Why South Asia Is Missing 79 Million Women

Human Rights Abuses Abound for Sake of Family Planning

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GENEVA, MAR. 24, 2001 (Zenit.org).- This week the U.N. Human Rights Commission opened its annual session in Geneva. One theme unlikely to be treated is the lack of respect for human rights in family planning programs.



The recent decision by American President George W. Bush to deny U.S. funding to organizations involved in abortions drew attention once more to the behavior of the Western-based and -financed groups. Abortion, however, is only one of the problems in the population control efforts promoted by rich countries and the United Nations.

China: torture used to enforce limits

Some reports in recent months have alleged that Chinese authorities are relaxing the one-child limit on families. But the situation is far from clear. Other reports indicate that China continues to abuse individual liberties in enforcing family planning.

Last month Amnesty International published a study on the use of torture by Chinese authorities, and a part of this document examined the birth control policy. Amnesty affirms, "Numerous public reports from China indicate that local annual birth quotas still play a prominent part in the policy, upheld by stiff penalties as a well as rewards."

While some exceptions have been made in recent times, the report noted that if women become pregnant without official permission, they could still be punished by heavy fines and dismissal. As well, local officials could be demoted, fired or fined for failing to uphold the plan and quotas.

To enforce the birth control limits, Amnesty said, "officials continue to resort to violence, torture and ill-treatment including physically coerced abortions and sterilizations." Amnesty went on to detail one such case, in Nanhai County, Guangdong province. There, birth control officials last summer were operating illegal detention facilities for pregnant women and relatives of those who did not pay fines. The officials, who acted with impunity, held the detainees for long periods in poor conditions.

A related problem in China is the trafficking of women. Due to the push for smaller families, and the traditional preference for male offspring in many areas, brides are now in short supply. This has led to the kidnapping and sale of women, the Los Angeles Times reported Feb. 14.

The Times said a 1995 study showed that never-married men 20 to 44 years old outnumbered their female counterparts by nearly 2 to 1. Between the ages of 25 and 39, the ratio was 4 to 1. In hard numbers, that is equivalent to a surplus of 26 million single men age 20 to 44 in China.

Because of the steep drop in the proportion of daughters after China´s one-child policy took effect in 1979 -- due to selective abortion, fatal neglect or outright killing of baby girls -- the situation is expected to worsen in coming years.

The Los Angeles Times reported that in 1999, according to government statistics, 6,800 women were reported abducted or missing and not recovered, a figure experts say is almost certainly too low. An additional 7,660 women were rescued.

Selective abortions

The practice of selectively aborting unborn girls is also present in other Asian countries. Reuters reported Dec. 16 on a study compiled by the Mahbub Ul Haq Human Development Center in Pakistan. According to the study, the growing use of ultrasound and amniocentesis to screen babies´ health, which enables parents to learn their offspring´s sex early in pregnancy, have facilitated abortions and skewed South Asia´s population toward males.

The survey of Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and the Maldives said 79 million women were "missing in South Asia" due to discrimination against females, both before and after birth. The report based its findings of "missing women" on figures that show there are only 94 women for every 100 men in South Asia while the ratio worldwide is 106 women for every 100 men.

Female sterilization is another way in which women´s human rights are being violated by family planning. The Washington Post reported Dec. 23 that many Brazilian women now want to reverse their sterilization, but the procedure is costly.

By the early 1980s, sterilization was by far Brazil´s No. 1 form of birth control, and played an important part in lowering the country´s fertility rate to 2.1 children per woman by the early 1990s.

The Post reported that Brazilian officials acknowledge that the widespread use of sterilization is largely responsible for the country´s alarmingly high use of Caesarean sections, because sterilizations are often performed after a Caesarean. By 1986, 44% of Brazilian births were performed by Caesarean.

As the number of Caesareans increased, so did the rate of birth-related deaths among mothers. Brazil´s maternal mortality rate peaked at 220 per 100,000 births during the early 1990s, with some cities reporting rates as high as 350 per 100,000 births.

Feminist ideology

In the enthusiasm for limiting population growth, basic human rights are being trampled. In an article in The World and I magazine last December, Boston College philosophy professor Laura L. Garcia argued that family planning efforts have been reinforced in many cases by a feminist ideology that considers women´s fertility a threat to themselves and to their self-realization.

This radical ideology has come to dominate the academy and the media in most Western nations, producing a powerful coalition of well-intentioned but extremely determined social engineers, noted Garcia.

The article observes that the drive to make contraceptives and abortion accessible to every woman is often portrayed as a way of helping women and the human race generally into a more enlightened future. However, continued Garcia, "questions linger over whether this agenda is truly in the interests of women, especially women in cultures less fragmented than in the West."

The emphasis on birth control has also led to neglect of basic health needs in Third World nations. Garcia quoted Leanardo Casco of Honduras, who complains that "in our hospitals and in our health-care system, we have a lot of problems getting basic medicines -- things like penicillin and antibiotics. There is a terrible shortage of basic medicines, but you can find the cabinets full of condoms, pills and IUDs." In fact, since 1969, the U.S. Agency for International Development has spent more money on population control programs than on other health programs. In some years, it spent three times more on contraceptive "re-education" than on health care, Garcia commented.

Prior to the 1994 Cairo conference on population and development Pope John Paul II, in his address to the then head of the U.N. Population Fund, Nafis Sadik, explained that in relation to family planning, "no goal or policy will bring positive results for people if it does not respect the unique dignity and objective needs of those same people." If only these words were heeded there would be greater respect for human rights.