All Woman

Cultural differences in child bearing

by Indi Mclymont all woman co-ordinator

Sunday, June 06, 2004    

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If you had your baby in Romania, chances are the government would give you a decent cash allowance for two years to stay home and take care of your child. And according to the law passed in March this year, the two years with pay are applicable for each child you have.

"Let's all move to Romania," shouted several of the 12 women journalists from developing countries attending a conference on women's health issues staged by the Population Reference Bureau in Washington, D C, the American capital, two weeks ago.

"I want to marry a Romanian," joked another.

After the outbursts died down, the Romanian representative , Adina Cojocaru, explained that the law had been passed because of her country's low fertility rate.

"Most women want to postpone having a child mainly because they don't think that they have enough financial resources and they want to establish a career. So you find that they wait later and later to start having children - if they do at all," she said. "So the fertility rate is going down."

A country's fertility rate is determined by the average number of children a woman will have during her lifetime. The total fertility rate in developing countries is between three and four; in industrial countries it is less than two.

As shown by the 2002 population census, Romania's total fertility rate is now 1.3 per cent, down from 2.2 per cent in 1989.

"Based on these figures, the government decided they had to do something to encourage the women to have children," Cojocaru told all woman in a later interview. "They came up with this financial support for two years after the birth of the child. The mom can stay at home with a sum of money to be used for growing the child. It is too early, however, to tell if the law will have the desired effect."

She explained that one critique of the law was that it benefited women from the lower income categories more than those in higher-paying jobs.

"There is a general rate, so while it might be higher than what the low paid woman might make if she takes leave of her job, the higher paid one would actually lose income if she depended only on it. So there are some kinks still to be worked out," she said.

But while the Romanian government's encouragement isn't gender specific, in India the focus is on producing boys, as the general idea there is that girls don't count.

"After the child is born and the parents see that it's a girl they kill the child," said Asha Krishnakumar, a veteran journalist from India who has won two international awards for her work on female infanticide and foeticide in her country.

"They give the child pardi husk grain to choke the child to death, or oleander leaf (a poisonous flower), or leave the child under a fan or turn her upside down so that she can't breathe and she dies," she explained. "These are some of the things done when they find out that it is a girl."

According to Krishnakumar, the killing of girl babies was widespread in the 1980s, but with the passage of legislation banning such actions, a new pattern started - foeticide.

"Now people go and find out the sex of the foetus and abort the baby so that way you can avoid arrest," she said. In the 1990s, a law was passed that said that abortions were okay, but not sex selective abortions. But it's not being followed," Krishnakumar said. "For example, the doctor and the patient develop codes to avoid the part of the law that says that doctors should not tell parents what the sex of their babies are. So the doctor will say the name of a male god and from that the woman will know that it is a male child."

Once it is determined that the desired male child is not on the way, the next step is to decide how to get rid of the girl foetus.

"Most women can't afford to go to a hospital to have an abortion so they do it themselves using crude methods - they may ask people to hit them in their stomachs or push things into their vaginas," Krishnakumar explained, while adding that many of the women did not consider that the ultrasounds could be wrong.

"There are also quack doctors who will say that it is a girl, so that the women will have abortions," she said.

Krishnakumar, who also has her doctorate in Economics, was quick to explain some of the social and economic reasons why sons were preferred.

"Socially, sons are the ones who do the last rites when the parents are buried, or lights the pyre to burn them. They (parents) think that the girl will get married and go away but the boy will stay and take care of them," said Krishnakumar. "There are also economic reasons why the boys are preferred. For example, you spend so much on the girls and you get nothing back - there is a naming ceremony for her when she is born, an ear-piercing ceremony when she is about three, another ceremony when she starts school, a ceremony when she gets her first period and then her wedding ceremony.

For all of this, her family has to foot the bill; and that does not include the provision of a dowry. Then, when she is married, there is a ceremony for her first period in the in-laws' house and another one for her first pregnancy. Her parents pay for all of these ceremonies and they get no money back."

A daughter could also be lost to bride burning, where if the family is unsatisfied with her dowry, she could be burnt with acid. "They also use other methods to make it look more accidental," Krishnakumar said.

About 25,000 women are affected by bride burning yearly in India.

These perceptions have led to a seriously skewed boy to girl ratio. In the 2001 census, for example, the girl to boy ratio was extremely low. India has 925 girls for every 1,000 boys in the age group zero to six. For every 100 girl babies, 105-106 boys are born, but by the end of the first year, with the natural mortality rate being higher for boys than girls, there would be an equal number of girls and boys.

But this does not happen in India, Krishnakumar told all woman.

"You are finding that there are a few villages in India where there are no women. In one place in Punjab (a rich Indian state), no wedding has taken place for the past 15 years," she said.

According to her, she has been doggedly reporting on issues such as these for the past 13 years, but it is hard because of the cultural beliefs faced.

"The women say that a woman that does not have boys is barren - only when they have boys do they have status. Then, if there is no boy, the women worry that the man will marry again to get a boy," she said.

On the contrary, in Uganda, Lindah Wamboka's country, it does not matter whether the child is a boy or a girl - the prestige is in having a large family.

'Culturally kids are wealth, a treasure, girls bring dowry. It is prestige for a man to have many children," Wamboka told all woman. She explained that women who get some measure of education might have fewer children than uneducated women.

"The educated ones may have about four," she said with a laugh. According to population reports, most families in Uganda usually want about 5.3 children, even though they end up having about 6.9.

"But we are a polygamous place where you compete among yourselves to have children and win the man's favour," she said.

Apart from polygamy, there are other cultural factors such as female genital mutilation and marriage rites that affect child birth and rearing.

"Female genital mutilation is practised in only two of our 56 tribes now," said Wamboka. "There are different ways of cutting; one of the crude ways is to cut out the labia minora and sew it back up. This makes it difficult to urinate. There is pain during sex and the tearing of the vagina during birth."

"There are also some cultural traditions that impact getting married and having children in my country. For example, to get married to someone you have to abduct them and then the parents search for them - checking possible boys who they knew were interested in their daughters. Then they negotiate a dowry when the girl is found," she said. "In another tribe you have to wrestle down the women and have sex with them. Then the parents will say this is the right guy for you to marry and you negotiate a dowry. The women tend to be bigger than the men so many times they have to want to be wrestled to the ground. But they can't give in too easily because the man wants to have the prestige of saying that they fought hard and long for you."

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