In October 1991 Amartya Sen wrote a controversial article in The New York Review of Books, “More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing”. In the piece, he tried to estimate the large numbers of “missing women” in countries like India, China as well as other Asian & African countries by comparing with the numbers that could have been expected if men and women had received similar care in health, medicine, and nutrition. He arrived at a figure of more than 100 million missing women. This horrible number conveys a terrible story of inequality and neglect leading to the excess mortality of women. Decades of deprivation have led to the systematic extinction of the female population in many parts of the world. I am deliberately using the world “extinction” because the figure of missing women as described by Professor Sen in the developing world is simply too huge to ignore. It exceeds the total number of casualties in both World Wars plus all casualties of all major epidemics of the twentieth century, including those who perished in the current AIDS pandemic. Sadly, it seems women are an endangered species in some parts of the world.
Two decades later, the situation is still not much different in Nepal, the country where I was born. Although the sex ratio still favors excess female population in the country, it by no means indicates atrocities committed against women are less here than anywhere else in the world. Nepal is still a notorious place for women to live, where modern day slavery exists in the form of girls’ trafficking and domestic servitudes. The extent of gender based violence can be imagined by the simple fact that in 2011 alone 61 cases of witchcraft were reported by the national NGO INSEC, the majority of which were women who were branded with a hot iron and fed with excreta. Yet, an additional and increasing threat for the ‘endangered sex’ in my country nowadays is antenatal gender identification and sex-selective abortion. Professor Sen was right when he emphasized that the gender bias reflects itself in higher mortality due to unequal access to resources and services. But here in Nepal, the horror can start well before a girl is even born, in her mother’s womb. To put it bluntly: in one of the poorest countries of the world where daughters are still widely perceived to be of less economic value and the local tradition continues to demand that women’s families give dowry at the time of marriage, what better way of conserving scarce resources than to get rid of these baby girls as early as possible? There is no exact figure on how many sex-selective abortions are conducted every year in the country; however, limited available evidence shows that health workers admit it’s a problem. Worryingly, they even reckon the problem is increasing. True, health workers are well aware of the pressures many Nepali women face to bear sons and many of these health workers might be worried that these women may seek unsafe services elsewhere when unable to obtain abortions in a hospital. But there’s an incentive in the practice for many of them as well: it is not exactly a secret that the mushrooming numbers of sonography clinics in the major cities in Nepal are involved in antenatal sex determination – in fact, it’s a major source of income for them.
Perhaps more surprising is the indifference and apathy on the part of civil society which till now has opted to stay mute on the issue, by and large. This could indicate a decreasing moral threshold of the Nepalese society: many people probably consider sex-selective abortion to be the lesser of two evils if the other option is to give birth to a female infant who has to live a life of relative deprivation and faces a substantial risk to become the victim of gender-based violence for much of her life.
During a recent event on 14 February 2013, more than two decades after Sen’s seminal article, many physically assaulted Nepalese women were finally able to overcome their trauma and dance in front of dozens of television cameras in solidarity with one billion women worldwide to end gender based violence. But the question that remains unanswered is, how many more decades do we have to wait for someone to come to the front and shake his or her head to say no to female feticide in Nepal?