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'Coercion, violence, abuse:' the harms of son preference

Last Updated Mar 18, 2021 at 10:11 pm EDT

CityNews and OMNI News have launched a new investigative series “Behind Closed Doors” detailing the epidemic of family violence plaguing our communities. If you or someone you know is a victim of abuse, please visit our dedicated resource page.

WARNING: This story contains graphic content related to violence and abuse, and may be disturbing to some readers.

The names and identities of the victims in our stories have been changed to protect them.

Their stories and circumstances aren’t unique. Thousands more are being silenced as their trauma continues daily behind closed doors. These are just some of their first-hand accounts.

To watch this story in Punjabi, click here.

Veena* still remembers the day her youngest was born – the second of two girls, a loving addition to the family. As was custom, she called family members abroad to inform them.

The proud mother expected congratulations. Instead, the relative on the other end of the line voiced disappointment.
“Another girl this time? It’s okay. Maybe next time.”

It’s a sentiment Veena has come up against more than once, often neglected and chastised for not bearing sons.

“In the society we live in, it’s thought that having a son is very important, in every home,” says Veena.

Even after moving to Canada as an immigrant, Veena says she still has to deal with many of the cultural and societal pressures she thought she’d left behind.

“For a mother, all her children are equal, be it a boy or girl,” said Veena.

“The mother of a girl, no matter how smart she is, she’s seen as less than the mother of a son. They think if a woman gives birth to a boy, she’s done something out of this world, something extraordinary. These things still happen in our society.”

Veena has learned to stand up to the taunts and emotional coercion that sometimes accompany her decision to not have more children, but says the judgement can come from even the most loving and well-meaning family members.

“Even the people who I know have my best interests at heart say it’s essential to have a son in the family. Everyone tells me to try again,” said Veena.

She knows other women in the same boat whose mental health has been negatively impacted by the emotional abuse of these outdated expectations.

“Obviously, it stresses you out. When you have a baby, a lot changes – you’re going through physical changes. You have to take care of a new baby. On top of that, when you hear this stuff, it disturbs you at the mental level.”

She recounts one particular incident where she was at a celebration for her friend and her new baby girl.

“An elderly lady came to her and said, ‘Didn’t you get her gender checked during your pregnancy?’ She was implying that if she’d gotten it checked, that she would’ve gotten an abortion.”

Emotional abuse around male bias

In some communities, dangerous generational perceptions have been passed down – males are seen as superior, tied to a family’s resources and economic outcomes.

It’s a phenomenon Dr. Kanwaljit Dhillon, therapist and social worker, has often seen play out in the South Asian clients she sees in particular, and it comes with its own history.

“Thousands of years ago, when there was an agrarian-based economy, particularly in Punjab, boys were expected to engage in agriculture and farming growing up,” says Dhillon.

“All of the property would be in a man’s name. So some girls grow up surrounded by that mentality, the patriarchal mindset.”

The bias even creeped into her own home growing up, as one of three sisters.

“I’ve seen my own mother flail and cry in her extreme longing for a son. She’s 90 years old now, and still in her heart she feels the absence of a son, and talks about it,” says Dhillon.

These outdated patriarchal beliefs aren’t unique to South Asians. The phenomenon takes a startling form in cultures around the world, due in part to colonialism, according to Dhillon.

Experts say that undue pressure can be oppressive for mothers and daughters alike, even going so far as taking away women’s agency in bearing children.

More alarmingly, some are pressured to the point of aborting a female fetus, to avoid reprisals and emotional abuse.

Commonly referred to as sex-selective abortions, the practice of terminating a pregnancy based on the sex of the fetus, is measured through the ratios between numbers of male and females born over a period of time.

Last year, researchers at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, projected an estimated 6.8 million fewer female births would be recorded across India in particular by 2030, due to a preference for sons.

Closer to home, a study led by St. Michael’s Hospital in 2018 found sex ratios biased towards sons have been identified in several Asian countries, most notably in several provinces in China and northern states of India, but also in Vietnam and Pakistan.

In some communities, that ratio is levelling out: specifically in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Maldives and Bangladesh.

One of the co-authors of the study was social epidemiologist and postdoctoral fellow at Sick Kids Hospital, Susitha Wanigarante. She worked alongside community partners to understand the preferential determinants driving the practice of sex selection in the GTA.

Taking a multi-method approach, the study focused particularly on immigrant and second generation South Asian women in Ontario and included focus groups with multi-generational families.

When asked why they believed male bias was such a prevalent part of the culture, Wanigaratne said many participants pointed to the classic heteronormative family structure and how it financially rewards men.

“When sons marry, they often continue to live with their families with their parents there. The wife comes to live with the family and because the son stays with his parents, he often inherits land and other assets because he stays with his parents. He’s often considered ‘old age security’ for them because he holds those resources. Whereas kind of the opposite happens for daughters. When she is married, she leaves the home.”

That misconception persists even as Indo-Canadian women take on more jobs and support their families for longer.

“Capitalist structures have a lot of disadvantages, but at least capitalism gave women some power to be able to navigate modern times as an equal to men. So unless we open up dialogue with women, particularly on an economic level, we can’t address the question of why women’s status is lower to men’s in certain communities,” says Dhillon.

Wanigaratne’s team also found that in a small selection of women, there was a specific reproductive history that contributed to a slightly higher birth ratio in favour of males who were the second- or third-born in their families.

“It’s really when women have two previous daughters that there’s pressure to try to have a son,” she says.

Researchers say there are two ways cultural sex preference can be oppressive. Beyond the issue of sex-selective abortions, there is a significant difference in how mothers and daughters are treated.

“I think what is also often lost in the conversation around sex-selective abortions is the oppression and pressure that the women feels to undergo that,” Wanigaratne said.

The study was also co-authored by Manvir Bhangu, founder and director of Laadliyan, a non-profit that works to empower South Asian daughters and their families through engagement, education and awareness.

“I always say that we don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors,” said Bhangu.

“We present ourselves in a way where we’re not showing our flaws. And I think that’s where it’s really dangerous because a lot of our community members are, as a result, suffering from mental health, from other issues, from violence against women.”

Bhangu also works with Punjabi Community Health Services, which runs the Better Families program aimed at providing family counselling. She says the program sees about 150 clients a year who identify as women. Of those, nearly 20 per cent reported facing direct or indirect pressure to bear sons.

“There is coercion, there is violence, there is abuse,” Bhangu said.

“Definitely it’s not happening everywhere, but it’s prevalent. And it’s something that I think a lot of us who belong to that community and belong to that culture have experienced either directly or indirectly. Although it may not be physical violence, I think violence has many forms.”

Cultural history around male bias

The preference for sons can be a common sentiment in some communities, creating undue pressure. The tradition is especially prevalent in parts of South and East Asia where the preference has been historically passed down by older generations, reinforced by traditional gender roles.

“Elders always say a son is essential,” said Veena.

“That’s ingrained in them. They pass this down to their kids, and it spreads. That’s the message we convey to them. It’s a long-term impact. If your parents and your household feel this way, that’s going to stay in the kids’ minds for a long time.”

Wanigaratne goes on to explain how the power dynamic between sons and daughters continues to shift with the idea of continuing a familial lineage and traditional gender roles in cultural celebrations like weddings and funerals. She says participants noted parents could face public humiliation for not being able to produce a son.

“The mothers and the grandmothers that we spoke to describe that once they had sons, they were often treated much better in their families and also by the community,” Wanigaratne said.

“So they actually got, or felt like they received, more respect and that was important to them obviously. But then the opposite happened with having daughters. Within the family they may be treated poorly — by both their families and their communities.”

That poor treatment can come in many forms. Dhillon, who also runs the community A Group of Punjabi Women where these discussions come up frequently, says there’s reason for alarm.

“Abuse comes in verbal and non-verbal forms. Non-verbally, for example, if there’s a son born in a home, the atmosphere of that home is completely different to one where a girl is born. Even though her birth wouldn’t be looked down upon, it wouldn’t be welcomed either,” she says.

Sex-selective abortions

Preference towards having a son can push families to extremes, with some mothers pressured to abort their pregnancy at an early stage if they find out they’re having a girl.

In the GTA, that’s an extreme measure taken rarely, but researchers say the women they spoke with faced immense pressures throughout their reproductive lives.

“In the case of sex-selective abortion, what really came through in our discussions was that it was less about a personal choice and more really that these women often feel just really immense pressure to have a son,” Wanigaratne said.

Wanigaratne’s research found that a majority of participants who already had two daughters were either having a son as their next child or getting abortions to prevent a third pregnancy.

“If they had an abortion [after their second child], three sons were born to every one daughter. But if a woman didn’t have an abortion between the second and the third child, the sex ratio was normal,” Wanigaratne said.

Some countries and cities around the world have taken action to put an end to sex-selective abortions. While it is not illegal in Canada, early last year a Saskatchewan MP introduced the Sex-Selective Abortion Act in the House of Commons.

Just last month, John Williamson, Conservative MP for New Brunswick South, also tabled a petition to call on parliament to ‘outlaw’ sex selective abortions.

Wanigaratne says these legislative approaches have already been proven to fail.

“In other places in the United States, as well as India, they’ve tried,” Wanigaratne said.

“They’ve attempted sex-selective abortion bans and they found that ultimately, like if they do an analysis before and after a ban is put in place, they find that sex ratios are equally biased before and after a ban is put in place.”

She also warned that legislative requirements for a medical practitioner to restrict access to reproductive services based on assumed motive would create more problems than it would solve.

“From a practical perspective, that will incentivize practitioners to try to find out why women are seeking an abortion. Right now, women don’t need to provide that information. I think it will cause further distrust between medical practitioners and women.”

Wanigaratne also believes that a sole focus on legislation fails to address the nuances and root issues around male bias.

“That approach doesn’t come from a place of humility and understanding so I think that’s where we need to start,” Wanigaratne said.

“A patriarchal approach to addressing problems that are specific to racialized communities…the solution is not going to be effective.”

Though the issue of male bias has cultural ties, legislation around it is often passed with little community consultation.
“When we worked with community members, many of them didn’t realize that those studies had been done,” Wanigaratne said.

“[They said] that the media and the Canadian community around them knew that that was happening, but it didn’t make it into more culturally relevant media outlets that they would commonly listen to. So even the information was not getting to them, which is not something that I realized at the time.”

The United Nations Sexual and Reproductive Health Agency recently profiled how South Korea was one of the only countries in the world to have faced high sex ratio imbalance, and then completely eliminate it.

Though abortion was illegal in the country, experts noted that it was a frequently used practice for decades, as fetal sex screening technologies were also introduced.

To address the “common problem” of son preference, which led to many more boys over girls born in the nation, women’s rights groups pushed for reforms, including inheritance rights and job access.

The changes in policy pushed by feminist movements in Korea, also impacted culture.

“Norms don’t change in 50 or 100 years. There’s thousands of years of ingrained mindset, surroundings, social and economic conditions, family dynamics and culture that decide these things for us,” said Dhillon.

The focus groups and data that’s been collected in the GTA, has also been used to respond to the issue, creating a community advisory panel that as a first step, developed info posters for the community.

A lack of up-to-date information is what Bhangu believes allows outdated value systems like male bias to continue, without intended malice.

“I think this is just their lack of knowledge and I think it’s just the way that they were brought up. They didn’t know any better,” says Bhangu

When it comes to creating long-standing change, Bhangu believes it starts with education and awareness. It’s a key focus of her organization, Laadliyan, a term referring to “beloved daughters” in Punjabi.

“We’re working with grandmothers, we’re working with mothers, we’re working with little girls, high school girls, and even trying to engage fathers as much as we can,” Bhangu said.

“What I’m doing with my organization is really getting the word out there that, especially in today’s time and age or day and age, it’s not like it was back home.”

Bhangu said the organization has already seen great progress.

“I think as time has gone by, there’s been more openness. There has been more ability and willingness from the community to learn and to engage.” Bhangu said.

Veena has been able to see how powerful a change in mindset can be first hand. Growing up in India with only sisters, Veena said her parents ignored the cultural gender bias around them, raising them with pride.

Now having daughters of her own being raised far from that mindset, Veena said she does her best to pass down that same message, telling her girls how capable they are.

“The ladies in the village used to say, ‘you must pray to god for a brother. God listens to kids’. But my parents taught me what I taught my girls.

“I always tell my daughters that they’re no less than a son. They have to do things beyond any son would.”

With files from Mahnoor Yawar and Loveen Gill