birth to a female child or not allowing her to live because she is a female has had a far-reaching impact on society as a whole. It not only affects the communities in which such practices flourish; it also impacts in many ways on the national and international communities where female infanticide and feticide may not occur. Social unrest as a result of the disproportionate female and male gender ratio may manifest itself as crime in these societies, for example, the kidnapping of young women, forced marriages, sex crimes, wife purchasing, frustration-related psychological problems, and an increase in prostitution. Some of these effects have already been reported in China. Increasing female feticide and the continuation of infanticide also pose serious challenges to the international community and its obligation toward women's empowerment and elimination of all forms of discrimination based on sex.
Crime against Humanity
There is emerging debate on addressing female feticide as the murder of female fetuses and acknowledging female feticide and infanticide as crimes against humanity. The pro-choice point of view opposes the consideration of feticide as the murder of a fetus, thus giving rise to the question of fetal "personhood." The condition that differentiates female feticide from abortion is its gender-discriminatory nature. Therefore, female feticide deserves to be treated as a separate category and not viewed in a simplistic way, in terms of the abortion of an unwanted pregnancy.
Female feticide and infanticide are widespread and systematic. Although mothers aborting female fetuses appear to be the perpetrator of the attack, they are actually the victims. Families may seem to choose female feticide and infanticide voluntarily, but it is the onslaught of government policies, sociocultural compulsions, and the effects of globalization directed against the population that often leaves them with no choice and amounts to a systematic attack against the female gender. Government policies that promote female feticide include the small family norm, unregulated genetic technology, an uncontrolled market economy, and unofficial acceptance of female feticide as a means of population control. Knowledge of the fast decreasing numbers of the female population due to feticide and infanticide and corresponding concerns, including threats to the female gender's survival as a result of these practices, continues to grow.
SEE ALSO Children; China; Women, Violence against
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