What happens when modern reproductive technology meets son preference?

Two very different frameworks for understanding sex selection in Asia.

Posted Mar 11, 2010

In the United States, "missing girls" usually refers to runaways or kidnap victims. In the Asia-Pacific region - especially China and India - the phrase takes on a different meaning. There, tens of millions of girls have died as young children due to neglect, have been killed as infants, or were never born due to sex-selective abortions.

Two publications released to coincide with the March 8 celebration of International Women's Day discuss these tragedies. The first, the weekly British news magazine The Economist, carries a characteristically thorough collection of articles [1, 2, 3, 4]  about sex selection in China and India, and then takes its analysis in a characteristically conservative direction. The second, a United Nations Development Program report, presents sex selection as a pressing matter of gender inequality.

The Economist put a pair of little pink ballet slippers on its March 4 cover, and titled its lead article "Gendercide: The Worldwide War on Baby Girls." It is clearly going for shock here - though on this topic, one doesn't have to reach much to accomplish that. The article's opening vignette, drawn from a just-released book by Chinese writer Xue Xinran, describes a newborn infant being tossed head first into a slops pail. As a horrified Xinran watches, the baby's legs stop moving. An older woman in the home tells her, "It's not a child. It's a girl baby, and we can't keep it. Around these parts, you can't get by without a son. Girl babies don't count."

The Economist's articles provide much useful data and tackle the thorny question of why son preference seems to be gaining strength rather than fading away with modernization and rising incomes. (In a number of Chinese and Indian jurisdictions, there are now more than 120 boys for every 100 girls.) But its main story hews to an understanding of sex selection that centers on the security threats posed by "surplus men," and approaches a demography-as-destiny view of politics.

According to this perspective, the security problem begins with the skewed sex ratios produced when strong son preference combines with modern technology. As the "unbalanced" cohorts get older, large numbers of young men are unable to find wives. This is indeed the case - there are now many reports of falling prices for dowries and trafficking of young women for brides.

The final link in this chain of logic is the projection that large numbers of unmarried young men will lead to explosive societal violence and militarism. This speculative and troubling end point was popularized by a 2004 book called Bare Branches, cited by The Economist in its article. The book's authors warn that large numbers of unmarried young men pose a "threat to society" that will force governments to take authoritarian measures to "crack down on crime, gangs, smuggling and so forth."

As Betsy Hartmann wrote in a review of Bare Branches, "[D]eclining sex ratios are certainly an extremely serious problem with many negative ramifications, especially for women and girls. But do they pose a threat to national and global security?" She points out that the many women's rights advocates in Asia who challenge sex selection do so to improve the lives of women and girls, not to demonize young men. The "bare branches" framework, Hartmann argues, lends strength both to biological determinism and to alarmism about what the book terms "disruptive behaviors" by unattached "transients."

The second recent account of sex selection in Asia, published by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), takes a much different approach. It pulls no punches: The press statement leads with the stark statement that "more women than ever are `disappearing.'" And the report, titled Power, Voice and Rights: A Turning Point for Gender Equality in Asia and the Pacific, points out that "China and India together account for more than 85 million of the nearly 100 million `missing' women estimated to have died from discriminatory treatment in health care, nutrition access or pure neglect - or because they were never born in the first place."

But the UNDP report puts sex selection in the context of justice and equality. It analyzes legal and social obstacles to improving the status of women, which remains disgracefully low in many parts of the Asia-Pacific region. "Pervasive gender inequality remains a barrier to progress, justice and social stability, and deprives the region of a significant source of human potential," it says.

Power, Voice and Rights focuses on the need for greater educational and paid work opportunities for women; for more effective laws in the areas of property entitlement, divorce and violence against women; and for more women in positions of political leadership. Its recommendations focus on changing both policies and attitudes in order to "foster a climb toward gender equality." And to put an end to the tragedy of missing girls.