‘We lose 1,400 girls a year. Who will our boys marry?’: Armenia's quandary
Sometimes it seems there are so many ways to destroy women that the methods become invisible to us. There are some women you will never see because they will never be born.
Amartya Sen talked of “missing women” in his famous 1990 essay because of technologies that enable prenatal sex selection.
Most people are aware this happens in China and India, but I am in Armenia, talking to a nervy woman in her early 30s. We are in the eastern region of Gavar, which is second only to China in the number of female foetuses that are aborted. Here, 120 boys are born for every 100 girls.
The woman, who has two young daughters, tells me her girls say: “Let’s go to church to light a candle to get a little brother.” They want a boy, she wants a boy, her husband wants a boy. This is why she has had nine or 10 abortions – she is not sure exactly, and is vague about a “vascular condition”, given as a reason to terminate the pregnancies.
She droops slightly when asked for more detail. “If I get pregnant again and it’s a girl …” She trails off. She is not sure what she will do. She has heard of doctors in the capital, Yerevan, who could help her. Sex selection, for that is what we are talking about, became illegal in Armenia in 2016.
This is one part of what propels prenatal sex selection – a need to ensure the family lineage, and the belief that boys will provide in old age. Girls grow up, marry and leave. They move in with the husband’s family. Boys are an investment. Girls are a loss. This I hear repeated over and over again. It is hard to reconcile with the modern women – doctors, journalists and politicians – who are everywhere in Yerevan. Some of the biggest pressures on women to have sons come from other women: mothers–in–law.
Dr Hrachya Khalafyan, who runs the Sevan medical centre in Yerevan, was shocked when he first heard about Armenia’s sex imbalance. “We all were,” says Sevan, who instructs his staff that there can be no terminations on these grounds.Where once they used to have seven or eight children, women in Armenia today give birth just once, on average. In the past, if the last child was a girl, she might be called the Armenian word for “Enough”, as if no one could be bothered to name her. Doctors now encourage women to celebrate carrying a girl, yet I hear the stories of what happens in “other places” where women are not allowed to be told the sex of their child at the 12-week scan. There are ways to find out, apparently, such as the pocket in which the doctor puts their pen – left for a girl, right for a boy.
Armenia really needs its missing women. “We lose 1,400 girls a year. In the long term who will our boys marry? How will we consolidate the Armenian nation? We are only 3 million people. We have no right to such losses. There will be no mothers to give birth to girls,” says Khalafyan.