Desperate moms want boys

The Star Logo

October 03, 2009

Raveena Aulakh

{{GA_Article.Images.Alttext$}}Star reporter Raveena Aulakh, posing as an expectant mother, is handed bags of pills in an industrial area in Mississauga by Kanwar Bains, news editor of a Punjabi-language newspaper.


On a windswept street in a bustling industrial area on the outskirts of town, a stocky man in a white shirt and dark jeans pulls out three Ziploc bags containing red, brown and silver pills.

Take two red and brown pills each day for a week, he tells the woman who says she is nine weeks pregnant, and your baby has an 85 per cent chance of being a boy. Then he demands $750 in cash.

In the Indian state of Punjab, the culture is obsessed with boys. Desperate to avoid giving birth to girls, women for decades have taken extreme measures. They swallow herbs, drink pregnant cow’s milk, pray in marathon sessions, and since the widespread use of ultrasound technology, abort female fetuses.

It’s a huge topic of debate in India, with an alarmingly skewed birth ratio of boys to girls.

But this scene on an industrial strip was not played out in Punjab, but just west of Toronto, in an area a large number of Punjabis now call home – and where the latest Canadian census figures reveal significantly fewer girls than boys in the South Asian community.

Posing as a pregnant Punjabi woman, a Star reporter met the man after answering an ad in the Ajit Weekly, a Punjabi-language newspaper printed in Mississauga. “A guaranteed and satisfactory medicine for having a son is available,” the ad says.

The man turned out to be Kanwar Bains, the newspaper’s news editor and the meeting took place outside the paper’s office. He said a woman cannot be more than 12 weeks pregnant for the pills to work.

“There’s no 100 per cent guarantee,” he said in an earlier conversation by phone. He offered to give the number of a Brampton clinic to check the sex of the fetus after 12 weeks of pregnancy. “Then you can think about what you want to do. If it’s a girl, (whether) you want to keep her or not,” he said. “You know … what you want to do is your decision.”

Later, when confronted by the Star, Bains said he was not preying on desperate women. “So what’s wrong as a human being to aspire or desire a boy … to balance your family.”

Young mothers from India, particularly from Punjab, often face intense pressure here to have baby boys, said Baldev Mutta, executive director of Punjabi Community Health Services in Peel Region.

Mutta said he has no doubt female feticide – aborting a female fetus – also is prevalent among Punjabis in Canada.

The agency sees several women every month seeking help. One woman was forced by her family to have two abortions because they were girls, he said. When she became pregnant again and found out it was a girl, she approached Mutta for help.

Amandeep Kaur, a counsellor at Punjabi Community Health Services, said she has seen dozens of victims of domestic abuse. But nothing prepared her for a young Malton mother who sought help. The woman, in her mid-20s, had two young daughters. Her in-laws had subsequently forced her to have two abortions after ultrasounds indicated she was carrying girls. Now she was pregnant again with a female fetus.

The woman was frail, constantly crying as her two young daughters clung to her, Kaur recalled of the meeting at a Mississauga coffee shop. The woman’s in-laws told her she could keep the baby and return to India, or have the abortion.

“I told her we would do everything to help her keep her unborn girl,” Kaur said, but she never saw the woman after two meetings. When she finally managed to contact her again, the woman told her she’d had a miscarriage.

“A lot of young mothers are newcomers,” Kaur said. “They don’t know anyone here except for (their) in-laws. They fear for what could happen if they don’t do what the family wants.”

The bias against girls is entrenched in traditional Indian culture, where a girl is considered a burden on the family. Parents worry about finding her a good husband and providing a dowry.

For most parents, girls will get married and go live with their new families. A son, they believe, will look after them in old age and also carry on the family name.

IN 2006, a study published in the British medical journal Lancet found the boy-girl ratio changed markedly after ultrasound technology – that diagnoses fetal abnormalities and illnesses but can also identify sex – became popular in India 20 years ago. The most dramatic decline of female births came between 1991 and 2001, from 945 girls for every 1,000 boys to 927, despite a ban in 1994 on sex-selective abortions.

According to India’s 2001 census, the northern state of Punjab has one of the worst gender ratios at 793 girls to 1,000 boys.

Canada does not collect statistics based on ethnicity at birth. But statistics here, now home to more than a million Indo-Canadians, many from Punjab, also show a somewhat skewed gender ratio. According to 2006 census figures, nationally there are 932 girls to 1,000 boys under age 15 in the South Asian community, compared to 953 girls to 1,000 boys in the general population.

The numbers in the South Asian community in the Toronto area become much more skewed: 917 girls to 1,000 boys in the Toronto Central Metropolitan Area. Broken down further, it shows 904 girls to 1,000 boys in Mississauga, and 864 girls to 1,000 boys in Brampton.

“That means the sex-ratio is 50 per cent higher for under-15 South Asians as compared to the general population (in the Toronto CMA),” said David Foot, professor of economics at the University of Toronto and a demographics expert. “I would say that is concerning.”

That’s a huge gap proportionally, says Myer Siemiatycki, a professor in immigration settlement studies at Ryerson University.

“In the Punjabi and South-Asian population, the numbers show a clear tilt in favour of men while it’s the opposite in the national population (where overall there are more Canadian women than men). There’s no question something significant is happening in the under-15 age group.”

BOY OR girl? It’s easy to find out.

Canadian law says a patient is entitled to all their own medical information.

In its national guidelines, the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada says sex determination of the fetus is part of the complete obstetric ultrasound. “However, if no abnormalities are seen but determination is inconclusive, the examination should not be prolonged or repeated solely to determine fetal sex.”

Acknowledging “information may lead women to abort pregnancies when the fetus is not the wanted sex,” the society stipulates ultrasound clinics should not do scans only to determine gender. In most cases, an ultrasound can indicate the sex of a fetus at 16 to 18 weeks.

If doctors know the gender, they will ask the patient if they want to know, says Jennifer Blake, chief of obstetrics and gynaecology at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. But Blake acknowledges an ethical quandary in revealing that information “if a doctor suspects an infant’s life would be terminated based on gender.”

Birinder Singh Ahluwalia, who owns four diagnostics clinics in the Toronto area, has seen women barely 10 weeks pregnant asking him to check the gender.

“I tell them I won’t do it,” he says, adding, “I’ve been told many people go to Buffalo (for ultrasounds).”

Shruti Gandhi, who runs a fertility clinic in Rexdale, says some couples seeking fertility treatment ask if it is possible to have a boy.

Gandhi, in practice for 15 years with mostly South-Asian clients, tells them at the outset there is a 50-50 chance of having a boy. “It makes me angry but I also know the young woman is probably under pressure.”

IT’S A Saturday morning and some 40 men crowd into a room at a health centre in west Brampton. They represent all age-groups and all are Punjabi. They are here as part of mandated counselling for alcohol or drug addiction, or domestic violence. Today’s topic is about discrimination against women, before they are born.

Mutta, in typical candour, asks if they, as parents, want boys. For a few moments, the only sound is a creaking chair as a man shifts uncomfortably. Then a heavy-set man replies he has nothing against girls, but boys do carry on the family name.

Then a man in the front row pipes up: it’s the women – mothers and sisters-in-law in most cases – who pressure young mothers to have boys. “Can’t the man explain it to his mother that it’s not important?” Mutta asks.

No response. Another man tells how his wife cried her heart out when she gave birth to a girl. She felt she had let the family down.

Mutta calls it “indoctrination.”

An older man in a rust-coloured turban says: “It will stop only when we realize it’s wrong.”

At the end of the meeting, Mutta warns them of a day, not far in the future, when there will be few girls left for boys to marry. There is nervous laughter as they leave.

Mutta warns education on gender equality is key. “It’s a decades-old problem. It won’t go away overnight. Even if we lose one girl, it’s a shame.”

Data analysis – the Star’s Andrew Bailey


12 thoughts on “Desperate moms want boys

  1. First of all, HOW STUPID IS THE WORLD that does not understand it is the stupid MEN who decide offspring gender NOT the stupid WOMEN.
    This shit angers me so much, and in the end?
    It is all due to PROPERTY TRANSFER—as is bullshit such as MATRIMONY and PEDOPHILIC PRIESTS.

    Call me crazy as I know a lot of …you out there do, but stop and think about PROPERTY TRANSFER. Why do we devalue women and their lives both past and future? Who was your great great great great grandmother and why do we not CARE as much about who what where she was as much as the last name that follows us? The only reason (certain) priests don’t have sex is because the (church) would have to transfer property and lose wealth, in some demented construct, THUS pedophiles are given the option of hiding from society within these bullshit structures. Let all priests have normal NATURAL sex. And the one’s with the boys in the corner? can go get some psychological treatment or segregation.

    Don’t be saying this is just a South Asian Cultural thing—this has been and is done in in every fricking patrilineal tribe in the world—go study your DNA tribe and your neighbouring DNA tribes and you may be able to answer for yourself the questions—“why was marriage invented?” “what purpose does it serve?”

    Watch for my essay. I’m gonna start a movement against this shit.
    Social Institutions aren’t always necessary, and (most times) they do harm that you’re not even paying attention to.

  2. Natalia Gómez Pérez:
    Well…. it is a way to sink the population growth, men will not be able to have babies by themselves. Don’t they give english classes and basic education to immigrants? they certainly should

  3. Immigrants aren’t stupid you immigrant, some are like, geophysicists even–what does english have to do with having sex–my critique is global, i don’t care about fetal damage just in my city, it bothers me in mongolia too

  4. Natalia Gómez Pérez:
    well, if you read the article! it said one of the problems was that women were being forced to abort by their in-laws, and they do not know anyone else in the country. If they had a better knowledge of the law and the support from the Canadian government they could just divorce the idiots and end of the story. I think one of the reasons this … See Morehappens is pure ignorance of biology and Canadian law. I agree with you, it WAS a matter of property transfer, but now you do not need to be man or woman for that transfer to happen, it is completely anachronistic

  5. Cristina Moldoveanu-Constantinescu:
    It is not the government’s duty to teach the law, it is the people’s duty to know the law of the country they’re in. If you do something and you end up in court there’s not such an excuse as ‘Excuse me officer or your honour, I didn’t know the law… nobody told me’.

  6. You both aren’t getting MY point, screw the law, i’m not talking about political boundaries or anything, I’m talking about societal norms. Societal norms almost always trump laws, and usually/eventually may even change them–although the other way happens as well. I don’t CARE about the LAW, or immigration, OR EDUCATION actually– none of those alter the irrational progression and perpetuation of strange [‘anachronistic’, nice natalia] customs and protocol. I’m questioning something deeper.

  7. Natalia Gómez Pérez:
    Cris: Yeah true, it is not the law as much as their rights… I mean what is the difference to bring a woman you marry if you will treat her like a dog? I mean, that should be avoided and I say you have to educate the woman (learn or you are not allowed in hahaha)
    Rudro: Those traditions will die pretty soon with globalization, and in Canada will not reach even the first canadian-born generation (even if it is only men).

  8. Cristina Moldoveanu-Constantinescu:
    Unfortunately, I have to disagree with you… these traditions (these or other like these) will not die any time soon:-(… they’re so strongly rooted in at least half of the world’s countries, it’s scary… It has been seen even in first or second Canadian (or us) – born generations… because they mostly live in their own community even though they’re in Canada or US or some European country.

    And you’re asking that question from your point of view, but unfortunately, most of these men think it is their right to treat women as their dog, or even worst!

    Hmmm… maybe all these men who think they’re sooo superior should be sent on a island, see how long will their name carry on without women!:-)… See More

    But let the joke aside, I do think that with education AND law imposing things could start changing…

  9. Ohmigod, I’m not TALKING about Indians you dolts! I’m talking about MARRIAGE. Marriage itself denigrates women. We three have already had this conversation/argument. It doesn’t matter what generation you’re in, in what geographical position in the planet NOR what the respective laws of that political jurisdiction are. Why are you two not … See Morereferring to the pedophilic priests….or PROPERTY TRANSFER that i mentioned? You’re both just stuck on the silly ‘Indians prefer boys’ issue, which in history was a WORLDWIDE phenomenon and still very much is, but not as blatantly explicit as in societies such as those of South Asia.

    I’m not talking about misogyny in and of itself. I’m talking about the stupidity of marriage and the ignorance of those who fail to realize the fact that it IS an anachronism. THIS is the source of all the other issues. Property transfer is WHY men are held as superior in a patrilineal system. But it’s just a stupid unnecessary convention. Imagine a world? Where wealth transfer itself was banned—you don’t get your daddy’s shit, but you have to earn your own. The difference should go to the commons. Imagine that. That? Would be when we could realize a society where your last name, and the trade of a woman from one (male) last name to another (male) last name would be deemed obsolete. Lovers could have a private whispered contract between themselves and create a new last name, every time, dying in each other’s arms if they so wished, after 80 years of togetherness.

  10. Cristina Moldoveanu-Constantinescu:
    I don’t think marriage denigrates women… as about the thing with the last name… ummmm… Natalia and I are the wrong people to talk to (i. e. have a look at our last names, duh!)… and I know plenty of people who once married, they either kept their name, or kept both names, or even combined the two names into a single one making up a complete… See More new last name… marriage or names don’t dictate respect! I think you just took this article and made it into something completely different… I mean pedophilic priests… really! How did you come up with that just from THIS article?!!!?

    As about pedophilia, that’s considered a psychological disorder and has nothing to do with celibacy and religion.

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