Tuesday, 9 March 2010


In the week of International Working Women's Day, the Economist has published a thought-provoking article (click here and here for more detailed article) on the issue of Gendercide: what happens to baby girls when a modern preference for smaller families and baby boys meets modern medical technology:
In fact the destruction of baby girls is a product of three forces: the ancient preference for sons; a modern desire for smaller families; and ultrasound scanning and other technologies that identify the sex of a fetus. In societies where four or six children were common, a boy would almost certainly come along eventually; son preference did not need to exist at the expense of daughters. But now couples want two children—or, as in China, are allowed only one—they will sacrifice unborn daughters to their pursuit of a son. That is why sex ratios are most distorted in the modern, open parts of China and India. It is also why ratios are more skewed after the first child: parents may accept a daughter first time round but will do anything to ensure their next—and probably last—child is a boy. The boy-girl ratio is above 200 for a third child in some places.

The real cause, argues Nick Eberstadt, a demographer at the American Enterprise Institute, a think-tank in Washington, DC, is not any country’s particular policy but “the fateful collision between overweening son preference, the use of rapidly spreading prenatal sex-determination technology and declining fertility.” These are global trends. And the selective destruction of baby girls is global, too.
It is no exaggeration to call this gendercide. Women are missing in their millions—aborted, killed, neglected to death. In 1990 an Indian economist, Amartya Sen, put the number at 100m; the toll is higher now...The destruction is worst in China but has spread far beyond. Other East Asian countries, including Taiwan and Singapore, former communist states in the western Balkans and the Caucasus, and even sections of America’s population (Chinese- and Japanese-Americans, for example): all these have distorted sex ratios. Gendercide exists on almost every continent. It affects rich and poor; educated and illiterate; Hindu, Muslim, Confucian and Christian alike.

The crime rate has almost doubled in China during the past 20 years of rising sex ratios, with stories abounding of bride abduction, the trafficking of women, rape and prostitution. A study into whether these things were connected concluded that they were, and that higher sex ratios accounted for about one-seventh of the rise in crime. In India, too, there is a correlation between provincial crime rates and sex ratios. In “Bare Branches”††, Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer gave warning that the social problems of biased sex ratios would lead to more authoritarian policing. Governments, they say, “must decrease the threat to society posed by these young men. Increased authoritarianism in an effort to crack down on crime, gangs, smuggling and so forth can be one result.”
What's the solution? Obviously this is a particular problem in China but the status of women is something that needs deliberate action everywhere.
And all countries need to raise the value of girls. They should encourage female education; abolish laws and customs that prevent daughters inheriting property; make examples of hospitals and clinics with impossible sex ratios; get women engaged in public life—using everything from television newsreaders to women traffic police. Mao Zedong said “women hold up half the sky.” The world needs to do more to prevent a gendercide that will have the sky crashing down.
The point about taking on hospitals struck me; a friend of mine who had her children in Japan went to a clinic where they refused to tell parents the gender of the foetus because of concern over rates of abortion of girls.


Hugh said...

It seems to me it's a case of removing the economic incentives to value female children over male. The most obvious solution is to change the economies so that physical labour isn't the main driver of wealth. Changing the dowry system is also a good idea - although it might come from the former.

katy said...

Hugh, this is true. I did find it striking, though, that the skewed ratios are more pronounced in the more developed, urban areas than in rural areas.

Hugh said...

It is a bit surprising Katy but not in the end inexplicable.

Firstly, a family that maximises its wealth by preventing the birth of female kids may be in a better position to move into the city. So while 'gendercide' may not actually take place within the cities, its effects may be felt there.

Secondly, there's still a lot of jobs requiring physical labour in cities. I know the construction industry is really important in most large Chinese cities, and I wouldn't be surprised if it is in North India too - it tends to be in rapidly growing economies.

I think it's really important to directly attack these economic drivers. Some people might claim education is necessary, but education will never get very far if economic pressure is forcing people in the opposite direction.