Compared to even a decade ago, Nepali women are better represented in almost all fields. There are more women in important posts in major political parties than at any time in the past. Doctors, engineers, architects, banking professionals—women have started to make their presence felt everywhere. Greater presence of women in workforce makes economic sense as well. Studies show that compared to men with equivalent academic and professional qualifications, women are generally more sincere and thorough at work.
The traditional Nepali social structure built around rigid patriarchal norms appears to be slowly changing. It is not. Old habits die hard, old biases are still harder to kill. This is the reason sex-selective abortions, which is proscribed by the Nepali law, continue unabated. Contrary to common perception, the trend is more marked in urban hubs (with more medical facilities) than in rural areas. According to 2012 census, girls’ population in urban areas is 5.7 percent less than that of boys’, largely owing to the growing trend of sex-selective abortions.
In his provocative 1990 essay in the New York Review of Books, economist Amartya Sen claimed that 100 million women were ‘missing’ in Asia. While the ratio of men to women is more or less even in the West, Sen pointed out, it tends to be skewed in favor of men in patriarchal societies like China and India. Sex-selective abortion is believed to be one of the major causes of this skewed male-to-female ratio. It is troubling that nearly 23 years after Sen wrote the famous essay, the skewed sex-ratio in much of Asia seems to be getting worse: female feticide has been growing with the spread of ultrasound technology in the poorer parts of the world.
Old biases die hard, and sex-selective abortions to get rid of girls continue unabated.
Demographic imbalance has many social implications, including declining fertility rates and unrest among young men who are unable to find partners. The women who undergo abortions are at risk of acute malnutrition, infertility and life-long medical problems. Strict monitoring of medical facilities that avail sex-determination services would be a step in the right direction. This is easier said than done with pregnant women themselves colluding to abort female fetuses under unrelenting family and social pressure. UNICEF estimates that 20 percent of 70,000 abortions in Nepal each year are carried out by women who prefer a son to a daughter. Abetted by such cultural norms, many of the clinics and hospitals offering sex-determination facilities have been operating without any oversight for years.
Controlling illegal activities that take place in these shady places should be among top government priorities. But that is not the case. In India, the local government in the state of Rajasthan, which has the worst record of sex-selective abortion, swung into action only after actor Aamir Khan took to naming and shaming the authorities in a popular television show. Such innovative approaches need to be replicated here. A grassroots movement like Occupy Baluwatar that keeps the issue of violence against women in limelight is a welcome start. But only a concerted effort by state and non-state actors is likely to work