By Besar Likmeta
Albanian officials deny any evidence of widespread sex-selective abortion. But on the heels of a critical U.N. report the government is ordering a task force to consider a problem that researchers say is rooted in a cultural bias for male heirs.
Credit: Besar Likmeta
TIRANA, Albania (WOMENSENEWS)– A declining fertility rate, a gender gap favoring male babies and the introduction in 1995 of prenatal screening technology provide the demographic backdrop to a recent report of widespread, illegal sex-selective abortion in Albania.
What makes the story of female feticide so believable, and difficult to fix, one researcher says, is the culture’s strong preference for male heirs.
“Boys are expected to support the parents financially, provide for their security and protect their honor, while girls are expected to provide emotional support and care for ailing parents,” said Kristina Voko, aprofessor of psychology at the University of Tirana. “Although girls are seen as a great source of emotional support and affection for the parents, boys are seen as necessary.”
Voko coauthored research for a December 2012 report by the U.N. Population Fund and World Vision, “Sex Imbalances at Birth in Albania.”
The study finds that as many as 15,000 female fetuses may have been aborted between 2000 and 2010, which corresponds to 7 percent of female births over the same period.
Voko noted that girls in Albania are not seen as an economic burden and that religion does not play a role, as in countries such as India, where the practice has been well documented. “In India families have to pay expensive dowries to marry off girls, or only men can carry out certain religious rituals, which is not the case in Albania.”
An estimated 500,000 female fetuses are aborted each year in India, according to a May 2011 study in themedical journal The Lancet. Albania’s much smaller population of only 3 million is 400 times smaller than India’s 1.2 billion, which makes the scale of sex-selective abortions comparable.
Although the release of the study has focused some public debate on the issue in Albania, health authorities deny any evidence of the problem.
“We have no indications that sex-selective abortions are carried out either in public hospitals or private clinics,” Pullumb Pipero, general director of policies and planning at the Ministry of Health, said in an email interview. “Because the sex ratio at birth is a bit above the normal trend, this brought forth the hypothesis that such abortion are carried out.”
Task Force Assembled
Nonetheless, Pipero said that due to the sensitivity of the issue the Minister of Health, Vangjel Tavo, has ordered a task force to review the enforcement of the abortion law. “We are looking at the possibility of issuing new legal directives that strengthen the application of the law,” he said.
Under Albania’s 2002 reproductive health law, the use of prenatal screening technologies to provide for sex-selective abortions is not permitted and abortions after the first trimester are illegal.
Voko said she would welcome measures to strengthen the enforcement of the law but added that authorities’ denials of the study’s findings won’t help the country change attitudes that make sex-selective abortion socially acceptable.
Although a better monitoring of health services might curb sex-selective abortions, Voko said the government must also target the ingrained preference for male heirs. “There is a need to have a public debate on gender roles that in Albania are strictly defined. In essence this is a problem of women’s rights and inequalities,” she said.
Sex-selective abortions face few social or administrative barriers in Albania, researchers of the report found. Currently Albania does not have in place a directive that would ban the disclosure by doctors of the baby’s sex during pregnancy.
Interviews with doctors and women indicated that sex-selective abortions are commonplace in Albanian hospitals and private clinics, Voko said.
Voko added that in most cases, especially outside the capital Tirana, sex-selective abortions are carried out in public hospitals and they are cheap enough that any Albanian family can afford them. And few efforts are made to prevent them.
During interviews with members of the general population and also medical professionals, most expressed views indicating they were against sex-selective abortions, yet only in few cases did they report legal or administrative barriers, Voko said.
Boys here outnumber girls by 112 to 100.
That’s a gap that Arjan Gjonca, a co-author of the report, ties to the rise of sex-selective abortions after the 1995 introduction of prenatal sex-screening technology.
“Sex-selection is incredibly widespread in the whole country and also in the neighboring Albanian populations as well as Montenegro,” said Gjonca, a senior lecturer at the London School of Economics, in an e-mail interview. “We find evidence in all regions, in rural and urban areas, amongst the educated and uneducated, among professionals and non-professionals.”
Although prenatal sex screening became widespread only two decades ago, popular beliefs on ways to predict the sex of the unborn child have been around for much longer and show how the culture favors a male.
If a woman showed marks on her face and put weight on her thighs, the unborn child was believed to be a girl. But if her skin remained flawless and her body slim, a male heir was on the way.
The rise in proportion of young boys, the authors note, will translate in a few years to similar imbalances among the adult population, with young men outnumbering young women by 10 percent.
“In the future it will create a surplus of men in the marriage market, triggering migration among single men and further discrimination of women by lowering the age of marriage and re-introducing arranged marriages,” Gjonca predicted.
In Between India, China
Albania’s sex ratio is skewed more towards boys than it is in India and less than in China, where respectively 110 and 118 boys are born for every 100 girls, according to the WomanStats Project and Database. The database is one of the most comprehensive sources of information on the status of women in the world, created by seven leading experts at five U.S. universities and updated by dozens of researchers.
“My understanding is that the overall birth sex ratio in Albania is 111 boy babies born for every 100 girl babies, and that the birth sex ratio in Tirana is 119 boy babies for every 100 girl babies–which puts Tirana on a par with China,” said Valerie Hudson, a professor at Texas A&M University and a founder of theWomanStats Project, in an email interview. Tirana is the largest city in Albania.
The Albania study finds that parents were twice as likely to abort a female fetus if the previous child had been a girl, which is a reflection of the efforts made by families to ensure that at least one of their children was male.
In 1960 an Albanian woman had on average seven children, in 1990 three children and by 2010 the average had fallen to just 1.6 children.
Besar Likmeta is an editor for the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, based in Tirana, and a winner of the 2009 CEI-SEEMO Award for Investigative Journalism.