Le Monde Diplomatique, France
Aug. 11, 2006


Asia's missing women


Gender discrimination now affects the demographic balance of some
Asian countries, especially China and India, where there are
disproportionate numbers of men to women. In some regions the birth
ratio is already extreme and is likely to worsen.

By Isabelle Attané

When we put the question to an Asian man in his early 30s, he
answered, surprised: `What sort of wife would I like? I don't care.
It's so hard to find anyone these days, I just want a wife.' But in
some Asian countries finding a wife is already far from easy. And
every year after 2010 an estimated million Chinese men will be unable
to marry because there will not be enough eligible women. In some
villages in the northern Indian state of Punjab, men have to travel
to Rajasthan or as far as Orissa to seek wives.

India and China between them represent 37% of the world's population:
both have a shortage of women. This demographic discrepancy is not
receiving the attention it deserves. Amartya Sen, the Indian
economist and 1998 Nobel prizewinner, first sounded the alarm in 1990
when he wrote `More Than 100 Million Women are Missing' (1), mainly
about China and India. There has been little response to his warning.

Women usually outnumber men as long as both genders are treated
equally. If Asia complied with this rule and had the standard slight
predominance of females, there would be 90 million more women in the
region.

Thirty years ago China, as the flagship of the communist world, was a
fervent defender of gender equality. Today it leads the world in
demographic discrimination against women, restoring the old
hierarchy; this is the other side of China's economic and social
liberalisation. India, the other emerging economic giant, now the
world's seventh industrial nation, also discriminates against women.

China and India, with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Taiwan, South Korea and
Indonesia, account for 3 billion of Earth's 6.5 billion people. In
these countries, gender-selective abortion, unequal treatment of
children, inferior social status and poor sanitary conditions all
contribute to a high death rate among female children and adults.

A population's gender structure depends on the ratio at birth and the
death rate for both sexes at each stage of life. When human
intervention does not disrupt the natural balance, slightly more boys
are born, but a slightly higher death rate among males at each stage
of life naturally removes that small surplus. In many Asian
countries, social practice thwarts one or other natural law,
sometimes both, leading to fewer female births and more female
deaths; hence the higher ratio of males. What are the natural rates?
Throughout the world boys outnumber girls at birth by a ratio of 105
to 100. Discrepancies are rare: the lowest ratio is in Rwanda (101:
100) and the highest, outside Asia, in Surinam (108:100).

Shift in nature's balance
In many Asian countries the rate is unnatural, and the biological,
genetic and environmental factors usually put forward to explain the
discrepancy are insufficient to explain the trend of the past 20-25
years. Until the early 1980s boys and girls were born in normal
proportions in China, India, South Korea and Taiwan. Since then an
overall fall in the birth rate, combined with a traditional
preference for sons, has altered the biological laws.

Technological advances mean that parents can now choose the sex of
their children. A woman can have an ultrasound or amniocentesis in
the first few months of pregnancy. If she learns that she is carrying
a boy she can go home and prepare, but if it is a girl she faces a
dilemma: if she keeps the baby, will she have another opportunity to
conceive a boy? Will the couple be able to face the rising cost of
raising children? Rather than risk failing to produce a son, parents
often decide to abort a girl. Consequently, in China, the birth ratio
of boys to girls is now 12% above normal levels. In India, it is 6%.
In South Korea, after the mid-1990s peak of 115:100, the proportion
improved and dropped to 108:100 in 2004.

The trend has recently spread to other parts of Asia. Half the
provinces of Vietnam have a birth ratio of 110 boys to 100 girls. In
the Caucasus, in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia, the proportion rose
sharply after the mid-1990s to reach levels comparable with parts of
India and China. But in Russia, Ukraine, Iran and Turkey, the natural
balance remains.

In Indonesia, the ratio of male births to female was still normal in
1990; by 2000 it had reached 106.3:100. This creeping masculinisation
of society is due to the imbalance at birth, compounded by a massive
emigration of women, mostly to Saudi Arabia (2).

Why do men have an advantage over women and why are woman mistreated?
Asian societies affected by the trend all share a strong preference
for sons, a situation exacerbated by the overall fall in the birth
rate. Because of China's strict birth control policy, the average
number of children per woman has fallen from more than five in the
early 1970s to less than two today. In India, it is less than three,
compared with nearly five 20 years ago. South Korea and Taiwan have
birth rates among the lowest in the world, with an average 1.2
children. Parents desperate for a son will do anything to prevent the
birth of a girl. Should they already have a girl, they will do
anything, including aborting female foetuses, to have a son as well.

The Indian government has promoted small families since the 1960s;
the ideal is to have a boy and a girl. The Chinese saying - you need
`a boy and a girl to complete the pair' - is gaining acceptance. But
most couples want a boy, possibly several, and only one girl.

In Bangladesh and Pakistan, where women still have many more children
than in China, Taiwan or Korea, the sex of a baby is rarely known
before birth, but discrimination against girls and women is severe.
In these countries, as in India, women's life expectancy is the same,
if not lower, than that of men, whereas in the rest of the world
women have a natural advantage.

It is common to neglect daughters, and often fatal; sons are well
nurtured, fed first, tended when sick, and vaccinated. This helps
explain the inequality in death rates and particularly infant
mortality. In India, the death rate for infants and children up to
five is 7% higher for girls than for boys. In Pakistan the figure is
5% and in Bangladesh 3%. Interestingly, in Muslim countries such as
Tunisia, Egypt and Mauritania, which have a similar level of
development, the mortality rate for boys under five is a few
percentage points higher than girls, based on the common standard
(3). The discrepancy is greatest in China, where the mortality of
girls is 28% higher than that of boys.

Sex-selective abortions and negligent treatment of girls are the main
reasons that so many women are missing. Other discrimination,
including female infanticide, contributes far less. The practices are
the direct result of women's inferior social status, attributable to
patriarchal systems, patrilineal families, arranged marriages and a
socialising process that encourages women to be submissive to their
husbands and in-laws. A son is necessary to provide for the family,
perpetuate its name and ensure its social and biological continuity.

`Water your neighbour's garden'
In China, Taiwan and South Korea, the lack of a male heir means the
extinction of the family lineage and the cult of its ancestors. In
Hinduism, the souls of parents without sons are condemned to eternal
wandering, since the son traditionally carries out the funeral rites
at their deaths. In India, as in China, a daughter merely passes
through her parents' home; when she marries she devotes herself to
her in-laws and no longer has any obligations to her parents. In the
Chinese countryside, where there are no old age pensions, everyone
knows it is necessary to `raise a son to prepare for old age'.
According to a Chinese saying, to raise a daughter is `to cultivate
another man's field'; in India, it is `watering a neighbour's
garden'.

Discrimination has much to do with social, economic and religious
status. In India, the less-educated and poorer segments of society
practice prenatal selection. Women's autonomy is also a determining
factor: more independent women resort to sex-selective abortion. In
China, younger and better-educated women, especially in cities,
systematically practice prenatal selection.

This does not mean that the rest of the population spares its girls.
Far from it. In China and India, preserving a family's economic
heritage or means of production, usually land, is crucial to the
decision to have a son. The decollectivisation of agriculture in
China in the 1980s (4), combined with a patrilineal system of
inheritance, made farmers prefer sons. In India, the recent inflation
in dowries is a financial burden on families and a prime reason for
not bearing daughters. Even affluent families regard a daughter as
bad luck: when she marries, part of the family fortune will have to
be handed over to her in-laws as dowry, whereas a son's marriage
means a cash bonus. `If you have three daughters, you're ruined; if
you have three sons, you're saved.'

Religion also influences a couple's preference for a son and may be a
determining factor in sex-selective abortion. South Korea's
population is 47% Buddhist, 37% Protestant and 14% Catholic. Buddhism
is more compatible with Confucian values that favour sons, unlike
Catholicism or Protestantism. It is also more tolerant towards
abortion, which may be a factor. Indian Muslims and Christians do not
discriminate much between the sexes and have a normal ratio of male
children; Hindus, Sikhs and Jains are more likely to practice
sex-selective abortion.

The demographic implications of all this are immense because of the
size of populations involved. The first results will be felt around
2015, when huge numbers of men reaching marriageable age will be
unable to find a wife. The imbalance in the Chinese marriage market
will worsen after 2010, and by 2030 there will be a 20% surplus of
men - every year 1.6 million will be unable to find wives. Initially,
the marriage market will regulate itself. Men may first turn to
younger partners and then to women not previously coveted. Widows
will be in demand, which may finally end the taboos against
remarriage, as will divorcees, who are becoming more numerous.
Suitors will have to be patient in their search and will be older at
the age of marriage. In the longer term, men may be forced into
celibacy and have to abandon the idea of an heir, a break with the
tradition of family lineage that provoked selection for sons.

Wife trafficking
To meet the demand for wives, trans-national networks are forming,
especially in China. At the Sino-Vietnamese border there is a boom in
women migrating to China to marry. There are several reasons for
this. There is a particular shortage of women in the southern
provinces of China, and dowry inflation and rising marriage costs
since the economic reforms of the 1980s mean that buying a wife is
now the only way many poor Chinese families can afford to marry off a
son. This in turn fits the economic strategies of poor Vietnamese
women, who hope to improve their lives by marrying a Chinese.

Marriage migration is also increasing in Taiwan, where nearly 8% of
weddings in 2000 were between a Vietnamese woman and a Taiwanese man.
Since the mid-1990s Vietnam has supplied wives to several hundred
thousand Taiwanese men: most sought a stable union with someone who
would respect their traditional values and be less likely than a
Taiwanese woman to demand independence.

Wife trafficking in China is a growth industry. Buyers are usually
poor, uneducated farmers, who find this way easier and cheaper than
going through the normal procedures. The regions where the traffic is
heaviest are lax and corrupt. In some villages marriage registrars
have set up a simplified procedure that enables the buyer to register
his marriage officially, for a price, and to obtain a certificate
stating that he has married the wife he purchased. A young Chinese
woman, found by the police after being kidnapped and sold, demanded
to be returned to her family. But her husband/owner protested that
they were legally married and that he had the licence to prove it:
`So what? I may have bought her, but we are legally man and wife.'

Will the scarcity of women improve their situation? There is no sign
of it. In China and India, women are being merchandised, turned into
consumer goods. Far from increasing their symbolic value, and
therefore the way they are perceived, economic liberalisation and
missing women seem to have exacerbated the situation and made them
chattels. The current economic reforms in China have increased the
market value of women, but the way they are treated has worsened,
especially in the countryside.

Being rare does not mean being more valued. A film, Matrubhoomi: A
Nation Without Women, made in 2005 by Indian director Manish Jha,
illustrates this. It is set in a future rural India where the female
population has been greatly reduced through infanticide. A man,
Ramcharan, wants to marry off his five sons. A poor peasant who lives
nearby is desperate to hold on to his most precious `possession', his
beautiful 16-year-old daughter, Kalki. Ramcharan finds out about
Kalki through a friend and buys her for gold to give to his eldest
son. Once the wedding is over, she becomes the object of desire for
all the brothers and the father. Later she is chained in the stable
as a sexual slave to the whole village; she becomes pregnant and
gives birth to a girl. The film is more a fantasy than a projection
of reality, but suggests some potential scenarios in a society
deprived of half its population.

Asian governments are aware of the gravity of the situation and have
made political attempts at solutions. In India, the Prenatal
Diagnosis Techniques Act of 1994 makes it illegal to reveal the sex
of an unborn child. Despite the threat of imprisonment and fines, the
law is constantly broken. In China, several laws passed in the 1990s
forbid ill-treatment of and discrimination against girls, as well as
prenatal selection. Because of wide-scale corruption, however,
sex-selective abortion continues. A `care for girls' campaign
launched in 2001 sought to promote equality of the genders,
particularly in text books, and to improve the living conditions of
daughter-only families. In some regions, couples benefit from special
funds and are exempt from farm taxes and school fees for their
daughters until they reach marriageable age. The government has also
set up a programme aiming to bring the male birth ratio to normal
levels by 2010.

Laws are not enough. Patriarchal values are so deep-rooted that even
though many women realise that girls remain closer to their mothers
than sons and take better care of their parents in old age, they
still prefer sons. It may take several generations, and an
improvement in the status of women, before couples become indifferent
to their children's gender. There is hope that the laws in place will
succeed in reversing the trend rapidly, as has already happened in
South Korea, where young couples observe patriarchal values less than
before and are less likely to conform to traditional sexist
behaviour.

The story of future generations of women has yet to be written. If
things continue at the present rate, several million women will go
missing every decade and the repercussions will be enormous. Fewer
women means fewer children, and still fewer girls for future
generations. That implies a rapid fall in demographic growth in those
countries that are most heavily populated today.

We are getting closer to fiction as envisaged by Amin Maalouf in his
book The First Century After Beatrice (5), in which he speculates
that if couples were able, by simple means, to chose the sex of their
children, some communities would choose boys only. They would cease
to reproduce and therefore ultimately disappear. Maalouf wrote that
the cult of the male might be a social flaw today `but tomorrow it
would become collective suicide' and we would witness the
`autogenocide of misogynistic peoples'.