Cultural misogyny; young Punjabi mothers in Canada pressured to birth sons, reject girls

From The Toronto Star.

Desperate mothers

October 3, 2009

Raveena Aulakh


On a windswept street in a bustling industrial area on the outskirts of town, a stocky man in a white shirt and dark jeans pulls out three Ziploc bags containing red, brown and silver pills.

Take two red and brown pills each day for a week, he tells the woman who says she is nine weeks pregnant, and your baby has an 85 per cent chance of being a boy. Then he demands $750 in cash.

In the Indian state of Punjab, the culture is obsessed with boys. Desperate to avoid giving birth to girls, women for decades have taken extreme measures. They swallow herbs, drink pregnant cow’s milk, pray in marathon sessions, and since the widespread use of ultrasound technology, abort female fetuses.

It’s a huge topic of debate in India, with an alarmingly skewed birth ratio of boys to girls.

But this scene on an industrial strip was not played out in Punjab, but just west of Toronto, in an area a large number of Punjabis now call home – and where the latest Canadian census figures reveal significantly fewer girls than boys in the South Asian community.

Posing as a pregnant Punjabi woman, a Star reporter met the man after answering an ad in the Ajit Weekly, a Punjabi-language newspaper printed in Mississauga. “A guaranteed and satisfactory medicine for having a son is available,” the ad says.

The man turned out to be Kanwar Bains, the newspaper’s news editor and the meeting took place outside the paper’s office. He said a woman cannot be more than 12 weeks pregnant for the pills to work.

“There’s no 100 per cent guarantee,” he said in an earlier conversation by phone. He offered to give the number of a Brampton clinic to check the sex of the fetus after 12 weeks of pregnancy. “Then you can think about what you want to do. If it’s a girl, (whether) you want to keep her or not,” he said. “You know … what you want to do is your decision.”

Later, when confronted by the Star, Bains said he was not preying on desperate women. “So what’s wrong as a human being to aspire or desire a boy … to balance your family.”

Young mothers from India, particularly from Punjab, often face intense pressure here to have baby boys, said Baldev Mutta, executive director of Punjabi Community Health Services in Peel Region.

Mutta said he has no doubt female feticide – aborting a female fetus – also is prevalent among Punjabis in Canada.

The agency sees several women every month seeking help. One woman was forced by her family to have two abortions because they were girls, he said. When she became pregnant again and found out it was a girl, she approached Mutta for help.

Amandeep Kaur, a counsellor at Punjabi Community Health Services, said she has seen dozens of victims of domestic abuse. But nothing prepared her for a young Malton mother who sought help. The woman, in her mid-20s, had two young daughters. Her in-laws had subsequently forced her to have two abortions after ultrasounds indicated she was carrying girls. Now she was pregnant again with a female fetus.

The woman was frail, constantly crying as her two young daughters clung to her, Kaur recalled of the meeting at a Mississauga coffee shop. The woman’s in-laws told her she could keep the baby and return to India, or have the abortion.

“I told her we would do everything to help her keep her unborn girl,” Kaur said, but she never saw the woman after two meetings. When she finally managed to contact her again, the woman told her she’d had a miscarriage.

“A lot of young mothers are newcomers,” Kaur said. “They don’t know anyone here except for (their) in-laws. They fear for what could happen if they don’t do what the family wants.”

The bias against girls is entrenched in traditional Indian culture, where a girl is considered a burden on the family. Parents worry about finding her a good husband and providing a dowry.

For most parents, girls will get married and go live with their new families. A son, they believe, will look after them in old age and also carry on the family name.

IN 2006, a study published in the British medical journal Lancet found the boy-girl ratio changed markedly after ultrasound technology – that diagnoses fetal abnormalities and illnesses but can also identify sex – became popular in India 20 years ago. The most dramatic decline of female births came between 1991 and 2001, from 945 girls for every 1,000 boys to 927, despite a ban in 1994 on sex-selective abortions.

According to India’s 2001 census, the northern state of Punjab has one of the worst gender ratios at 793 girls to 1,000 boys.

Canada does not collect statistics based on ethnicity at birth. But statistics here, now home to more than a million Indo-Canadians, many from Punjab, also show a somewhat skewed gender ratio. According to 2006 census figures, nationally there are 932 girls to 1,000 boys under age 15 in the South Asian community, compared to 953 girls to 1,000 boys in the general population.

The numbers in the South Asian community in the Toronto area become much more skewed: 917 girls to 1,000 boys in the Toronto Central Metropolitan Area. Broken down further, it shows 904 girls to 1,000 boys in Mississauga, and 864 girls to 1,000 boys in Brampton.

“That means the sex-ratio is 50 per cent higher for under-15 South Asians as compared to the general population (in the Toronto CMA),” said David Foot, professor of economics at the University of Toronto and a demographics expert. “I would say that is concerning.”

That’s a huge gap proportionally, says Myer Siemiatycki, a professor in immigration settlement studies at Ryerson University.

That’s a huge gap proportionally, says Myer Siemiatycki, a professor in immigration settlement studies at Ryerson University.

“In the Punjabi and South-Asian population, the numbers show a clear tilt in favour of men while it’s the opposite in the national population (where overall there are more Canadian women than men). There’s no question something significant is happening in the under-15 age group.”

BOY OR girl? It’s easy to find out.

Canadian law says a patient is entitled to all their own medical information.

In its national guidelines, the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada says sex determination of the fetus is part of the complete obstetric ultrasound. “However, if no abnormalities are seen but determination is inconclusive, the examination should not be prolonged or repeated solely to determine fetal sex.”

Acknowledging “information may lead women to abort pregnancies when the fetus is not the wanted sex,” the society stipulates ultrasound clinics should not do scans only to determine gender. In most cases, an ultrasound can indicate the sex of a fetus at 16 to 18 weeks.

If doctors know the gender, they will ask the patient if they want to know, says Jennifer Blake, chief of obstetrics and gynaecology at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. But Blake acknowledges an ethical quandary in revealing that information “if a doctor suspects an infant’s life would be terminated based on gender.”

Birinder Singh Ahluwalia, who owns four diagnostics clinics in the Toronto area, has seen women barely 10 weeks pregnant asking him to check the gender.

“I tell them I won’t do it,” he says, adding, “I’ve been told many people go to Buffalo (for ultrasounds).”

Shruti Gandhi, who runs a fertility clinic in Rexdale, says some couples seeking fertility treatment ask if it is possible to have a boy.

Gandhi, in practice for 15 years with mostly South-Asian clients, tells them at the outset there is a 50-50 chance of having a boy. “It makes me angry but I also know the young woman is probably under pressure.”

IT’S A Saturday morning and some 40 men crowd into a room at a health centre in west Brampton. They represent all age-groups and all are Punjabi. They are here as part of mandated counselling for alcohol or drug addiction, or domestic violence. Today’s topic is about discrimination against women, before they are born.

Mutta, in typical candour, asks if they, as parents, want boys. For a few moments, the only sound is a creaking chair as a man shifts uncomfortably. Then a heavy-set man replies he has nothing against girls, but boys do carry on the family name.

Then a man in the front row pipes up: it’s the women – mothers and sisters-in-law in most cases – who pressure young mothers to have boys. “Can’t the man explain it to his mother that it’s not important?” Mutta asks.

No response. Another man tells how his wife cried her heart out when she gave birth to a girl. She felt she had let the family down.

Mutta calls it “indoctrination.”

An older man in a rust-coloured turban says: “It will stop only when we realize it’s wrong.”

At the end of the meeting, Mutta warns them of a day, not far in the future, when there will be few girls left for boys to marry. There is nervous laughter as they leave.

Mutta warns education on gender equality is key. “It’s a decades-old problem. It won’t go away overnight. Even if we lose one girl, it’s a shame.”

Data analysis – the Star’s Andrew Bailey

Toronto Star

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