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Lottery of birth
Lottery of birth

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6.2 The missing girls

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Figure 20

Population policies such as the one child policy in China have far reaching consequences.

This extract provides description and analysis of some of the very troubling outcomes of population policies that are facing several countries.

In several countries, the preference for a son over a daughter has created the ‘missing’ girls phenomenon. At least 100 million newborn infant girls have disappeared or have not been born. In some societies, especially when reproductive decisions are constrained, preferences for a male baby are so strong that female fetuses may be aborted and baby girls killed or neglected. Apart from being a gross violation of human rights, this type of gender-selection also has many social and economic repercussions. The normal sex ratio at birth is around 105 boys for every 100 girls. However, societies’ and families’ preferences for a son rather than a daughter have grossly distorted the natural ratio. ‘In China and Northern India more than 120 boys are being born for every 100 girls’ (The Economist 2010: 13). In China in the late 1980s, there were 108 boys for every 100 girls. In the 2000s, this ratio increased to 124 boys for every 100 girls. In several Chinese provinces, the ratio has even reached 130–100.

Gender imbalance among newborns is a serious demographic problem facing China’s 1.3 billion people. For years, China’s One-Child Policy has been blamed for the imbalance. The Chinese population policy may have indirectly led to gender-selection abortion, female infanticide, and/or female infant neglect because parents were forced to have only one child and wanted strongly to have one son for socioeconomic and cultural reasons. Ironically, it was the wide availability of ultrasound machines (spread all over the country to make sure women had their IUD in place) that made gender-selection abortions possible on such a large scale.

Preference for male children is also widespread in India, Taiwan, Singapore, the Balkans, and even in parts of America’s population (e.g., among Chinese and Japanese Americans). In these countries, it afflicts the poor and the rich, the educated and the illiterate, and people of all religions. However, in China, it is more acute in rural than urban areas. This suggests there is more to the story of ‘missing’ girls than simply policy. In fact, ‘the destruction of baby girls is a product of three forces: the ancient preference for sons; a modem desire for smaller families; and ultrasound scanning and other technologies that identify the sex of the fetus’ (The Economist 2010: 13). The desire to have a smaller family often means that unborn daughters will be sacrificed in pursuit of a son.

It should be noted that the ratio of male to female babies increases as income and education increase. This finding debunks the myth that ‘backward thinking’ is responsible for the sex ratio imbalance. It suggests that the spread of foetal-imaging technology may be a main cause instead. Richer, well-educated families tend to have smaller families, and their preference for a son exerts greater pressure on the family to have a boy (The Economist 2010: 79). Again, the case of China might be different because of coercive policies.

The sex ratio imbalance has many other negative consequences for society (Attané 2010: 201–209). One of these is a shortage of brides. In 2010, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) has found that if the trend of not valuing baby girls continues, then within 10 years one-fifth of men would be incapable of finding a bride (The Economist 2010: 77). According to the CASS, China will have by 2020 30m to 40m more men aged 19 and below than women. To put this statistic in perspective, there are 23m men below the age of 20 in Germany, France, and Britain combined.

Another consequence of the sex ratio imbalance is increased violence (Hvistendahl 2011: 225). ‘In any country rootless young males spell trouble; in Asian societies where marriage and children are the recognized routes into society, single men are almost like outlaws’ (The Economist 2010: 13). New research has focused on the plight of these young men deprived from the joys of marrying and parenting. Crime rates, bride trafficking, sexual violence, even suicide rates are all on the rise as the sex ratio becomes more lopsided. The increase in the sex ratio in China accounted for about one-seventh of the rise in crime, and similar results have been found in India (The Economist 2010: 79).

South Korea seems to be the only country that used to have a very high sex-ratio, similar to that of China’s, which has made some radical improvements. South Korea’s sex ratio, although still high, is now getting closer to normal, and this has been attributed to a change in the culture, an emphasis on female education, anti-discrimination suits, and equal-rights rulings eliminating the need for old fashioned preference for a son (Chung and Das Gupta 2007: 778). China and India may experience reductions in son preference even before these countries become as developed as South Korea. These countries have put in place strong public policies addressing gender inequality, which will trigger the shift away from a focus on son preference. Also, they are well underway in industrialization and urbanization, two other key factors that have aided South Korea in its transition (Das Gupta et al. 2009: 413).

In order to correct the imbalance in sexes, countries need to raise the value of girls, encourage female education, abolish laws and customs that prevent daughters from inheriting land, engage women in public life, and make bad examples of hospitals and clinics with skewed sex ratios (The Economist 2010: 13). There does not seem to be a ‘quick fix’ for the situation, and it is not as simple as reforming policy or modernizing society. It might take quite some time, but eventually change is expected to happen. There is already evidence of incipient declines in national child sex ratio imbalances in both China and India (Das Gupta et al. 2009: 412).

(May, 2012, pp. 261–2)

Population policies being proposed today should seek to improve gender equality and protect individual reproductive rights above state priorities, no matter how dire the population projections are.

In the next section, you will move on to think about pro-natalism.