Saturday, May 21, 2011

Why are sex ratios at birth so male-biased in the South Caucasus?

Earlier this month, my attention was caught by a Behind the Numbers blog post by Carl Haub which described how sex ratios in the countries of the South Caucasus--Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan--were among the most unbalanced in the world.

Son preference and sex-selective abortion in China and India have frequently been in the news but who would ever have thought of it in the Caucasus countries? But it’s there, in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, three former Soviet Republics and the trends have been well analyzed in a recent paper.* The normal global biological sex ratio at birth (SRB) is 105 male births per 100 female. Where son preference is strong and the sex of a fetus is determined, there has been a rise in the abortion of female fetuses in recent years.

The SRB in those countries began rising in the mid-1990s and, in 2009, stood at 114 in Armenia and 118 in Azerbaijan. Birth reporting in Georgia has been somewhat erratic but the pattern is similar if not quite as skewed upwards. Abortion had long been used as a form of birth control in the Soviet Union and the practice has continued in the Caucasus. A low fertility rate is often thought to create a particularly likely impetus for sex-selective abortion when son preference is strong. In all three countries, the SRB for third births was well above the total SRB. In Armenia, the SRB for third births was about 140 in 2000-2004; in Azerbaijan, it was about 150; and, in Georgia, it was about 145. Of course, third births are much less frequent with low birth rates. In recent years, the SRB does appear to have leveled off, but their SRB’s are now exceeded only by China’s.

Such a ratio can't help things at all. Georgia that--as I noted here in August 2008--has been seeing massive emigration since the end of the Soviet Union, just like Armenia to its south and even Azerbaijan to its east. Georgia and Armenia have cohort fertility rates substantially below replacement levels, while Azerbaijan is getting there. If future cohorts of women come to be so outnumbered by men, the South Caucasus' demographic catastrophes can only worsen. As my co-blogger Scott just mentioned, gender balance can well be a competitive advantage in the economic sense, as human capital is found and used more equitably without misogynistic attitudes. Again, this is profoundly self-destructive.

But why is this going on? The Social Sciences in the Caucasus blog notes that the shift in sex ratios only occurred after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when sex ratios were more normal, while commenters suggested that this shift is to be expected in economically straitened times in societies where abortion is an acceptable method of birth control and male children are valued more than female children. Sabina Kiryashova's IWPR article "Abortion Used for Sex Selection in Azerbaijan" describes this mentality.

Such abortions have become increasingly common in Azerbaijan in recent years, particularly since the use of ultrasound to determine the sex of the baby has became widespread.

Up to four of the eight women who come into gynaecologist Gulustan Aslanova’s clinic each day for abortions do so because they are expecting an unwanted girl.

Research conducted by the Women’s Crisis Centre in a main Baku maternity hospital found that abortions carried out because of the sex of the child are currently third behind those done because of the family’s financial situation and ones for contraceptive purposes.

Azad Isazade, a psychologist at the centre, said that in Azerbaijan, as in many eastern countries, preference has always been given to boys. That is rooted in the pre-Islamic, pagan period when men were needed for farming and newborn girls were buried alive.

That no longer happens, but some families see the lack of a male heir as a tragedy or even a curse.

This is fine, but why in the South Caucasus? In the online essay collection Watering the Neighbour's Garden: The Growing Demographic Female Deficit in Asia, the paper by Meslé et al. "A Sharp Increase in Sex Ratio at Birth in the Caucasus. Why? How?" (73-88) makes the point that the shift is unprecedented, occurring in the absence of any state coercion, without any parallels either elsewhere in the former Soviet Union or elsewshere in the Greater Middle East.

It is true that the countries of the Caucasus are very small compared to some of their neighbours and it is easy to imagine that by decreasing the scale to internal administrative districts the same phenomenon could be observed in some regions of Russia, Iran, and Turkey that are close to the Caucasus, particularly among the Azeri in Iran, in the Caucasian republics of southern Russia, and in the eastern regions of Turkey that border Armenia. It is for this reason that we have attempted to collect data by local districts in the countries of the Caucasus and also in the three closest large countries, as well as in Syria. [. . .]

When this data is assembled on a detailed map of the region, two observations reinforce the contrast suggested by national indicators. On the one hand, within each of the three countries of the Caucasus, high sex ratios at birth are almost systematically observed in all the regions. The only notable exceptions concern two groups of Azeri rayons concentrated in the North on the border with Russia and in the South on the border with Iran. On the other hand, no such ratios are observed in the administrative districts nearest to the countries of the Caucasus, either in Russia, Iran, Turkey, or Syria. In Russia, the federated republics of the northern Caucasus such as Karachay-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia, and Dagestan are all between 104 and 107. Only North Ossetia is slightly over 108. In Iran all the northern provinces and notably the four sharing a border with Azerbaijan (Gilan, Ardebil, eastern Azerbaijan, western Azerbaijan) are below 107. Finally, in Turkey there is a zone around the Van Lake, which is slightly over 107, but all the provinces along the border with Georgia and Armenia are between 104 and 107.

The number of abortions a woman has rises if the first children born are female, but still. Why in the South Caucasus?


Anonymous said...

According to the total population of the three countries consisted of 8,190 mio. females versus 7,681 males in 2010, and the total sex ratio changed from 93.9 in 1990 to 93.8 in 2010.

In general, sex ratios of all age groups taken together tend to remain quite stable.

Randy McDonald said...

Higher male mortality, I'd guess? The sex ratios are still quite offer in the youngest cohorts.

demographer said...

I had a look at Caucasian popultions of Russia, see here

their SR is near normal except for rural Ingush, unlike for some other non Caucasian popultions