by Kate Gilles, policy analyst, International Programs
Two new studies on post-Soviet Caucasus countries provide additional evidence of the need to immediately and proactively address the issue of prenatal sex selection.
The three southern Caucasus countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia) have sex ratios at birth (SRBs) above the biologically normal range (approximately 102 to 107 male births for every 100 female births). This rise coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the increased availability of ultrasound technology (which allows for prenatal sex determination). Looking at Armenia and Azerbaijan (the two countries with available DHS data), authors Marc Michael and colleagues used DHS and vital statistics data to show that prenatal sex selection is common in Armenia and Azerbaijan, with serious consequences: the authors estimated that nearly 10 percent of potential female births in those two countries did not occur because of prenatal sex selection.1 Sex ratios at birth are high for first births (138 in Armenia and 113 in Azerbaijan), and remain elevated or rise even higher for second births if the first child was a girl (156 in Armenia and 113 in Azerbaijan). If the first child was a boy, however, the sex ratio decreased in both countries.
In the post-Soviet bloc countries neighboring the southern Caucasus, sex ratios are normal, and higher-order births are not affected by the sex of children from earlier births. Access to prenatal sex determination and sex selective technology is similar in those countries, leading Michael and colleagues to conclude that factors such as stronger son preference and greater discrimination against women account for the higher ratios in Armenia and Azerbaijan.
This is clearly a call for greater attention to the current practice of prenatal sex selection in the Caucasus, but attention should also be given to the potential for sex selection to spread elsewhere, as John Bongaarts points out.2 Bongaarts examined what happens to the sex ratio in developing countries with son preferences when technology for sex-selective abortion becomes more widely available and affordable. He found that sex ratios at last birth rise as countries move through the fertility transition and couples begin to use contraception to limit their number of children, often stopping childbearing after they have had a son. And this ratio continues to rise with increased accessibility of prenatal sex determination technology.
Bongaarts concluded that “son preference is more widespread than commonly acknowledged,” and that in many countries, including a number of African countries, people want more sons than they are actually having. In these countries, unless gender equality improves and son preference decreases, we can expect to see a rise in the sex ratio at birth, as fertility decreases and access to sex-selective technology increases.
For more on the causes and consequences of prenatal sex selection and a discussion of strategies to combat it, see these three PRB publications:
- When Technology and Tradition Collide: From Gender Bias to Sex Selection
- Tackling Gender Discrimination to Reduce Sex Selection
- Sex Selection Further Devalues Women
- Marc Michael et al., “The Mystery of Missing Female Children in the Caucasus: An Analysis of Sex Ratios by Birth Order,” International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 39, no. 2 (2013): 97-102.
- John Bongaarts, “The Implementation of Preferences for Male Offspring,” Population and Development Review, 39, no. 2 (2013): 185-208.