Like virtually all South Asian and East Asian societies, couples in Nepal prefer to give birth to baby boys rather than girls. This long-held cultural practice has led to the abortion of millions of female fetuses and created a serious gender imbalance across the region.
Researchers from the University of California-San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine have just released a study in which they declared that the cultural preference for sons over daughters is even more of an intractable problem in Nepal than such social ills as poverty, under-education, and high maternal and child mortality rates.
There also appears to be a link between the preference for infant males and the use of contraception among women.
In research published in the International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics, the UCSD team found that younger wives were least likely to use birth control measures -- 24 percent of wives aged between 20-24 and only 14 percent of wives aged 15 -19 years old use contraceptives in Nepal.
The study’s lead author, Anita Raj, PhD, professor of medicine at UCSD-School of Medicine, noted that the lack of contraceptive use was particularly notable among wives who did not have any sons.
That is, young women are pressured to give birth to sons, something that Raj describes as “daughter aversion.” Part of the reason behind this cultural bias has to do with finances, since men historically earn more money for their families than women do.
“But tradition also says sons take care of parents,” she said. “Daughters are supposed to leave the family and become the daughter of the in-laws, no longer the daughter of the parents. Practices like that are going to affect investment in your daughters.”
Raj further noted that improved education standards in Nepal have not reduced the preference for sons, nor has the younger generation rejected this cultural practice – although they likely remain heavily influenced by customs of the older generations.
“Even after adjusting for child marriage, you see it,” she said. “Girls who marry younger may be more vulnerable to son-preference because they are more likely to have their reproductive decision-making affected -- or controlled -- by older husbands and in-laws, both of whom may desire sons from these young wives.”
Raj added: “Until girls are valued as much as boys in families, we will continue to see these findings. We hoped [younger] generations would make it better, but this study is with young mothers and demonstrates that the beliefs are being carried into the [newest and] youngest generation of child-bearers.”
Overall, only one in five married young women in Nepal use contraception, with the lowest rates found in rural areas where educational levels are low.
Separately, abortions (which became legal in Nepal in 2002 under certain circumstances and completely safe and affordable by 2010) are becoming increasingly common in Nepal – and they are frequently used to terminate female offspring.
A report from the Nepali Times newspaper from last September revealed that at least 50,000 unborn baby girls are aborted every year in the country after parents discover the gender of the fetus though ultrasound scans.
Ironically, while the legalization of abortion was expected to decrease maternal mortality rates, it has instead, as an editorial in the Times points out, led to the “slaughter” of thousands of unwanted female fetuses.
“The [abortion] law has benefited tens of thousands of women across Nepal, and freed many innocent unjustly jailed women,” said the editorial in the Times.
“But as abortion became easier, it has resulted in the appalling spread of female feticide.”
The preference for boys remains a dominant bias across South and East Asia – girls are viewed as a financial burden (who require a dowry upon marriage), while boys are regarded as the income-earners and the ones to perpetuate the family name and lineage. There is also a reluctance to allow daughters to inherit property.
Thus, the ratio of males to females in Nepal is currently 1.04-to-1 – and may continue to widen.
Last summer, Zoe Williams, a columnist for the Guardian newspaper in Britain, described the plight of young women in Nepal.
“[One-third] of marriages feature one participant under 15, usually the girl,” she wrote. “They still practice ‘chhaupadi’ in some rural areas, which means that when you're menstruating, you are considered so unclean that you have to go and live in the shed… To see ovulation as a bad omen and bringer of family illness is not great for the status of women. There are villages where, even if you are raped, the act of intercourse results in you being de facto married to the rapist.”
Nepal, renowned for its immense natural beauty and sweeping mountain vistas, nonetheless remains one of the poorest and most undeveloped nations on earth – factors which likely exacerbate the widening gender gap.
According to Volunteer Society Nepal (VSN), 42 percent of Nepal’s population live below the poverty line on less than $240 a year; 42 percent of the population of Nepal are unemployed; more than half of the people (51 percent) are illiterate; and 54 percent of Nepali children are malnourished.
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