The missing women of Asia

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What kind of woman am I looking for?” asks a 30 year-old Chinese man, surprised. “Any kind! It’s so hard to find a wife nowadays, I’ll be happy to find one at all!” In many Asian countries, finding a spouse is not an easy undertaking.

As of 2010, it is estimated that every year, over 1 million Chinese men will be unable to find a wife due to a shortage of women. In certain villages in India’s northern Punjab state for example where there is a shortage of women, men leave and go to other states like Rajasthan and Orissa in search of a bride.

India and China alone hold over a third of the world’s total population (37%). The countries share the same, strange characteristic: a shortage of women. This demographic anomaly however has not attracted the attention it deserves, and the first warning, issued in 1990 by Indian economist and Nobel Peace prize winner (1998) Amartya Sen, went unheeded. “More than a hundred million women are missing” in the world today, primarily from China and India.

In a given population where men and women are treated equally and where there is not a higher tendency among women than men to migrate, women naturally outnumber men. If this applied to Asia and there was a slightly higher female population, there would be an extra 90 million women there, equivalent to one and a half times the total population of France.

China, a proud example of communism in the world as little as thirty years ago and a fervent supporter of gender equality, is now one of the countries where discrimination against women is the worst in terms of demographics. In contrast to the economic and social liberalization seen in China, traditional power structures that are unfavourable to women are re-emerging. The huge developing economy of India – which currently ranks seventh among the world’s industrial powers – also discriminates against women.

Aside from these two economic giants, this problem affects other countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Taiwan, South Korea and (to a lesser degree) Indonesia. These countries alone are home to 3 billion of the world’s 6.5 billion inhabitants. Here, women shortages are the result of a number of factors: the elimination of female fetuses through selective abortion, unequal treatment of girls and boys, the lower social status of women and poor sanitary conditions, which is the cause of a high mortality rate among female children and adults.

The gender structure of a population depends both on the proportion of girl births to boy births and on female versus male mortality rates at different stages of life. In normal conditions, where conditions are not altered by human intervention, a slightly higher number of boys are born than girls. At the same time, there is a higher mortality rate among men of all ages than women which compensates for the higher rate of male births. In several Asian countries however, either one – or sometimes both – of these trends are undermined by social practices. Because not enough girls are being born, and too many women are dying, there are a heightened number of men in the general population.

Biology states that for every 105 boys born there are approximately 100 girls. This trend occurs with remarkable regularity in populations around the globe, with a few slight exceptions: the lowest difference has been observed in Rwanda, where 101 boys are born for every 100 girls, and the highest – not counting Asian countries – has been in Surinam, where for every 100 girls there are 108 boys.

The situation is completely different in several Asian countries. Biological, genetic and environmental factors are often cited as the cause of gender differences between countries. While these cannot be excluded, in no way do they explain what has been observed over the last 25 years. In the early 1980s in India, South Korea and Taiwan, male and female birthrates were normal; but with today’s lower fertility rates, the traditional preference for a boy is deepening, supplanting biological trends and upsetting the natural balance of things.

Nowadays, new techniques allow parents to decide the gender of their offspring. After a few months, expectant mothers now have ultrasounds and amniocentesis. When it is a boy, parents can go home and patiently await the joyful event – but if it is girl, a dilemma arises: if we keep her, will we be able to have a boy later? Can we handle the rising costs of raising children? Often, rather than pass up on the opportunity to have a boy, parents decide to abort the unwanted girl. In China, male birth rates are therefore 12% higher than the norm, and in India 6% higher. In South Korea where there was a staggering 115 male births for 100 female births in the mid-1990s, the situation is improving, with 108 boys for every 100 girls in 2004.

Recently, this phenomenon has spread to other parts of the continent. In Vietnam for example, half of the country’s regions report 110 boy births for every 100 girls. In the Caucasus countries (Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia), gender differences increased dramatically from the 1990s onwards to levels comparable with those of China and India. A balance is maintained however in the neighbouring countries of Russia, Ukraine, Iran and Turkey.

In Indonesia, the ratio of boys to girls younger than one year of age, normal in 1990, has increased to 106.3 ten years later. A marked male majority among the population and a shortage of women, caused in part by the large-scale migration of women to countries like Saudi Arabia, is also now worsened by gender imbalances at birth.

Several complex factors contribute to the preferential treatment of men and the poor treatment of women. But a common feature unites Asian countries with a deficit in female births share: a preference for sons, made worse by a recent downturn in fertility rates. Due to China’s authoritarian birth control policies, the average number of children per woman has fallen from five in the early 1970s to less than two today. In India the average is set to fall to below three children, down from nearly five 20 years ago. In South Korea and Taiwan, where fertility rates are among the lowest in the world, women now have an average of 1.2 children. What choice is there for parents who want – or, in the case of China, are forced – to have very few children, and want a son at all costs? Only one solution exists: prevent the birth of a girl to the furthest possible extent, and if this happens, ensure it does not prevent the parents from having a son. […]

Isabelle ATTANE

July 2006

Reprinted with the kind permission of Le monde diplomatique

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