Should parents be allowed to find out the sex of the baby during pregnancy? Addressing a seminar on “ending gender based violence” arranged by Punjab Government in collaboration with UN WOMEN on Saturday, Punjab Health Minister Dr. Yasmin Rashid grieved that many people misused the technology of ultra-sound, which reveals the sex of the baby during pregnancy, and stated that the government was working on legislation which would prohibit the disclosure of the sex of the baby before birth.

Dr. Rashid’s reasoning behind the ban on gender disclosure is very valid- she implies that ultrasounds which reveal gender in advance lead to a higher rate of sex-selective abortion. In a society which greatly values male children over female children, slaughters two goats in celebration of a baby boy as compared to one goat for a female baby, and whose inheritance customs often discriminate against women, parents are more likely to wish for male children and thus abort female babies if they get the opportunity.

The proposed legislation is well-meaning. Sex-selective abortions are an internationally documented phenomenon and occur in great numbers in Asian countries, particularly China, India and Pakistan. The phenomena known as “Missing Women” is prevalent in these countries, where female infanticide, sex-selective abortion and inadequate healthcare facilities for women leads to a shortfall in the number of women, causing a disproportionate ratio of men and women. In Pakistan too, despite popular belief of the opposite, the population of men, in all age brackets, outnumber women. Unfortunately, there are fewer statistics for sex-selective abortion in Pakistan- abortion in our country is illegal, except when it affects the health of the mother, and thus abortions carried out are often in secret and not documented. Still, according to one estimate from the end of the 20th century, about 3.1 million girls are missing in Pakistan.

However, it is doubtful whether this legislation will lead to an improvement in the living standards of women. Banning gender reveals will not prevent female infanticide from occurring- nor will it stop the unequal treatment of female and male children. A better approach to this problem should have been to tackle the reasons why people find the birth of girl children undesirable. Forcing parents to have unwanted female children does not solve the problem of discrimination when cultural, legal and religious barriers limit equal opportunities, education and career prospects for women. In this respect, the government’s initiative to improve inheritance laws for women is a better step for women’s empowerment than this one.