Missing girls: sex – selective abortions in Armenia though sociological lenses

Gayane Harutyunyan

During human history, physical existence of the nation was always related to various risks regarding the amount of population. These risks have two faces: either small or a big number of population, however, the solution was always the one to control the population birth and “construct” society with optional characteristics from the quantitative and qualitative point of view. In order to keep optional existence, different cultures developed various methods for population control and one of them is abortion. According to the needs of the society, some cultures give preference to one of the sexes, and usually, that are male children who are given the right to live, that is what we nowadays call sex-selective abortions: the practice of terminating the pregnancy because of the child’s sex.

Though enlightenment era has already come and it seemed that women’s right transformations should have had a huge impact on the prevalence and intensity of the problem but still sex-selective abortion remains as one of the most significant problems for several countries including Armenia[1]. The analysis of the statistical data for recent years confirm this statement. According to National Statistical Service of RA manifests that birth ratios are strongly skewed in favor of baby boys. If we look at Chart 1. which represents[2] percentage distribution of interviewed women’s gender preference by pregnancy order we will see that only in case of 1st pregnancy sex of the child doesn’t matter so much, but in case of the next pregnancies we see the opposite tendency.

Chart 1. Percentage distribution of interviewed women’s gender preference by pregnancy order


The below depicted chart shows results according to Caucasus Barometer Survey 2010 Armenia, which represents answers for “If a family has one child, what would be the preferred gender of the child” question. As we see boy preference dominates across all categories.

Chart 2. If a family has one child, what would be the preferred gender of the child?


If we continue studying statistical data we can see that preference exists not only on the cognitive level but also on the behavioral level. According to the official statistical data[1] on civic status registration in the Republic of Armenia, from 1993 on, the sex ratio at birth has been significantly higher (viz. 110-120 boys per 100 girls) than the average that is seen as a biological norm (102-106 boys per 100 girls).

These and many other facts depict the whole picture where sex-selective abortions appear as a significant social problem for Armenian society which has to be analyzed through sociological lenses. This paper aims to analyze the problem of sex-selective abortion as a social problem from the prism of the sociological perspective. The importance of this kind of analysis might be seen in the fact that it can provide a deep understanding of the problem and, therefore, outline the possible recommendations.

Sex-selective abortions as a social phenomenon have to be analyzed firstly from the prism of social inequality, because sex selection assumes that one of the sexes is better due to its gender characteristics. Let’s understand what is the root of this inequality. We can divide these reasons into two groups: socio-cultural and economic. Firstly, we will refer to socio-cultural reasons, because from our point of view they are the most important as they are based on values, which are determining attitudes toward an issue and according to that attitude suggesting solutions. So, it is well known that Armenian society is a patriarchal society with patriarchal values. These values dictate superiority of males in most aspects of life. This can be seen in most spheres of social life where women don’t have equal rights, authority and participation as men do. There are many different studies which indicate that women have a small participation in decision- making processes, low level of community development and governmental participation, and also low level of highly paid jobs in Armenia. This fact already develops a desire to have a boy, because it symbolizes strength, power[2], authority and independence, while having girl symbolizes weakness, need of protection and dependence. If we try to analyze national proverbs, sayings and idioms, which identify national dispositions towards child’s sex preference, we will see that unfortunately, they are also promoting unequal treatment: One of the most common blessings sounds as follows “let you dine with 7 sons”. This argument even doesn’t assume the existence of a daughter, but consider the existence of 7 sons quite enough for happiness. Another one tells that “the one who has a daughter will punch his/her muzzle”, which means that having a daughter will cause many troubles. The next one depicts conflict in very severe form “the one who gave birth to a boy will get halva and gata [3], and the one who gave birth to a girl will get mice infestations”. There are also idioms which also contribute to the formation of a certain unequal treatment, for example, “work undertaken by girl” which means that success of the work is under question because it is controlled by a girl. The next idiom questions “if you are a boy/men to do something?” indirectly implying if an actor is smart, strong and brave enough to be able to accept the challenge of doing something. In slang Armenian also frequently used idiom is “she is manly-woman”, which describes a woman in terms of such characteristics which are usually ascribed to men: braveness, strangeness, rationality and etc. Even though this sayings and idioms have long history still they depict the attitudes toward girls/women, which are negative and cautionary. By these means, patriarchal society stimulates and reproduces gender inequality in different spheres of social life, and represent females as less significant social actors than males. This point links also with legislation system gap which is also a source of gender inequality. Nowadays even though there are many laws which aim to protect women’s rights but still they do not overlap the whole spectra of issues. For example, domestic violence bill that had been in the drafting stages since 2007 was rejected in May 2013 by the Armenian Government.

Another socio-cultural reason which determines decision for applying to sex-selective abortions is connected with the idea of heritage. In Armenian culture that are male children who are seen as inheritors of the family, though female children also have right to claim part of the heritage. Still boys carry the “good name” of the family forward and add status to the family by having more babies and thus provide continuation of the kin. Meanwhile, girls will leave father’s house as soon as they get married and will become part of another family. It is interesting that there is a saying that “girl is a brick of another wall“, which emphasizes the fact that girl doesn’t belong to her own family but do belong to her husband’s family. So male children are inheritors of their family and female children are not. This makes most families want baby boys who will continue their family name.

In this context, stereotypes are playing also an important role. They form generalized representations of men and women where all unique characteristics are ignored. Instead, there is always a tendency to conform images of men and women into the cultural notions of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’. These stereotypes define the range of capacities for both defining also their social role in the society. Existence of such stereotypes[4] as “women can’t be full members of society without men”, “woman’s place is in the kitchen and raising children”, “leadership skills are more developed in men”, “politics is no place for women” creates and reproduces systematic gender inequality. These stereotypes sadly are shared not only by males but also by women that is why they have systematic nature, so they are shared by the majority of the society and not a small subgroup. For example, 28% of questioned women in terms of the same research agreed with the statement that “woman’s place is in the kitchen and raising children”, and 44% percent women agreed that “women can’t be full members of society without men”. This kind of stereotypes indirectly supports the practice of sex – selective abortions because they directly form negative images of girls/women representing them weak, demanding support and protection, and not capable to act a separate social actor in different spheres of social life but the kitchen and children upbringing.

Similiar to gender stereotypes social myths also shape the perception of gender in culture. They compose a way of perceiving and understanding the world, moreover copping with troubles according to a logic of the myth. Unlike stereotypes social myths present not only standardized characteristics or patterns of behavior, but they depict the whole social situation in a more general way. There are different social myths which reflect gender reality. For example “The country needs more boys because the decrease in population results as decrease of military force on the borders”. This myth implies that after Armenian-Azerbaijani military conflict country needs more soldiers, because the powerful army is the only guarantee of peace. There are more social myths about working women, because still even in big cities working women sometimes are perceived as not normal. Many women had to leave their job after marriage because their husbands do not accept that. These problems are reflected in such myths as «woman who is also a mother can’t be a good worker”, or “good mother should not work, so her children and husband will not be omitted” and etc. It is interesting that there are myths that try to justify sex-selective abortions, according to them “after war usually more boys are born”, or “being girl/women is hard because all the burden of family life is falling on their shoulder”. These and many other myths depict certain part of social life, indicating several characteristics which mainly come to the image of man as a protector and breadwinner, opposite women as a weak and suitable mainly for housework.

Besides sociocultural factors which stimulate gender inequality there are also economic reasons which support the idea of sex-selective abortions. Boys can support their families financially unlike girls who are usually earning less than boys, and leave their family as soon as they get married. This perception is based again on the stereotype that girls have fewer chances to succeed in the career, and the fact that girls are less involved in highly paid jobs. Besides, boys are more preferable especially in rural areas where physical force is required for the majority of work, so they can help with the house and agricultural work from an early age. That is why sex ratio at birth depends on the urban and rural locality of parents[5]. Another economic reason which contributes to this problem is economic expenses and liability. Due to expenses for education and dowry, which do not bring desirable result as girls have fewer opportunities in life, and the common belief that women have less chances to succeed in life considered to be not a good investment and often makes families prefer birth of a boy.

If we look deeper into this problem in terms of functionalistic approach we will see this problem as a typical adaptation problem.The political changes in Armenia over the last two decades resulted in a mayor transformations in a social organization of the society. As change occurs, the various parts of societies become more differentiated and tried to adapt to new social conditions. From this point of view what is happening now in terms of sex-selective abortions might be explained as one of the ways how society tries to adapt to new social, political and economic circumstances. High risk of potential war conflict, poverty, change in the structure of labor organization, and fear of losing accumulated economic capital stimulates resource mobilization on the micro level which leads to the formation of gender image of girls/women as an unfavorable. This is how adaptation goes on micro level: boys are soldiers, they are strong, they can help with any type of work, they earn more and they will inherit the whole capital of the family and will transmit it to next generation, while girls are weak, they do not serve in army[6], they can’t do physical work, they don’t earn much, and leave their family after marriage. From this perspective desire to have a son is a conscious attempt which are intended to support better adaptation.

So what is the problem with this adaptation? From our point of with this type of adaptation is based on traditional values which therefore are working to set “traditional” goals. But the problem is that social life acceleration cannot be governed by this traditional values any more, therefore cannot be based on that kind of adaptation and goal attainment. Here we see the huge social conflict between old values and modern life challenges. This kind of adaptation leads more to disintegration and regress than to integration and progress. This conflict between old and new values also can be viewed in the following: from one point Armenian society faces skewed sex ratios and from another hand abortion in traditional Armenian culture is perceived as sin because Armenian Apostolic church accepts abortions only in case of medical reasons. According to Caucasus Barometer 2013 survey[7] 59% percent of respondents considered that abortion can never be justified 59%. So what happens, population states that the society should follow traditional values and perceive abortions in general as unacceptable, but still the need to have soldier, protector, economic supporter which will continue the family line becomes more dominant value.

To conclude, we can say that there are different points of view to the problem of sex-selective abortions. Still the majority of them come to the idea that solution must be found in stimulation of broader social change in the system of traditional values and beliefs which form unfavorable images of girls and women.


  1. “Prevalence of and reasons for sex-selective abortions in Armenia” UNFPA, Yerevan 2012
  2. “Gender Attitudes and Stereotypes in Armenia”, WSC Yerevan 2012
  3. “Missing girls in Armenia: Causes, consequences and policy options to address skewed sex ratios at birth” M. Davalos, World Bank group 2015
  4. Guilmoto C. “Sex imbalances at birth in Armenia: Demographic evidence and analysis” Paris: CEPED 2012

[1] See “Prevalence of and reasons for sex-selective abortions in Armenia” UNFPA, Yerevan 2012, p.4

[2] It is interesting to notice that one of the symbols of Armenia is a monument called “Mother Armenia” which is a female personification of Armenia, a woman with a sword symbolizing strength and power of the nation. The monument was completed and unveiled on 1950. Though this monument is one of very few if not the only one which connects image of the Armenian woman with such symbolic characteristics as strength, power and idea of protection.

[3] Halva and gata are Armenian traditional confectionery.

[4] “Gender Attitudes and Stereotypes in Armenia”, WSC Yerevan 2012 p.46-47

[5] “ Missing girls in Armenia: Causes, consequences and policy options to address skewed sex ratios at birth” M. Davalos, World Bank group 2015 p.9

[6] From 2013 and on Ministry of Defence announced admission in military institutions for females. According different source nowadays more than 2000 women serve in Armenian army.

[7]Caucasus Barometer 2013 survey regional dataset http://parg.co/Wr accessed 26.02.2016

[1] One of the studies is Guilmoto’s study, which estimates more male births than the natural average due to sex selection during 2001-2010.

[2] See “Prevalence of and reasons for sex-selective abortions in Armenia” UNFPA, Yerevan 2012, p. 17

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