Accessibility links

Breaking News

Sex-Selective Abortions Take A Toll In Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan's patriarchal society can place enormous pressure on women to deliver boys, contributing to sex-selective abortions. (photo illustration)

When Amina Aliyeva, a mother of two girls, found out she was expecting another girl, she was told by her family to get rid of it.

"We went to learn the baby's sex together with my mother-in-law and my husband. When the doctor told us it was a girl, they felt like it was the end of the world," she says. "They told me I must have an abortion."

Aliyeva, 30, says her gynecologist also sided with her mother-in-law and her husband, trying to convince her to have an abortion.

She says she was reluctant, but her husband threatened to divorce her and take custody of their daughters. Aliyeva ultimately gave in and ended up having a surgical abortion.

liyeva's case is not unique in Azerbaijan, whose patriarchal society can place enormous pressure on women to deliver boys, contributing to a rare gender imbalance in the Caspian country.

In Azerbaijan, the majority of newborns are male -- 115 boys for every 100 girls -- whereas the global average is 107 boys for every 100 girls.

A 2010 study exploring the "mystery of missing female children in the Caucasus" concluded that the number of girls born in Azerbaijan was lower than expected, a finding that was "consistent" with the country's 8,381 sex-selective abortions that year.

The study, which focused on selected post-Soviet states, found elevated sex ratios in Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia since the late 1980s, and 10 percent fewer girl births in those countries combined. In cases where the firstborn child was a girl, it was shown that for the second child the sex ratio increased or remained elevated in Armenia and Azerbaijan, whereas this ratio showed no change if the first child was male.

Concluding that the phenomenon of sex-selective abortion was "common" in Azerbaijan and Armenia, the study's authors suggested that family planning and legal interventions were required to address the issue.

Aliyeva suggests that her abortion, carried out 15 weeks into her pregnancy, was illegal, considering that abortion is legal in Azerbaijan only to the 12th week.

"Those murderers cut my baby's hands and feet," she said. "But I am a murderer, too. We have committed the world's biggest sin. All of us -- mother, father, and the grandmother -- we killed a helpless being like savages."

Baku-based gynecologist Terena Hasanova says that it is not uncommon for family members to influence the decision to have a sex-selective abortion.

"They pressure the woman, so abortion feels like the only way out," Hasanova says. "She keeps having abortions until she is told she will have a boy."

In some cases, she adds, the women themselves decide to have a selective abortion because they believe they must have a son.

"Regardless of the sacrifices they have to make, they will keep trying," Hasanova says.

Hasanova says selective abortions are clearly behind Azerbaijan's male-child majority, which stood at 53 percent in the first quarter of 2016, according to birth-registry figures cited by the Justice Ministry.

"Otherwise, how can you explain the sudden growth in the numbers of born boys?" she asks. "This can only happen as a result of selective abortion."

Hasanova says the gender imbalance is obvious in schools.

"In middle schools, you can see six girls and 17 boys or 14 boys and five girls" in a class, she says.

Psychologist Dayanet Rzayev says that in a patriarchal society such as Azerbaijan's, many families see boys as securing the family's future.

"Boys are often seen as the support of the family," Rzayev says. "They often take pride when they have baby boys."

Financial difficulties and lack of education are among other reasons believed to contribute to families' decisions to abort female fetuses. Access to gender-identification technology, including ultrasound, is cited as an enabler to selective abortions in the country.

Aliyeva has suffered a deep psychological trauma as the result of her experience. Her abortion led to the end of her marriage and the breakup of her family.

After going through the process, she says she realized she could not live with her husband anymore. Six months later, she divorced him. Her daughters, aged 3 and 5, are being raised by her former husband's family.

"I wish I didn't let them kill the baby and had gotten a divorce then," she says.

Written by Golnaz Esfandiari based on reporting by RFE/RL Azerbaijani Service; translations by Arzu Geybullayeva
  • 16x9 Image

    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

  • 16x9 Image

    RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service

    Despite near-total government control over the media, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service has built a high-impact social-media presence in Azerbaijan and a reputation as a leading source of independent news.