Sa, 25.03.2023
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Heimo Laakkonen: the perils of son preference in Eastern Europe

, Director, UNFPA Regional Office for Eastern Europe and Central Asia
Heimo Laakkonen: the perils of son preference in Eastern Europe
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Photo: UNFPA

Raising a girl is as hard as carrying bags of salt, or so an old Caucasian proverb goes. This still rings true to many people in Eastern Europe today, if birth statistics in the South Caucasus and parts of the Balkans are anything to go by.

In Azerbaijan, close to 117 boys are born for every 100 girls, a gap that is wider than anywhere else in Europe and second in the world only to China’s, according to a new study published by UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, together with Hacettepe University in Ankara and the Government of Azerbaijan[1].  Armenia is not far off, with 115 male births for every 100 female ones. Evidence of heavily skewed birth ratios in favour of male offspring has also emerged in neighbouring Georgia, as well as in the Western Balkan countries of Albania, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Montenegro.  

Little noticed by the public, son preference, long associated primarily with China and other Asian countries, has become a European problem too.

“Normally about 105 boys are born for every 100 girls,” explains demographer Christophe Guilmoto, one of the leading experts on the phenomenon. “But since the early 1990s we see that this ratio is tilting heavily towards more male births in the countries affected.”

Sex-ratio imbalances are not simply a demographic anomaly. They have tangible negative consequences. In Armenia alone, with its population of just under 3 million, close to 100,000 girls and women will be “missing” by 2030, if current trends continue. This means large numbers of men will not be able to find a partner; many may choose to leave Armenia to establish a family. Neither scenario bodes well for a country already struggling with mass outmigration and population decline. The drop in the number of women is also expected to fuel crimes such as human trafficking and forced marriage.

Son preference is not a new phenomenon in societies with strong patriarchal traditions, where boys are more valued than girls, men more than women. What is new, following the collapse of Communism in the 1990s, is the ability of parents, with the help of modern medical technologies, to try and make sure at least one of their children is a son. This is done most commonly by using ultrasound to detect the sex of the foetus and initiating an abortion if the sex is female, in the hope that the next pregnancy will deliver the desired son.

Just how deeply engrained gender bias is in the affected countries was revealed in a series of field studies initiated by UNFPA. “When you say a daughter has been born, people tell you: ‘Don’t worry, you are young and you will have a son.’ It is as if an accident has happened,” one woman told the researchers.

Such attitudes are commonplace. Girls are seen as causing more worries for their parents than boys, costing more money to raise, and being lost to another family once they are married. Sons, on the other hand, are held in high esteem. They ensure the family name and property are passed on. And they can be expected to provide income and support for their parents in old age. “A man is only considered a man if he has a son,” is an often-expressed belief.    

Being pressured to give birth to a son has grave repercussions for the mental and physical health of women, who risk   being beaten, abandoned or divorced by their husbands for not delivering a boy. Some are forced to undergo repeated abortions, with debilitating effects on their mental and reproductive health. In one case, a woman had eight abortions because her husband did not want a girl, eventually damaging her uterus beyond repair.  

The rise in gender-biased sex selection is closely linked to a trend towards smaller families, a result of the political upheavals, economic crises and dismantling of social systems that came with the collapse of Communism in the region. In Albania, for example, families today have an average of 1.6 children (down from seven in 1960). As parents choose to have fewer children, it is less likely that one of them naturally will be a son.   

The interplay of all of these factors – patriarchal traditions, declining fertility rates, and access to modern technologies – explains why sex selection has emerged in the South Caucasus and the Balkans, across all political, linguistic and religious divides.

It is encouraging that governments in the affected countries have acknowledged the problem and are taking steps to reverse this harmful trend by focusing on addressing its root causes.

Clearly, limiting parents’ access to ultrasound information or restricting abortion rights cannot be a solution. As long as social pressure favouring sons remains, parents will find ways to circumvent such restrictions. Where this happens, the number of unsafe abortions generally goes up dramatically, with often disastrous consequences for the health and fertility of women.

Instead, we need decisive steps to combat the engrained gender inequalities plaguing all affected countries. Although laws now generally give equal rights to women, much more needs to be done to make sure these laws are actually implemented. This includes promoting women’s access to leadership positions, making sure their wages are not lower than men’s, and removing any discrimination related to inheriting family property. Improved pension and social security schemes can also contribute to strengthening women’s financial independence and financial status. And public awareness campaigns are important instruments for changing social norms and traditional mind-sets.

Only by fostering a culture that places equal value on men and on women will we see parents fully embracing all their children, no matter their sex.       


[1] “Mechanisms behind the Skewed Sex Ratio at Birth in Azerbaijan: Qualitative and Quantitative Analysis”, UN Population Fund, Azerbaijan State Committee for Family, Women and Children’s Affairs, Hacettepe University Institute of Population Studies, Baku 2014.