An Ultrasafe Ultrasound

Sonya Davey, C'14, wants to end sex-selective abortion. One of her solutions is already getting attention here and in India.
March 1, 2014

In 2012, India was named the worst nation for women in a poll conducted by TrustLaw about the world’s top economies. College senior Sonya Davey, who has been traveling to India since she was eight to visit family and do volunteer work, knows just how wide the gender gap is. “I was working with a lot of women and children, and saw how women weren’t treated equally to men,” she says. “Growing up [in the U.S.], I felt completely equal for the most part. To then go over there and see these things— it hurts a lot.”

Today, ultrasound technology means that cultural problems for females begin before they are even born. India outlawed female feticide in 1994, but the law has been nearly impossible to enforce. A preference for sons in India goes back thousands of years, but, as Davey says, “Medical technology catalyzed the cultural problem.”

Davey says women tell her there is great societal pressure to have a son and they can’t afford to have many children. “One said, ‘If I didn’t have a son, I would be kicked out of my family.’” Would-be parents say the large dowry expected with brides is one concern: “Until [dowries] were banned, there were posters saying ‘Spend $100 now to save $5,000 later.” Sons are also seen as the extension of the family; girls are given off to another household.

A straightforward solution would be to block the baby’s genitalia in the ultrasound image. Davey thought, “What if we could do this?” She spoke to professors at the University of Maryland, near her home, who told her the technology was available. Then she invited friends who had experience in business and computer coding to join her in the project.

They created Ultrasafe Ultrasound, which blocks out the genital area in the live ultrasound image. The team also made the technology tamper-resistant and included data retention and high-speed processing to make it more attractive to customers. They plan to pitch it to ultrasound manufacturers and physicians in India. The project was a finalist in last year’s Dell Social Innovation Challenge, and has been written about in the Stanford Social Innovation Review and India’s leading magazine, India Today.

They’ll continue to test and promote the technology, but Davey has more work to do. A triple major in biology, health and societies, and South Asian studies, she plans to go to medical school. First, though, she has won both a Thouron Award and a Gates Scholarship, and will study social anthropology at Cambridge next year.

“This project is something that we as a group of college students thought would be a good idea,” she says. “We have people who support it, but at the same time others say, ‘Yeah, the child will be born but what then?’ There are a lot of different steps. I’ll be looking at both angles, technology and culture, and hope I find some sort of balance and a solution.”