Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Georgia, and its Caucasus neighbours Armenia and Azerbaijan, has developed a gender imbalance on par with what has been observed in Asia, specifically India and China.
If nature takes its course, 105 boys are born for every 100 girls – boys are more vulnerable to childhood diseases and despite their prevalence at birth it balances out in teen years. Piecing together demographic sources from the late 1980s through 2012, a 2014 study commissioned by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Georgia depicted a rise in the sex ratio since the early 1990s – from 105 boys up to 120. A research published by the scientific journal “International perspectives on sexual and reproductive health” in 2013 came across relevant distortions across the whole Caucasus - in Armenia and Azerbaijan more than 115 boys were born for every 100 girls. Data highlighted that the number of girls born was 10 percent lower than it would have been had the ratio been normal, only China did worse.
The lopsided numbers are the result of gender-biased sex selection – couples revert to modern technologies like ultrasound scans to know the sex of the foetus and decide to abort if it is not the gender they desire. Public health experts however call for caution.
“A series of factors determined the increased sex ratio, linking it purely to abortion is very dangerous as it may trigger anti-abortion sentiments,” maintains Lela Bakradze, assistant representative at UNFPA Georgia. “It is a medical procedure that should not be used as a family planning method and access to it is a human rights issue.”
In traditional patriarchal societies, pressure on couples to produce sons exists - they are vested with the duty to support aging parents and relatives.
“Georgia has a latent son bias, parents tend to have a strong desire for a male heir,” explains Bakradze. “Tradition has it that if after a birth everyone around the house is silent neighbours would ask, “Is it a girl?”
The rough-and-tumble decade of the 1990s put additional pressure on families as they feared that the absence of a son would make them more vulnerable to the political, social and economic shocks that Georgia and by large the South Caucasus republics have experienced since independence.
Christophe Guilmoto, senior fellow in demography at the Paris-based French Institut de recherche pour le développement (IRD), wrote in the UNFPA study that “selective abortion after the birth of daughters is found to be the main tool for beating the biological odds” as couples “try to respond to the [son] demand without overly increasing the size of the family.”
Guilmoto also noted that a third of the population has a third child only because of the absence of a boy - essentially, couples would continue child-bearing until they have a son.
UNFPA estimates that 25,000 girls have not been born in Georgia between 1990 and 2010 – should the trend remain the same, the number would rise to 80,000 by 2050 leading to severe demographic consequences in the medium-long term.
“In the last 25 years I have met many families ready to terminate their pregnancy because the baby was a girl,” tells Tbilisian archpriest Giorgi Ugrekhelidze who is the father of three girls and the grandfather of two. “In most cases men push their wives to take this decision. But I think the number is decreasing, there is more public debate around the issue and it is really good.”
Alexander Gurchiani, 78, and his wife Svetlana Khaphtani, 73, certainly lived their parental life ahead of the curve. The couple, originally from the secluded mountains of Svaneti, in northern Georgia, proudly raised nine daughters, now between 46 and 30 years of age. Having girls was never an issue. “After so many girls a son would have been a welcome change in pattern, but the most important thing is that your kids all healthy,” they say.
In the three south Caucasus countries the ultrasound scan is widely available and affordable, averaging about USD 16, and abortion at up to 12 weeks is legal.
The United Nations and the Council of Europe voiced concerns about the sex ratio in the region in 2011 with the latter calling on governments to adopt relevant policies. In 213 a few Georgian lawmakers considered proposing a ban on the prenatal test, while conservative groups, supported by the powerful Orthodox Church, advocate for outlawing the practice outright. However sex selection accounts only for a small proportion of all abortions in Georgia and experiences in Asia shows that any ban on using medical techniques to determine sex before birth pushes the practice underground.
“Abortion is just the tool and safe abortion has to remain accessible and available for those women who would need it. The aim should be to replace abortion with modern methods of contraception,” points out Bakradze.
This is a hard sell. Fear that birth-control methods affect fertility is still widespread and in staunchly religious Georgia national and international public health providers walk a delicate line and tend to promote family planning methods – that the Church castigates – as a mean to limit abortion which the Church lambasts even more. In his Easter address in 2013 the revered Patriarch Ilia II stigmatized it as “a terrible sin.”
Yet, up through the mid-2000s Georgia boosted one of Europe’s highest rate of abortions as data from the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2005 revealed that the average woman would have 3.1 abortions in her lifetime, The trend has since then reversed: the latest reproductive health study from 2010 showed a drop to 1.6 abortion per woman.
Improvements in the average standard of living played a role as well as a gradual mental revolution in the value of daughters. For Bakhradze “awareness is the only long-term solution.”
“The vision of sons as pillar of the family is detached from today’s Georgia,” she notes. “Women have become more economically and financially independent, they are often the breadwinners, those supporting the parents, both their own and their husband’s.”
Professor Gvenetadze agrees. “Times are changing, slowly but steadily. I think we are over that hump.”
"A Girl Is Born" is a photo project by award-winning documentary photographer Dina Oganova. The project is supported by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in the frameworks of UN Joint Programme for Gender Equality.