May 25, 2018
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Preference for boys spurs scarcity of young women

By Edwin Dean

A global war against baby girls is in progress. In many countries, the selective abortion of female fetuses is very common, and the death rates of girls under 5 are unnaturally high. The Economist magazine accurately has called these practices “gendercide.”

Many people know that China and northern India have unnaturally large numbers of newborn baby boys compared to girls, due mainly to the abortion of female fetuses. But few realize that selective abortion is also practiced in many other countries.

In 1990 Amartya Sen, a Nobel-Prize-winning Indian economist, put the number of missing girls at 100 million worldwide. In China alone, there were 33 million more males than females under the age of 20 in 2005.

And the number of missing girls is rising. In China, selective abortion of female fetuses began in the 1980s. In the early 2000s, about 124 boys were born for every 100 girls, much higher than the figure of about 105 boys for every 100 girls that occurs naturally.

In India in 1991, only one district reported a figure higher than 125; by 2001, there were 46 such districts. Nicholas Eberstadt, of the American Enterprise Institute, reports that unnaturally high sex ratios at birth also are found in countries in Asia, Europe, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and in the U.S. among several Asian-American groups. In many countries the ratios are much higher than they were in the 1980s.

The selective abortion of female fetuses became possible because of sonogram technology, which enables parents to learn the gender of fetuses. Sonograms were largely unavailable in poor countries as of 1980, but their use spread quickly in the 1980s and 1990s.

Sadly, the news gets worse. For generations, more boys than girls died before their fifth birthday. But in recent decades, more girls than boys have died before 5 in many countries. This may happen because, at least occasionally, girl babies are killed immediately after birth; there are recent accounts of such murders in China. More often girl babies are simply abandoned or neglected, according to research by Monica Das Gupta and several of her colleagues at the World Bank. Girl babies, for example, may be given less food or medical care.

Why do parents prefer boys? Some analysts emphasize the well-known preference for sons in many areas where poverty and illiteracy are widespread. In these societies, sons remain at home and farm the family’s land to support their aging parents, while brides leave home to join their husbands’ families. In China, others note, the “one-child” policy has increased the pressure to ensure that the first-born child is a son.

Such explanations are weak, say other analysts. Studies have found that selective abortion of female fetuses rises with income and education, showing that son preference is not due solely to “backward thinking” among poor, uneducated people. Das Gupta found that in India’s Punjab State, second and third daughters of well-educated mothers were more than twice as likely as their brothers to die before their fifth birthday. And China’s one-child policy cannot explain why gender disparities are observed on all continents.

Because girl babies were becoming scarce in the years before 1990, there is now a scarcity of young women. So men in their 20s and older are having difficulty finding brides. The growing numbers of frustrated single men, deprived of the status conferred by marriage and fatherhood, help explain the rising crime rates in some countries. In China, stories abound of bride abduction, trafficking in women, rape and growing prostitution. Because the gender imbalance rose rapidly in the years since 1990, these crimes likely will increase in the future.

Still, a few rays of hope can be glimpsed. In China, India and South Korea, governments have passed anti-discrimination laws or conducted media campaigns to convince people to treat girls equally. And these efforts may be paying off: In China and India gender imbalance recently may have stopped rising, and in Korea it is declining.

We cannot be sure whether these hopeful signs will soon appear in other countries or whether the terrible global war against baby girls will continue and intensify.

Edwin Dean, an economist and seasonal resident of Vinalhaven, writes monthly about economic issues.

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