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'I am someone's daughter'

The perceived lesser value of female babies has led to millions of 'missing' girls in Asia – but the problem is not just overseas.

She had just discovered she was pregnant with her second child when her in-laws suggested she go to the doctor for a check-up.

Satnam’s husband and sister-in-law took her to see a physician and her newly pregnant belly was scanned.

The ultrasound showed she was having a baby girl – normally good news.

Except that she and her husband already had a daughter.

“We don’t want to keep another girl,” her mother- and father-in-law told Satnam when she returned home.

They put her on a bus to her mother’s house and told her simply: “Get an abortion.”

The young woman refused. Her in-lawsSatnam and her mom and baby tried to bribe her, figuring since she was poor she would give in.

She still said no. So they threatened her with divorce.

Her mother kept her at her home for two months and eventually worked out a compromise – saying if the baby was a girl, she’d care for her – and sent Satnam back to her husband’s family.

But they had other plans. For seven days, they did not feed her. They beat and kicked her stomach in hopes of killing the baby. Eventually, Satnam was kicked out of the house and returned to her mom, who brought her to a doctor.

Through it all, her baby survived.

Today, Satnam is a single mother of two young daughters. She lives with her mother, a widow herself, and it is uncertain how the women will find the means to care for and feed the children.

“I’m going through so much trouble, just for having daughters,” Satnam says.

• • •

Satnam is from India, and her story is chronicled in a video released by the Surrey-based Mamta Foundation of Canada, an organization that works to raise awareness of female feticide.

While Satnam had to the courage to fight back, many women cannot.

It’s estimated thousands of babies in India are aborted annually because they are female.

And India is only one among many countries where males are the preferred offspring.

According to the United Nations, there are 117 million women “missing” in Asia – including Vietnam, China, Korea and the Philippines – as the ratio of men to women grows more disproportionate.

While the normal birth gender ratio ranges from 102 to 106 males per 100 females, ratios much higher – sometimes as high as 130 males per 100 females – have been recorded in some areas. Those discrepancies, says the UN, are often seen in countries where there are economic restraints or social conventions place greater value on males.

“There is huge pressure on women to produce sons… which not only directly affects women’s sexual and reproductive lives with implications for their health and survival, but also puts women in a position where they must perpetuate the lower status of girls through son preference,” according to a joint statement by various UN groups and the World Health Organization.

Under the weight of this pressure, some women determine the sex of their unborn baby and obtain an abortion if it is female.

If they don’t, say UN experts, women will often face other dire consequences – violence, abandonment, divorce or even death – for having an unwanted girl.

• • •

Local activists and academics say sex selection isn’t simply an issue in a far-away land.

It exists, they assert, in Canada – particularly in communities with large immigrant populations, such as Surrey and North Delta.

Charan Gill, CEO of Progressive Intercultural Community Services (PICS), says the issue has migrated with people and outdated belief systems.

While not occurring on the same scale as other countries, female feticide in Canada should not be ignored, says a Surrey advocate.

Makhan Deo“This is a concern because this issue is also in our community,” says Makhan Deo, president of the Mamta Foundation of Canada (pictured at left).

“It’s happening not only in India, it’s happening here.”

Deo says women are often either sent back to India or across the border to the U.S. to secretly get rid of unwanted babies. Abortions are also available on demand in Canada.

Research by Kevin Milligan, associate professor of economics at the University of B.C., and associates from Columbia University, suggests sex selection is being practised in Canada.

“We have documented evidence of a clear son preference among South-East Asian immigrants to Canada,” reads a draft paper entitled, “O Sister, Where Art Thou? The Role of Son Preference and Sex Choice: Evidence from Immigrants to Canada.”

The researchers found two primary methods of achieving sons – having children until a male is born, or selecting sons over daughters (likely through abortions).

But while their data shows dramatically fewer second-generation (as opposed to first generation) immigrants choose to have multiple children to achieve a boy, the researchers did not observe such a sharp decline between the generations when it comes to sex selection.

“It could be argued that unlike a preference for high fertility, a preference for sons and a (relative) lack of aversion to sex selective abortion is not costly to maintain in the West,” says the research paper.

For those who work closely with Surrey and Delta’s immigrant community, the fact women continue to get rid of unwanted girls is no surprise.

According to Pardeep Sahota, director of communications at PICS, one or two of every 50 clients treated at the organization’s women’s health clinic has aborted a female fetus.

The women, she says, are not only under immense pressure from families, but sometimes don’t understand their rights in Canada.

• • •

Back in India, Satnam rocks her baby, her mom by her side as they share their tale and wipe tears from their weary faces.

Still, the young mom is sure of her decision to keep her baby and face the consequences.

“I could have had her aborted. But I am someone’s daughter as well.”

ON TUESDAY: The controversy surrounding ultrasounds for pregnant women and how to curb the cultural preference for male babies.