When researching and reporting on sex-selective abortions in Indo-Canadian communities, context is key
As two second-generation Indo-Canadian women and community activist-researchers, we have often had issues with the overly quantitative research on son preference and sex-selective abortion in our community. Not only do we feel that many studies oversimplify the issue, we also believe the media contributes to the idea that the Indo-Canadian community imports “backward” practices of son preference and sex-selective abortion into the “gender equal” Canadian society.
In April 2016, a population-based study was published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal which found that whereas “among Canadian-born mothers, male-female ratios were about 1.05, with negligible fluctuations by birth order, year, and province… [c]ouples involving at least one Indian-born parent had higher than expected male-female ratios at the second and higher-order births, particularly when the father was Indian-born.” This study used birth certificate records and was not disaggregated by race, religion, age, or generation for the Canadian-born mothers, nor by age, religion, or generation for the Indian-born mothers. A great deal of context was lost in both the study results and interpretation.
Reading about this study in the news, both of us remember thinking here we go again. While the research itself failed to present the context behind the numbers, the media added fuel to the fire by reporting on this de-contextualized data in a way that cast aspersions on Indo-Canadian communities.
Headlines were sensationalized and misleading, exclaiming that “sex selection migrates to Canada.” One article compared Indo-Canadian women with “women born in Canada” and described the value of gender equity as “Canadian.” An editorial about the research speculated that Indian-born parents in Canada may be contributing to “a deficit of more than 4,400 girls over two decades.” The editorial’s headline reminded readers that, “In Canada, every child is precious, girls and boys alike.” The coverage gave very little space to the voices of community members themselves, beyond a photo and a few personal quotations.
Sex-selective abortion is much more than a biomedical issue, and population-based studies typically do not provide the context that frames it.
One prominent factor, for example, is the tradition of sons bearing responsibility for taking the family name forward and for being the family’s social safety net. In many Indo-Canadian contexts, sons are expected to live with their parents after being married, in order to inherit the family assets and to become their parents’ old-age security. Daughters, on the other hand, are expected to move in with their husbands’ families and take care of their parents-in-law. These traditions are in many cases deeply normalized and carry a lot of value in our communities. In order for people to begin to question and rethink them, their context needs to be acknowledged and understood.
Furthermore, there is the deeply held notion among Indo-Canadians that it is primarily the actions of a daughter that may bring shame or dishonour to the family. It is important that this be understood rather than condemned (or reduced to barbarism) if it is to be effectively addressed. And it is not as if this idea about female shame is so foreign in Canada. Indeed, the systems of power and privilege in this country—as in so many others—continue to promote toxic masculinity and perpetuate ideas of female weakness.
Additionally, when it comes to an issue as sensitive and complex as sex-selective abortion, the communities being studied haven’t been given adequate opportunity to lead the research process let alone contribute to the interpretation of data.
But a more recent paper, published in June 2018, does incorporate community voices into the data interpretation process. This paper (which also found elevated male-female birth ratios among Indo-Canadian women) came out of a mixed-method research process, a population-based cohort study and a community-based participatory research study, and was spearheaded by researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital in partnership with community leaders across the GTA, including both of us. (This study included several of the same researchers as the 2016 study.) Facilitators were hired to lead focus groups around reproductive decision-making with community members in both English and in Punjabi; community leaders, including advocates and service providers, were consulted; and interventions (in response to the research results) were co-created by both researchers and community members.
Researchers had the opportunity to communicate the data to community members. Community researchers brought a better understanding of the various sociocultural contexts framing the issue. As a result of this approach, a public awareness poster was created to try to help bring attention within the community to the causes and consequences of son preference (see below). This all meant that the research was meaningful not just for researchers, but also for the community members impacted by the study itself.
The media covered this study as well, which raises another important issue—that of timing.
By only sparking public conversation around this issue when a research study is published, the media fossilize the Indo-Canadian community and neglect important movements of resistance to daughter devaluation that are taking place both in Canada and in India. In the greater Toronto area, organizations such as Laadliyan Celebrating & Empowering Daughters, the Pink Ladoo Project, Punjabi Community Health Services, South Asian Women’s Centre, and Indus Community Services are paving the way for their communities to address these issues. Amrita began advocating against sex selection and son preference in 2008, when she and her sister Ankita started a campaign they called Save the Girls. Similarly, Laadliyan, a community-based organization founded by Manvir, engages in important advocacy work to dispel notions of female weakness, and facilitates intergenerational dialogue about the value of daughters in the family. These kinds of efforts must be supported in order to lay the groundwork for community mobilization and change.
It’s important that we refrain from pointing fingers at certain communities on an issue that is actually global in nature. Sex-selective abortion is a matter of reproductive health and rights not only in Canada but worldwide. Overly simplistic explanations of sex selection combined with sensationalized language risks scapegoating one community as “backward” and also of painting it as being the only one in need of intervention. There needs to be greater awareness and action among researchers and the media around the importance of collaborative and mixed-method research approaches, as well as balanced commentary that is inclusive of community voices and perspectives on as complex an issue as sex-selective abortion.
Infographic created by St. Michael’s Hospital research team in collaboration with community leaders.
Amrita Kumar-Ratta (MGA) is an equity and inclusion strategist, a social researcher, and a Ph.D. student in the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Toronto. She is pursuing Collaborative Specializations in Global Health and South Asian Studies.
Manvir Bhangu (MA) is the founder and executive director of Laadliyan Celebrating & Empowering Daughters, a non-profit organization focused on gender issues in the Greater Toronto Area’s South Asian community.