From caste discrimination through forced marriages to sex-selective abortions, entrenched practices among sections of the British South Asian diaspora pose continuing challenges. Caste discrimination is common enough; the European Parliament passed a resolution in 2013 calling for EU institutions to include procedures against it in their dealings with caste-affected countries. As for forced marriages among South Asian and other British ethnic minorities, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has a section specifically to help victims. Sex-selective abortions, on the other hand, have only recently attracted attention, following a series of reports in the Independent, which commissioned Imperial College London to analyse the 2011 census. The paper concludes that the number of female births in the relevant communities is below the expected figure by between 1,400 and 4,700 in England and Wales. This contradicts junior Minister Earl Howe’s 2013 statement — after a sting operation by the Daily Telegraph identified two doctors ready to perform sex-selective terminations — that there was no evidence of the practice in the U.K.

Campaigning groups, individuals, and the media have nevertheless confirmed that there are social and cultural pressures on South Asian British women to abort female foetuses. The Abortion Act 1967 does not expressly ban abortion on gender grounds, but it would require two doctors to conclude that the mother faces health risks which outweigh those of termination, and it would be difficult to prove that the doctors had not investigated the mother’s health properly. Many National Health Service hospitals do not state the sex of unborn babies until after the 24-week abortion deadline, but families can use private services instead. Technical developments, such as sperm washing to ensure conception of male foetuses, complicate the picture; the claim has even been made that a woman has a right to choose the sex of her child. In addition, some South Asian British families take women carrying female foetuses to parts of South Asia where the law is not rigorously enforced; a profitable trade in sex-selective terminations has arisen. The U.K. law can be tightened, but the key problems lie in social attitudes. One response would be for the U.K. to crack down harder on racial discrimination, which blocks many ethnic-minority communities from full access to British life and isolates the women; another would be closer cooperation between the affected countries. As what has been called a global war on girls spreads, all governments involved must move to end sex-selective abortion.

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