Putting gendercide on the front page

Michael Cook
11 Mar 2010
Reproduced with Permission

It has taken 20 years, but gendercide has finally made the front page of The Economist. Back in 1990, Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen wrote an astonishing article in the New York Review of Books claiming that 100 million girls had been aborted because of son-preference. This was happening mostly in China and India, but also in other Asian countries.

Some were initially sceptical of Sen's allegations, and countered that the gigantic gender gap could be due to a higher rate of Hepatitis B amongst infant girls. But as the figures came in, there could be no doubt. A perfect storm of malign factors has created conditions in which girls are being aborted in the millions: son-preference, families with only one or two children, readily available abortion, and portable ultrasound equipment. As a result, the natural birth ratio of boys to girls - about 105 to 100. But in China and northern India, the ratio is now about 120 to 100. In some Chinese provinces the ratio is 130 to 100. In some places, the ratio for a third child has reached an incredible 200 to 100.

Even The Economist, which vigorously champions "legal, safe, and rare" abortion, is dismayed at this appalling gendercide. "The cumulative consequence for societies of such individual actions is catastrophic," it says in its editorial.

The most obvious of these is a huge surplus of young men who will never find brides. Governments are worried about how to cope with an army of restless young men who are unable to fulfil their fundamental aspiration to have a family.

"China alone stands to have as many unmarried young men - "bare branches", as they are known - as the entire population of young men in America. In any country rootless young males spell trouble; in Asian societies, where marriage and children are the recognised routes into society, single men are almost like outlaws. Crime rates, bride trafficking, sexual violence, even female suicide rates are all rising and will rise further as the lopsided generations reach their maturity."

The problem is not confined to China and India. Statistics from Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, the Western Balkans and Caucasus show similar trends. Even in the United States, the ratio of boys to girls is abnormally high among Chinese and Japanese Americans. And curiously, it is not a problem of poverty but of wealth. Gender ratios in India are highest in the wealthier regions.

What is to be done? The Economist ventures a few timid solutions. But they fail to strike at the heart of the matter because of its commitment to abortion as a basic right:

"All countries need to raise the value of girls. They should encourage female education; abolish laws and customs that prevent daughters inheriting property; make examples of hospitals and clinics with impossible sex ratios; get women engaged in public life - using everything from television newsreaders to women traffic police."

Will any of these really change a preference for sons which has existed for thousands of years? Will they change social pressure for small families? Will they stop the greed of abortion doctors?

Banning abortion, encouraging larger families, and fostering a deep sense of inviolable dignity of every single human being are the only strategies which will be successful. But these are long-term solutions. How about jailing doctors who participate in gendercide? How about boycotting companies which sell portable ultrasound machines to doctors who use them to do abortions?

But the Economist's article on gendercide is one of the best ever written on the topic. It's required reading.