Today is the International Day of the Girl Child, an opportunity to address the unique challenges girls face around the world and to promote girls’ empowerment and the fulfilment of their human rights.
One of the key focuses this year is on the right of girls to “live free from gender-based violence”.
Girls are tragically subject to countless instances of violence simply because they are girls, from sex trafficking, prostitution and child marriage, to female genital mutilation, sexual assault and harassment, and online abuse.
But one form of violence that receives very little attention is that of sex-selective abortion.
It is no secret that sex-selective abortions are taking place in son-preference cultures, where the practice has led to alarming distortions in birth sex ratios. In China and India, men outnumber women by a staggering 34 million and 37 million, respectively.
A large global study published last year suggests that sex-selective abortions have resulted in at least 23 million fewer girls being born since the 1970s, with the majority of “missing” girls being from China and India. Other countries with excess male births during this time period included Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Hong Kong, South Korea, Montenegro, Taiwan, Tunisia and Vietnam.
Closer to home, there is evidence that sex-selective abortion is also occurring in some parts of Australia. Take for example, the high-profile case of Dr Mark Hobart who refused to perform a sex-selective abortion in Victoria, or the investigation by SBS that found a higher number of boys than girls being born in certain ethnic communities in Australia.
A more recent study from La Trobe University also indicates that sex-selective practices are taking place amongst some ethnic communities in Victoria – a state which in 2008 reformed its abortion laws to allow abortion on request, for any reason until 24 weeks (with meaningless restrictions thereafter).
Extreme “abortion law reform” across Australia allowing abortion on request means that sex-selective abortion is now effectively and shamefully legal in most Australian states and territories.
During debate on the NSW Abortion Law Reform Bill last year, MPs disgracefully rejected an amendment which would have clearly enshrined in law that aborting a pre-born child on the basis of sex is not only abhorrent, but unequivocally prohibited. In doing so, they failed to represent the vast majority of the community who are outraged at the idea of sex-selective abortions, and most of all, they failed little girls who are most gravely at risk under this new law.
This month, a review is due under the new Act on whether or not sex-selective abortions are being performed in NSW. It is, however, difficult to have faith in a review that will likely depend on self-reporting by doctors after the fact – what kind of doctor would willingly admit to aborting a girl solely because her parents wanted a boy?
Sex-selective abortion is one of the most insidious, misogynistic and devastating forms of violence against girls, not to mention their mothers who are often coerced into aborting their daughters, and whose own lives are often similarly unwelcome and unvalued.
The United Nations Population Fund has said that “the rise in sex selection is alarming as it reflects the persistent low status of women and girls”. The damaging effect of millions of missing girls includes increased aggression, sexual violence, sex trafficking, bride-buying and forced prostitution.
The practice of sex-selective abortion is patently anti-girl and anti-woman and is harming our society, yet many self-proclaimed feminists refuse to condemn it because they believe that doing so could threaten their “reproductive rights”.
But what kind of rights rely on ignoring or oppressing the rights of others? And what kind of sisterhood ignores the plight of its most voiceless and vulnerable members?
It is for this same reason that some women’s organisations, even the ones that purport to concern themselves with domestic violence, turn a blind eye to those women who are coerced into terminating their pregnancies. They know that this inconvenient truth about abortion – that it is used as a form of violence against women – runs contrary to the myth that it liberates them.
On this Day of the Girl Child, which celebrates the inherent worth of every girl, we need to start to seriously address the elimination of millions of girls from our society through the gendercide that is sex-selective abortion. If we are to truly combat violence against girls and to champion their rights and empowerment, we need to fiercely protect and celebrate them from the very beginning.
Women’s Forum Australia calls on lawmakers in Australia and worldwide to ban the vile practice of sex-selective abortion.
Rachael Wong is the CEO of Women’s Forum Australia
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