“The Lost Girls”: why it’s a load of old rubbish

The lost girls: Illegal abortion widely used by some UK ethnic groups to avoid daughters 'has reduced female population by between 1,500 and 4,700' - Science - News - The Independent

I saw this article in the Independent on Thursday, and a number of online activist friends immediately began denouncing it as racist dog-whistle journalism. I was a bit more circumspect as I was well aware that in parts of the Indian subcontinent and China, there is a massive imbalance in favour of boys because of widespread (albeit illegal) abortions. The worst area is north-western India, particularly Punjab. However, today I was alerted to this blog post in which the author dissects the statistics and concludes that they cannot really be used to prove significant imbalances in these communities and that the methods used were too simplistic to prove that nothing could have happened other than sex-selective abortions. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service tweeted that they did not have a disproportionate number of people from ethnic minorities seeking terminations:

I will start off by saying that if there is enough evidence that babies are being aborted for sex-selective reasons in sufficient numbers to produce a population imbalance, then denying information about the sex of a baby until after the time limit for abortion has passed would be a sensible measure, because a population imbalance in favour of males causes enormous social problems, including kidnapping of young girls and women, and may be contributing to the serious upsurge in violence against women in India. It makes life more violent for everyone. Yes, it’s true that they could go abroad for a scan, although finding a doctor willing to perform it in Europe for that reason might be difficult. However, the evidence is that this isn’t the case in the UK yet, and that statistics have been massaged to produce that impression.

I was extremely surprised to find that the three immigrant groups targeted were Afghans, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, when the places where most of this happens are north-west India and parts of China. There is a difference between a preference for boys and a serious financial motive to make sure you don’t have girls: in most Muslim countries you have the former, while in much of India you have the latter, in the form of the dowry system in which a dowry has to be paid to the groom’s family by the bride’s family, essentially to pay them to take their daughter. In China, the preference for boys is made more pressing by the one-child policy, something that does not affect the Chinese community here.

Map of the areas where India's gender imbalance is worst, taken from the 2006 census. It shows a significant imbalance in the north-west, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, western Rajasthan, Gujarat and east of Bombay, with a particularly pronounced pocket in Punjab and Haryana. In the south and east, it shows normal balance or a slightly abnormal bias towards boys.The CIA’s World Factbook, published in 2012, shows that the only countries with a significant imbalance in favour of boys at birth are India and China (both about 1.1 boys to 1 girl). The surrounding Muslim countries (Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh) have normal ratios: about 1.05 boys to one girl. The Indian census of 2006 reveals that the imbalance is drastically increased in areas to the north-west of Delhi where in some areas it is between 1.4-1.5 boys per girl, and in much of India the imbalance is greater than normal, but there is also a strip from Kerala in the south-west to the Assam region in the north-east where the balance is normal, or where there are more girls. (This map is attached to one of the Independent’s articles in this feature; how on earth could they not look at their own map?)

It’s hard to escape the impression of bias when they emphasise the supposed possibility that large numbers of Muslims in the UK are having abortions to make sure they have a son, and glossing over the very real likelihood that the same groups are doing this in the UK as do it in India. Abortion is a taboo subject in most Muslim countries; in some, it’s a hanging offence. Afghanistan is not known for having religious scholars with progressive ideas on the status of women. Some scholars allow it (in theory; they do not make the law) when there is a risk to the mother’s health, but having a boy or a girl is considered the will of Allah. The idea that conservative Muslims would suddenly decide, in large numbers, that abortion was not so bad if it got rid of a few girls, is preposterous.

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