Focus group meetings with community leaders in Ganja, under the advocacy campaign organised by Gender Hub in partnership with the Social Rights Center, revealed the frightful truth about a local woman who had 13 abortions to get the "perfect result"—a son. It quickly became a major concern for the Gender Hub, and after taking action to raise awareness with a public service announcement video, it received widespread attention. This article explores the social and economic conditions that underpin the phenomenon of sex-selective abortion, what the long-term consequences are, and the challenge of addressing this issue from a policy perspective.
In many regions of the world, gender-selective abortion, which is defined as choosing abortion purely or primarily due to preferring the sex of the unborn child, is a frequent practice. At birth, the biological norms are 102 and 106 males for every 100 females. However, higher-than-average ratios have been noted across some South Asian, East Asian, and Central Asian nations that are growing more concerned about this (WHO, 2011); in extreme cases, ratios have reached 130 males for every 100 females. The effect of parental choices regarding the sex of their children on the family structure has been a major concern for demographers and community planners, particularly in countries such as China, India, and Vietnam, as sex choice could be a significant barrier to fertility reduction if parents proceeded to have children until they obtained their preferred sex pairing of children or the anticipated number of boys. While the issue is widely covered in the aforementioned countries Azerbaijan appears to be overlooked. However, according to the recent findings of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Azerbaijan is globally in first place for sex-ratio imbalances. If no action is taken to fight against the issue, the demographic data indicates that it is expected to have 12–15 thousand more boys than newly born girls in the country by 2050. Although there are certain policies to prevent sex-selective abortions (SSA), the influence of these policies is not positive when they're not combined with strategies that focus on changing social norms for gender inequality.  Last year, media expert Aynur Veysalova spoke at a training for journalists on ‘Increasing gender sensitivity in Azerbaijani media." She stated that, according to the statistics of 2021, there are 115 boys for every 100 girls in Azerbaijan.
"Before, the leadership in the list of selective abortion belonged to China, and Azerbaijan was in second place. The situation has now flipped. As a result of the decline in reproduction in Azerbaijan over the last decades and the widespread use of ultrasound examination, which allows for a determination of the sex of the fetus, the preference given to male children in the country is realized through selective abortions. This leads to a serious violation of the sex ratio among the children born."
According to the State Statistical Committee of the Republic of Azerbaijan, this number has recently increased to 116 boys for every 100 girls.
Lots of factors can have an impact on the decision-making process of parents, which include economic, social, cultural, and psychological aspects. In Azerbaijan, it has recently been observed that the fertility rate has fallen gradually from 2.8 births per woman in 1990 to 1.5 births per woman in 2021 ("Women and Men in Azerbaijan," 2022). The reasons for declining fertility include the economic situation and capitalism, which parallel an increase in SSA as couples have less children. Let’s say if a couple has one son, it is socially acceptable to have another son or daughter. But if the couple has a daughter, it is not acceptable to have a second daughter.
In Azerbaijan, it is common for couples to try for a third child after having two daughters because they hope to have a son. The desire for a son comes from the belief that men are not "real men" unless they have a son, and blame for that can be directed at women for not having a son. These social beliefs create a basis for justifying SSA and perpetuate stereotypes about girls in the family. Motives such as the idea that men have been essential for providing household management and that a daughter is viewed as "the kid of another household" can also be added to the list of reasons for SSA. Living with a son-in-law is seen as a disgrace to one's bloodline in many households where elderly parents who require support in their old age are expected to live with their sons. (Surprisingly, they cannot be taken care of by caregivers if they have a son, which also creates emotional burdens on men as they have an obligation to always be able to care for their parents.) Most of the time, the oldest son receives the entire estate as payment for this behavior, while the daughter is treated as the child of another household after the marriage and is not entitled to any economic help. In some of the regions—Lankaran, Guba-Khachmaz, and Yukari Karabakh—where SSA is most visible, those aforementioned factors can be seen more clearly (UNFPA, 2018).
One of the main consequences that we will possibly face when the marriage age comes is the shortage of women in society. Populations' sex structures become unbalanced as a result of gender-selective abortions. A paucity of women causes major issues once this imbalance reaches marriageable age groups, especially in civilizations where marriage is almost universally accepted as the norm (Belanger, 2002). The vast cohorts of surplus young men have only just begun to reach reproductive age because prenatal sex determination became available only in the middle of the 1980s. As a result, the impact of this male surplus in the reproductive age group on society remains largely hypothetical. When there aren't enough women available for marriage, women have the chance to "marry up," inevitably leaving some men without any chance to find a partner (Therese Hesketh, 2011). Several assumptions have been made regarding how this will affect men who are not able to marry. For example, it has been anticipated that the inability to meet cultural expectations of getting married and starting a family will lead to low self-esteem and greater vulnerability to a variety of psychological issues. There is also some research, backed up by empirical data, that suggests men who are unable to fulfill cultural expectations of masculinity and family are more likely to become aggressive and violent as a result of a combination of psychological fragility and sexual frustration (See, Therese Hesketh, 2011).
What we’re doing at Gender Hub Azerbaijan
Realistically, there is no one solution to solve the current situation. Although some of the policy options for this involve minimising the number of children that couples can have and possible abortion restrictions, these are not always helpful in easing the situation. In Azerbaijan, for example, women can have abortions for any reason until the 12th week; for socio-economic reasons until the 22nd week, and at any time during the pregnancy if there is a risk to the mother's health (International Consortium for Medical Abortion). The gender of the fetus can be determined after the 12th week, yet sex-selective abortions are high in Azerbaijan, which brings us to the reality that women have SSA through illegal means. Which means there is a discrepancy between legislative acts and their implementation.
When this is the case, it becomes hard to trust only legislative ways of preventing the issue. The fundamental problem of son preference is extremely difficult to solve and calls for a diverse strategy. Large-scale public awareness initiatives, such as television and billboard campaigns that highlight gender inequality and the benefits of having female children, are likely to have a favorable effect. Recognition that intense intervention would be necessary to change these centuries-long traditions led activists to take action. However, if we look at other perspectives of policies, rather than restrictions, then empowerment can be the key. For example, in India, the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, passed in 2007, mandates that both sons and daughters be responsible for the care of their parents in proportion to the portion of property they own. (WHO, 2011) The law allows daughters to acquire family property practically on an equal level with sons. Although these legal modifications do not, by themselves, alter behavior, they represent a significant change in the legal foundation for inheritance and care for the elderly. Additionally, they make it abundantly apparent that both men and women are entitled to the same legal protections.
Other approaches to helping girls or families with only girls include direct payments at the moment of birth, scholarship programs, gender-based school quotas, and financial assistance designed to help them improve their socioeconomic circumstances (WHO, 2011).
As a consequence of the analyses and suggestions made by feminists, gender and human rights activists, as well as individuals representing various initiatives through extensive online public discussions, the Gender Hub Azerbaijan was founded in July 2020. Gender Hub Azerbaijan is a community-based platform that unites young grassroots advocates, initiative groups, nonprofits, feminists, the government, and human rights activists with a multi-stakeholder approach to fight violence against women and systematic discrimination in Azerbaijan by organising educational programs, advocacy campaigns, and capacity-building projects.
Over the last 2 years, with various campaigns, petitions, oral statements to the CEDAW Committee at its 82nd session, projects, workshops, podcasts, etc., Gender Hub has supported women's empowerment broadly. It is worth mentioning that this Hub does not exclude men during the process: the Papa School project and the role of fathers in the Azerbaijan campaign are considered significant through the process of raising awareness on gender-based matters.
Taking everything into account, although there are some laws prohibiting sex-selective abortions (SSA), these laws have little impact unless they are coupled with plans to alter social attitudes that support gender inequity.
Written by Maryam Majidova, Roman Gojayev, Farida Mammadli
Belanger, D. (2002). Sex Selective Abortions: Short-term and Long-term Perspectives, Reproductive Health Matters. An International Journal on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, 194-197.
Therese Hesketh, L. L. (2011, September 6). The consequences of son preference and sex-selective abortion in China and other Asian countries. In CMAJ (pp. 1374-1377). Retrieved from
International Consortium for Medical Abortion. (n.d.). Retrieved october 2022, from https://medicalabortionconsortium.com/country/AZ/
WHO. (2011). Preventing gender-biased sex selection. Geneva: World Health Organization .
UNFPA. (2018). Azerbaijan Country Profile . Baku.
(n.d.). State Statistical Committee Of The Republic Of Azerbaijan. Official .
(2022). “Women and men in Azerbaijan” . State Statistical Committee of The Republic of Azerbaijan . Baku: Dövlət Statistika Komitəsi.