Thursday, January 20, 2011

Gendercide Revisited

The ratio of males born to females born can vary slightly from society to society, but in all countries the recorded values have fallen within the range 1.03 to 1.06 unless human intervention has precluded the birth of females via abortion or infanticide. Unfortunately, the preference in some societies for sons over daughters has led to widespread intervention, a process that has been referred to as gendercide. Kristof and WuDunn introduced us to this concept, in their book Half the Sky in a slightly broader context. A recent article in “The Economist” has provided an update on the scale of this practice and investigates what the future might hold in store.

The chart below indicates the extent of the practice of eliminating female babies.

When you consider countries like China and India with over a billion people each, you face tens of millions of children who don’t exist because they happened to be female.

The preference for sons is well established in many societies. It often has an economic motivation. Daughters can be very expensive in societies where a dowry must be provided. An ultrasound and an abortion are much cheaper. When a family plans on having only a few children, the necessity of ensuring a male becomes more critical.

When this male preference was combined with gender-determining technology and social pressure to limit the size of families, the incidence of gendercide increased dramatically.
“In China the sex ratio for the generation born between 1985 and 1989 was 108, already just outside the natural range. For the generation born in 2000-04, it was 124 (ie, 124 boys were born in those years for every 100 girls). According to CASS (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences) the ratio today is 123 boys per 100 girls. These rates are biologically impossible without human intervention.”

“The national averages hide astonishing figures at the provincial level. According to an analysis of Chinese household data carried out in late 2005 and reported in the British Medical Journal, only one region, Tibet, has a sex ratio within the bounds of nature. Fourteen provinces—mostly in the east and south—have sex ratios at birth of 120 and above, and three have unprecedented levels of more than 130. As CASS says, ‘the gender imbalance has been growing wider year after year’.”
India is pinpointed as the country with the most dramatic example of this process at work.
“India does not produce figures for sex ratios at birth, so its numbers are not strictly comparable with the others. But there is no doubt that the number of boys has been rising relative to girls and that, as in China, there are large regional disparities. The north-western states of Punjab and Haryana have sex ratios as high as the provinces of China’s east and south. Nationally, the ratio for children up to six years of age rose from a biologically unexceptionable 104 in 1981 to a biologically impossible 108 in 2001. In 1991, there was a single district with a sex ratio over 125; by 2001, there were 46.”
The author points out clearly that this practice can’t be attributed to poverty or lack of education.
“Taiwan’s sex ratio also rose from just above normal in 1980 to 110 in the early 1990s; it remains just below that level today. During the same period, South Korea’s sex ratio rose from just above normal to 117 in 1990—then the highest in the world—before falling back to more natural levels. Both these countries were already rich, growing quickly and becoming more highly educated even while the balance between the sexes was swinging sharply towards males.”
The dynamic at work can be seen in this chart where the combination of technology and social change has contributed to an overabundance of male births in recent years. Note the exception that is South Korea.

The author points to South Korea as the one demonstration that attitudes can change. While the first impact of modernity is to encourage gendercide, slower more subtle effects may ultimately win out and gain a higher status for women. This is apparently what happened in South Korea. As is often the case, culture can be modified by economics. When South Korea’s economy began to grow rapidly an expanded work force was required. Women had to become educated and skilled. Their economic value rose and along with it their social value. This was followed by a decline in the male-to-female birth ratio.

The author suggests that there is evidence emerging that a similar dynamic is beginning to take root in other parts of the world.
“It is just possible that China and India may be reaching that point now. The census of 2000 and the CASS study both showed the sex ratio stable at around 120. At the very least, it seems to have stopped rising. Locally, Ms Das Gupta argues, the provinces which had the highest sex ratios (and have two-thirds of China’s population) have seen a deceleration in their ratios since 2000, and provinces with a quarter of the population have seen their ratios fall. In India, one study found that the cultural preference for sons has been falling, too, and that the sex ratio, as in much of China, is rising more slowly.”
While the data to prove this contention seems a bit sketchy at this point, let’s hope he/she is correct. And let us continue to try and eliminate gender preferences.


  1. Excellent views sir
    I also would like to start a dialogue like this !!

  2. One of the major reasons that the Chinese prefer boys because boys can inherit the family name and continue the family line, which is an honor to the ancestors. Female, on the other hand, can only be another family's daughter-in-law, carrying on the family name of others.


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