Experts concerned over growing discrimination against female foetuses in the country

A health worker checks health condition of a foetusFile photo

Parents tend to show a higher preference for boys over girls, raising concerns among experts that this bias may lead to discrimination against female foetuses. If we fail to be cautious and vigilant regarding such discrimination, there is a heightened risk of increased gender bias and violence against women in society.

Researchers and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) representatives made these statements at a publication ceremony of the national guidelines on preventing the preference for boys and addressing the risks of gender-biased sex selection. The event took place at the Bangabandhu International Conference Centre in the capital on Tuesday.

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, along with UNFPA and the Norwegian Embassy in Dhaka, jointly organised this publication event. The guidelines aim to assist health workers in identifying the sex of the foetus.

In numerous countries, female foetuses face the risk of being aborted, and female newborns are often neglected, resulting in the absence of 140 million girls from the global population in 2020. Professor Mohammad Mainul Islam from the Population Sciences Department at Dhaka University pointed out that the natural male-to-female ratio is typically around 100 to 105. However, if the proportion of women continues to decline significantly, it may suggest the occurrence of practices like foeticide.

There are three indicators of potential discrimination against female foetuses. Firstly, a decline in the total fertility rate, where fertile women are having two or fewer children, may lead to a male bias. Secondly, societies that exhibit a preference for sons can contribute to such discrimination. Lastly, the presence of technology allowing the identification of foetal sex also plays a role. Professor Mohammad Mainul Islam noted that Bangladesh currently meets all three of these conditions.

Citing a study conducted by Dhaka University with the support of UNFPA, Mohammad Mainul Islam revealed that 28 per cent of women and 24 per cent of men express a preference for having their first child as a boy. Conversely, 12 per cent of women and 10.4 per cent of men prefer their first child to be a girl.

The study also found that 34 per cent of women sought medical technology to determine the sex of the foetus. With a current total fertility rate of 2.3 in Bangladesh, all these factors collectively indicate potential discrimination against female foetuses. Professor Mainul Islam emphasised that discrimination against female foetuses is becoming increasingly evident in various studies conducted in Bangladesh.

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has formulated comprehensive guidelines aimed at maintaining the confidentiality of the foetus's sex identity. During the event, Additional Director General (Planning and Development) of the Department of Health, Ahmedul Kabir, presented the guidelines' content.

The guidelines specifically address physicians, medical technicians, and health workers, including obstetricians, geneticists, pediatricians, radiologists, midwives, family welfare workers, sub-assistant community medical officers, family welfare inspectors, sonologists, nurses, and technicians. All of these professionals are entrusted with the responsibility of refraining from disclosing the sex of the foetus. Additionally, they are expected to actively participate in raising awareness among the public regarding this matter.

During the event, Kristine Blokhus, the UNFPA representative in Bangladesh, highlighted the significance of the loss of 140 million women who were meant to be born but were not. This loss indicates that these women faced discrimination, potentially undervalued and overlooked by society. On the contrary, the increase in the number of men resulting from such discrimination is causing issues in many countries or societies, leading to an upsurge in violence against women.

Kristine Blokhus also noted that the encouraging news is that Bangladesh has not yet reached such a critical stage. However, she warned that the risk of facing similar challenges looms.

Anwar Hossain Howladar, president of the programme and secretary of the health service division, said that the government has provided many facilities for girls. The girl is now a blessing to the family. However, people have different ideas about this.

Norwegian Embassy Charge d'Affaires Silje Fines Wannebo and Additional Director General (Administration) Rasheda Sultana of the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) also spoke on the occasion.