Human World

Why are 160 million girls missing from Asia?

Governed by no single law, no single religion, and no single culture, many societies scattered all over the globe place such heavy value on having male children that female fetuses are aborted or female infants killed in favor of males.

The result is an increasing scarcity of girls and women, one that has already tilted the balance of the sexes and the rich and poor in nations where “gendercide” is practiced on a large scale. Economics drives this unnatural selection for boys, and economics may be the force that ultimately puts the brakes on it. But not before enormous damage has been done.

Left to Nature’s devices, the reality is that more males are born than females. But because males are more likely to die in infancy, the natural sex ratios ultimately balance out. Yet in countries like China, which has a one-child-per-family policy, these ratios are terrifically skewed toward males. According to one study, from 2000 to 2004 there were 124 boys for every 100 girls in China. Ultimately, that’s predicted to translate into 30 to 40 million more boys than girls by 2020 in China.

China is not alone. India’s 2011 census identified seven million more boys than girls under age seven. For every 1,000 boys, there are now 914 girls. According to recent research, this sex ratio exists because of selective abortion of female fetuses.

Overall in Asia, about 160 million women and girls are missing thanks to these practices, said journalist Mara Hvistendahl in an interview with

Hvistendahl has written a book, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, in which she takes on this problem of male-biased selection. She notes that that sex selection happens not only in China and India but worldwide, including in much of Southeast Asia and in central Europe.

Among the most disturbing outcomes of this skewed sex ratio, she said, is the increase in sex trafficking that it causes. Rich families who could afford selection for boys may have trouble finding brides for their sons. So, they turn to poor families with daughters, who sell their daughters to the rich. Indeed, according to one expert on selective abortion in India, University of Toronto professor Prabhat Jha, speaking to Maclean’s magazine, brides are an import-export business in some parts of India where girls are simply vanishing. Jha is the lead author of a May 24, 2011 Lancet study evaluating the increase in sex-selective abortions in India. Among their findings were that better-educated mothers were more likely to have fewer girls, as were wealthier mothers. They also found a large decline in girl births in families whose first child was a girl, dropping from 906 per 1000 boys in 1990 to 836 per 1000 boys in 2005.

In India, one factor is that girls are a bad investment because a substantial dowry must accompany any daughter to make her marketable for marriage. Other cultural forces driving the skewing sex ratio include simply having fewer children. According to Hvistendahl, as wealth has increased, families have fewer children, and there is a strong preference for those few to be boys.

Ironically, though, the lack of women may lead to severe economic consequences. Chai Ling, a leader of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement in China in 1989, has founded an organization called All Girls Allowed, seeking to end what she calls the “gendercide” in China and India. She has been working for bipartisan support for her efforts on Capitol Hill, where members of Congress have signed a declaration promising efforts to end sex-selective abortions in China and in India. The declaration notes that a surplus of men will lead to social unrest, something that Hvistendahl also has found, and that “gender imbalances have been shown to significantly disrupt spending patterns, leading to significant trade imbalances that are detrimental to the global economy.”

It seems that the primary basis for selecting boys over girls is money – having money to afford sex-selective abortion and having boys to help with having money. Perhaps cold economic reality will ultimately be the basis for change, but not before anti-female social, governmental and cultural practices have ruined many, many lives as girls and women continue to be considered economic disadvantages and treated as chattel.

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Emily Willingham

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