Son Preference: Part 2

The below text is copyright, “Broken Bodies – Broken Dreams: Violence against Women (IRIN): 

“Pre-birth sex selection and female infanticide in China

While female infanticide existed in China before 1949, the installation of the People’s Republic of China heralded a significant decline in excessive female mortality – at least until the 1980s. At the end of 1979, the government implemented its “one-child policy”, penalizing couples for bearing children “outside the plan”. Pressured to limit their number of children, many couples took whatever measures were necessary to ensure that they had a son. By the mid-1980s, the use of sex-selective technology was widespread, and from 1985 onwards, China’s sex-ratio imbalance conspicuously reasserted itself. The ratio of boys relative to girls increased from 111.3 boys per 100 girls in 1990 to 116.9 boys per 100 girls in 2000.

In a 1997 report, the WHO estimated that more than 50 million Chinese women were “missing” from the current female population. An analysis from 1999 noted, “The imbalance between the sexes is so distorted that there are 111 million men in China – more than three times the population of Canada – who will not be able to find a wife.” According to the 2000 census, as many as seven provinces had sex ratios at birth exceeding 120 boys for every 100 girls, and these imbalances rose proportionately for higher-birth-order children.

International adoption of girl babies may account for some of the sex-ratio disparities in China. So, too, might the estimated million or so “orphaned” girls who consigned to state institutions so abysmal that one documentary film referred to them as “dying rooms”. Another explanation for sex-ratio imbalances in China has been underreporting of female births, where girls might not be counted because they were never officially registered to parents. However, recent data from China’s Family Planning Commission revealed, surprisingly, that in almost all of China’s provinces, more male than female births were underreported from 1990 to 1999. This evidence suggests that the high numbers of “missing” females in many provinces can be attributed primarily to sex-selective abortions. In certain parts of China, according to one reporter, “Gynecology clinics offering ultrasound tests do a flourishing business, and are more common in many neighborhoods than convenience stores.”

China has instituted a number of policies to prevent sex-selective abortions, most recently in January 2005, when it banned abortions beyond the 14th week of gestation. As a result, there has been an apparent increase in the number of underground abortion services in “back-alley” settings where, according to one Chinese doctor, “safety is very poor, because the ability of these clinics to respond to emergencies is very poor.” The health hazards associated with late-term abortions are among the many risks to which women and girls are exposed. As in India, sex imbalances in China may be exacerbating the trade of women, both internally and across borders. According to official Chinese statistics from 1990 to 1999, on average 8,000 women per year were rescued from forced marriages by authorities. It is impossible to know what proportion has yet to be rescued.

Root causes: the lesser value of women and girls

An undeniable psychological effect of son preference on women and girls is the internationalization of the meager value accorded them by society. It could be arged that women carry out sex-selective abortion or female infanticide because of low self-esteem. It is probably more accurate, however, to say that these practices are for many women a sober acknowledgement of the miseries they suffer in oppressive patriarchal societies. Acting on the behalf that, in the words of one woman, “It is better they die than live like me,” mothers who abort female fetuses or kill their girl babies may think they are actually doing them a favor. One Bombay gynecologist echoed such wrenching pragmatism: “You can’t wish away centuries of thinking by saying boys and girls are equals…It is better to get rid of an unwanted child than to make it suffer all its life.”

Beyond female psychology, various other theories have been proffered to explain the popularity of sex-selective abortion. Fist among them is the availability of the sex-identification technology itself. This explanation, however, does not clarify why these practices are not prevalent in more developed areas in China, such as Shanghai and Beijing, as well as in many developed countries where sex-detection technology is widely available. Moreover, legislation already exists to control the use of the technology. In the late 1980s China outlawed sex-determination tests, followed by India in 1994. These measures have not had a significant impact on sex ratios and, as is illustrated in China’s “back-alley” clinics, they may make sex selective abortion more clandestine and expensive, thereby increasing its danger to women. Sex-detection technology does not cause son preference – instead it intensifies “the manifestation of gender bias where this bias is already strong.”

Rapid fertility decline is also cited as an explanation for sex-ratio imbalances, particularly in Asian countries. Bur in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand, where son preference appears to be nearly nonexistent, a rapid decline in fertility has not led to abnormal sex ratios at birth. Nor can sex selection be solely or even primarily attributed to poverty. Taiwan and Korea are “some of the most developed places in Asia, yet sex-selective abortion is very widespread … greater economic development, affluence, education, and knowledge do not necessarily ameliorate son preference or reduce the use of sex-selective abortion.”

The burden of dowry also has been used as justification for sex-selective abortions. In India, sex-determination clinics solicit clients with slogans like “Better 500 now than 5,000 later”, where the number 500 indicates the price of a sex-determination test and the number 5,000 indicates the cost of a bride’s dowry payment. This does not explain, however, why sex ratio imbalances are high in China and South Korea, where bride price, rather than dowry, is the norm, and were the expenses of a son’s wedding may exceed that of a daughter’s several times over.

Research suggests that poverty actually may protect some Indian girls, especially in settings where they participate in subsistence agriculture and therefore are valued as producers. Wealth, on the other hand, poses a significant risk, and imbalances in sex ratios are most acute among the higher classes in India. In the Punjab region, one of India’s more economically advanced states, approximately one in five female fetuses is thought to be aborted following sex-identification testing.

In a study of the middle class in Punjab, the top two reasons cited for aborting a female fetus were “male-dominated society” and “social stigma attached to having a daughter.” In China, research indicates that the most seriously perceived gender inequality for many women is that they will be deeply discriminated against if they fail to have a son. Regardless of levels of development, patriarchal systems sustain these attitudes. Clearly, any lasting efforts to address sex-selective abortion and female infanticide will require fundamental changes in cultural norms that promote son preference.”

All text is copyright (IRIN). Full permission is given for reproduction for non-commercial purposes.


One Response to “Son Preference: Part 2”

  1. Over one million baby girls are abandoned or murdered in China each year. Right now, hundreds of thousands are still alive at state orphanages, but due to malnutrition, deprivation and medical neglect most will not live past the age of five. They could be saved with more Western charity and the Chinese government’s resolve. Instead, thousands of those that are saved are being adopted by foreign parents to be taken out of China. The disproportionate amount of money adoptive parents spend on acquiring one daughter could save many girls who would stay and grow up in China.

    The upward trend of gender imbalance must be stopped and reversed, but the solution to China’s current shortage of females can only be solved for the next generation with education about the value of women coupled with the establishment of strong economic incentives for parents who choose to have a daughter.

    Talia Carner,
    Author, China Doll

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