Is sex-selection among British Asian families a big issue? We should be wary of the Independent’s campaign

6:14 pm - January 16th 2014

by Sunny Hundal    

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Yesterday the Independent splashed on the news that between 1,500 and 4,700 girls in the UK had been ‘lost’ due to sex-selection, primarily among Asian families. Sex-selection is usually defined as parents determining the gender of a foetus before its born, and aborting it if its female because they don’t value girls.

Like most people I was shocked and horrified by the relevations. I have researched and written a lot about on 60 million ‘missing women’ in India, which is partly a result of extensive sex-selection there. There are cases in the UK too, as a phone-in for BBC Asian Network illustrated.

But the more I look at the Independent’s campaign and reporting on sex-selection in the UK, the more sceptical I get. I would go as far as saying that Asian organisations campaigning on this issue should be wary of lending their name to it.

Why? Four reasons.

First, the campaign looks like an attempt to restrict abortion rights in the UK, which also happens to be an aim of our Tory government. Any restriction on abortion rights would be counter-productive and hurt Asian women too. The article by the Indy today quotes two MPs, Fiona Bruce and Jim Dobbin, co-chairs of the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, who want to ban any abortions in the UK.

It is highly irresponsible of the Independent to quote extremists in a report on a very sensitive issue. It gives them credence and pushes the debate in the wrong direction.

Second, the Independent’s numbers need more scrutiny. A few years ago the Department of Health looked at birth registration data from 2007 to 2011, and found no conclusive evidence of sex-selection among ethnic minority families. The Indy takes a different approach, looking at ethnic minority families with dependent children from the 2011 census. This means, as Unity points out,

As such the data set requested by the Indie will only provide data on children born to a particular family only if those children are classed as dependants and usually reside with their family, which means it will include students under the age of 20 in further, but not higher education, and schoolchildren who live away from home during term times.

The reason why these girls don’t appear in the Census may or may not be down to sex-selection, it’s simply speculation, as even the Indy admits.

UPDATE: As @AbdulAzim points out, South Asian women who get married relatively early and move to South Asia would also drop off the Census and wouldn’t be counted by the Indy’s method.

Third, sex-selection is infact not the main reason why so many girls in India (and other countries across Asia) are missing. In India sex-selection is estimated to be responsible for around 12-15% of ‘missing’ girls. Girls dying young through neglect is a much bigger problem (India has the highest differential in the world for mortality rates between boys and girls). The same could be an issue here.. which means the focus should be on challenging Asian attitudes that value boys over girls, than restricting abortion rights.

Fourth Parents don’t reliably know the sex of their child at the 13-week scan (thanks @bex_tweets), and the number of abortions after the 20-week scan are minuscule. Again, this either suggests other factors are responsible for why there are more boys than girls, or this is a statistical anomaly.

I’m not playing down the problem of sex-selection, but we have to know more about this issue.

The Independent only looks at families where the mother is born abroad. But most British Asian families now have mothers born in the UK, and we don’t know if there is a problem of sex-selection among these families. The data may reflect attitudes 20 years ago that are now outdated.

This is why I’m sceptical of taking the Independent’s reporting at face value. It certainly does not justify any restrictions on abortion rights.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Equality ,Feminism

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Reader comments

As the Indy piece on sex-selective abortion makes clear, the original source of concern about this issue is due to Amartya Sen, an internationally distinguished Indian national economist, with a Nobel laureate, who has held posts at Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard: “Missing women: social inequality outwighs women’s survival advantage in Asia and North Africa” (BMJ March 1992):

Virtually anything Sen writes needs to be taken seriously. I accept that raising this issue as relating to the British Asian community could boost the “pro-life” campaign to restrict abortions in England and Wales but I doubt that campaign will succeed in any event and we need to regard the possibility of sex-selective abortion with the social consequences as an important public policy issue, even if unpalatable one — just as we need to treat FGM as a serious issue, albeit one that is largely confined to certain minority ethnic groups.

For engaging details about Amartya Sen’s professional career, try the entry for him in Wikipedia.

Perhaps the data from Indy may be questionable however in reality sex sex selection abortion is very much rampant in the community in particular punjabi and Gujarti community. I know of many women who I have supported both who have opted to abort on the basis of gender but also those who have been subjected to domestic abuse as they are either told to find out what gender their fetus is or that they have had girls.
As a Sikh woman who is third generation in the UK, I know only too well the community and self imposed need to bear a son, for many social and complex reasons. Only a woman can understand the desperation of acknowledgement once married of her in laws and her status of her standing in the family. Which may be totally alien too her until she got married.

A more thorough analysis has comprehensively TRASHED the Indie’s figures. They are simply rubbish. See

As abortion based on the sex of a child is illegal, it is unlikely that any recorded statistics will capture the phenomenon, if indeed it exists. My intuition tells me it does based on the lived experiences of many Asian women. @1 agree.

There are other gender issues which connect with the social and family pressures upon women in some ethnic communities to bear sons but not daughters, including the illegal continuing practice of bridal dowries in India as well as forced marriages in Pakistan – which explains the disproportionately large number of cousin marriages in Pakistani communities.

Howdy, Nice article. Likely to situation with your web page inside web internet explorer, could possibly test that? IE ‘s still the market industry main and a massive part of other individuals leaves your wonderful composing because of this challenge.

7. themadmullahofbricklane

Don’t forget the original work on this subject by my friend the late Mala Sen. Her ” Death by Fire: Sati,Dowry Death and Female Infanticide in modern India” started the whole discussion back in 2001.

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