‘Let it be a son’: How Nepalese culture pushes women to abort daughters
Indu, who asked to be identified only by her first name for fear of being stigmatized, traveled 1.5 hours by public bus to Sitamarhi, in the Indian state of Bihar, where her brother and his sister-in-law. She went to a private clinic and aborted the child.
Preferring a son to a daughter is a no-brainer, says Indu, who lives in the Terai region of Nepal’s southern lowlands. Each time she gave birth to one of her six daughters, her husband made her work in the fields carrying a newborn baby. She was not well fed and every day a new taunt was hurled at her. She says she couldn’t let this happen again, but she didn’t want people around her to know about her decision.
Abortion pilgrimages across the border are common, says Bal Krishna Shrestha, project manager for the Family Planning Association of Nepal, an advocacy organization for reproductive health services in the southeastern township of Sarlahi. east of the country. The Terai region borders the Indian states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. The porous border between the two countries facilitates the passage of women to neighboring Indian states where, although sex-selective abortion is also illegal, it is legal to terminate a pregnancy up to the 20th week.
Due to this preference for sons, the sex ratios of newborns in the Terai region are out of whack. The 2001 Nepal census compared sex ratios in the country’s three ecological zones and found that among the population under one year of age, there were a higher number of boys than girls in the Terai region (104.8 men per 100 women) compared to hills (103.9) and mountains (102.6). In the 2011 census, this number rose to 106.7 in the Terai and the hills. The expected natural sex ratio in newborns is between 95 and 105 males per 100 females, says Mahesh Puri, co-director of the Environment, Health Research Center. and Population Activities, a nonprofit consulting and research organization based in Kathmandu. If it is above 105, Puri says that indicates something is going on. “For Nepal in general and these specific regions, the ratio indicates sex-selective abortion,” he says.
This will create long-term imbalances in Nepal, says Puri. “There will be a shortage of women, which will affect the marriage market and the fertility rate. There will also be an increase in violence against women and girls.
May it be late, but may it be a son.
The total fertility rate in Nepal has also fallen, from six children per woman in 1950 to less than two in 2022, according to the United Nations.
Similar imbalances already affect reproductive age groups in other countries, such as China, South Korea and parts of India. In China, which had a state-backed one-child policy until 2016, the number of men now exceeds the number of women by 34.9 million, according to the country’s national statistics office. Authorities encourage people to have two children to combat population decline.
Cultural beliefs, particularly in the Terai region, shape these decisions. Meeting a ‘niputar’, or woman without sons, early in the morning can bring bad luck all day. This attitude is also reflected in a popular proverb, “Dhilo hos, choro hos”, which roughly translates to “Let it be late, but let it be a son”.
Sons are seen as an economic and social asset in Nepal, while daughters are seen as a financial burden on their parents, says Srijana Adhikari, executive chairwoman of Women Acting for Transformative Change, a nongovernmental organization that promotes women’s rights. . This is because if a son marries, the family can demand money; but when the girls marry, they are obliged to give a dowry.
The modern dowry system in South Asia, which began as innocuous practices of donations by well-wishers to the bride to contribute to her financial stability, has recently evolved into a practice involving a substantial transfer of wealth from the bride’s family to that of the groom. In some cases, it has become a determinant of the value of women.
Indu is planning the wedding of her eldest daughter, who is 17 years old. The groom’s family demanded a dowry of 100,000 Nepalese rupees ($810), a motorcycle and gold jewelry. “If I had a son, I wouldn’t have to take out a loan,” says Indu. “He would earn money, support us and take care of us when we get older.”
She does not regret the abortion, even though it caused her five days of bleeding and pain. In Nepal, abortion-related complications, such as haemorrhage, remain one of the leading causes of maternal death.
Paswan, a mother who asked to be identified only by her surname for fear of stigma, holds the hand of her youngest daughter in their neighborhood of Sarlahi, Nepal. The woman aborted a female fetus and had heavy bleeding afterwards.
SHILU MANANDHAR, YPG NEPAL
Legalization of abortion
Abortions have been legal in Nepal since 2002 but are limited to the 12th week except in special circumstances, such as incest or rape, where they are permitted until the 28th week. Since legalization, some harmful practices used by women to end their pregnancies – such as swallowing ground glass or “paro” (mercury) or putting herbs in their vaginas – have dropped. Puri of the non-profit Kathmandu Research Association estimates that less than 2% of women now practice such methods.
There is no inspection and verification effort on the part of the government.
But an estimated 58% of abortions remain clandestine procedures, performed by untrained or unlicensed providers or induced by the pregnant woman herself, according to a 2016 study by the Center for Research on Environment, Health and Population Activities and the Guttmacher Institute, an American organization. Research organization based on reproductive health.
Abortions performed outside a qualified medical facility are of particular concern to Shrestha of the Family Planning Association. “Unsafe abortions affect women’s health,” he says. “There is no inspection and verification effort from the government.”
The government has a large number of clinics across the country that it is already monitoring, says Dr Sangeeta Kaushal Mishra, spokesperson for the Ministry of Health and Population. Monitoring all abortions in all settings is not possible, she says, and people are unlikely to file formal complaints if the procedure is illegal.
As for Indu, a year after her abortion, she gave birth to a boy. She smiles talking about the treatment she received from her husband after giving birth. “He was very happy and treated me well,” Indu says. “He also fed me properly.”
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