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“Not How a Second-Generation Should Bond”—Sex Selection in U.S. South Asian Communities

August 22, 2006

One young woman tells that her mother cried at her birth, disappointed that she was a girl. Another says her parents had initially planned to abort her, wanting a son. “It’s just not the way that a second generation should bond, over stories like this,” says Sunita Puri of the painful experiences of gender bias shared by young South Asian American women. “I have only seen people who come in wanting sons,” says Puri, who is conducting research on the use of sex-selection clinics in South Asian communities, including those in the San Francisco Bay area. Some women told her they feel increasing pressure because advertisements make expensive and often invasive techniques seem mainstream. Like all other groups, South Asian Americans face enduring gender discrimination, which sometimes takes an extreme form to satisfy a traditional demand for sons. A study published this year in Lancet revealed that in India, illegal sex-selective ultrasound, followed by abortion, has resulted in significantly skewed gender ratios. This technique and newer pre-conception sex selection technologies are readily available in the U.S., although—in the context of ‘son preference’—only further research like Puri’s will reveal how widely it is used. There is anecdotal evidence that women have aborted female fetuses—some, says Shamita Das Dasgupta, under threat of violence. Cofounder of Manavi, a New Jersey-based organization focused on violence against South Asian women, she is also concerned that technologies permitting sex selection before conception—sperm sorting prior to insemination or in vitro fertilization using embryos of the desired sex—might present  “a more acceptable alternative” for families that continue to devalue girls. Puri reports that couples using sex-selection clinics form “a very self-selected group” within the South Asian community, and their motives can be complex. Some find that intense psychological pressure from parents or in-laws becomes impossible to resist.  A few women have reported being shunned or taunted as “infertile,” despite already having one or more daughters. Where women are devalued, says Puri, “regardless of biological fact there is just this very deep cultural underpinning that if a son is not produced it’s somehow the woman’s fault.” Das Dasgupta says that for many of the women she sees, bearing daughters and not sons can result in domestic violence. Some fear abandonment.  For such women, sex selection can offer a form of protection for themselves and their children as well as relief from the trauma of repeated pregnancies or abortions.  Some even ask themselves why they would want to bring a daughter into a life that is so hard for women. Pressure is by no means always an issue, and a social trend towards smaller, gender-balanced families is an important factor in many women’s choices.  Still, when couples seek outside help, available evidence suggests that they are far more likely to seek a son than a daughter. Many of the young women Puri has interviewed describe a pattern within their communities where families have two or more daughters, followed by a son.  “It’s very obvious to these young women what’s going on,” she says. Within such families, she says, “there are often other cues given that signify that a girl was not enough.” According to 2000 census figures, 40% of the Indian American population is aged between 16 and 35, compared to only 28% for all Americans. “The second generation is still coming of age,” notes Puri, who wonders what will influence their decisions as they marry and consider children. South Asian American women with educational and employment opportunities, and financial independence as a result, increasingly challenge gender bias. As one woman recently commented on, Indian parents “now raise their daughters to be uppity”! Such organizations as New York’s South Asian Youth Action attack gender discrimination at its roots by providing leadership and empowerment opportunities to young people. And for those born in the U.S., Puri cites a positive sign: “I’ve never yet seen someone who is second generation come to the clinics.” A second generation should not have to bond over painful stories.  Perhaps future generations will have no reason to.
Tags: Parenting