With a strong preference for sons over daughters, an increasing number of families have turned to sex-selection practices to guarantee they have a boy. And as fewer girls are being born in some parts of the world, the resulting gender imbalances could have severe global consequences.
Although natural birthrates have shown that approximately 102 to 106 boys are born for every 100 girls, countries in Asia and Eastern Europe are seeing much higher male-to-female ratios. In some parts of China, the number has climbed as high as 130 male births for every 100 girls, resulting in a surplus of young, single men.
Most commonly, the cause is sex-selective abortion, with women aborting girls until they conceive a boy. According to journalist Mara Hvistendahl, author of “Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls and the Consequences of a World Full of Men,” (PublicAffairs Books, $26.99), increased access to abortion and ultrasound technology in developing countries is making the problem even more widespread.
Abortion, however, is not the sole method of sex selection. Newer technologies are being developed to help couples predetermine the sex of their baby and, though they are a high-cost alternative, they might in the future contribute to an even more distorted gender ratio.
“It’s safe to assume the cost of these technologies will come down in years to come, and they carry a much lower emotional cost than sex-selective abortion,” Hvistendahl told Our Sunday Visitor. “So, sex selection is moving in the direction of pre-pregnancy methods, and we need to start thinking about how to regulate these technologies.”
In countries such as India, long-held prejudices against women have led to a cultural preference for sons, while the dowry system has made it economically impossible for some couples to afford the cost of having a daughter.
“In many parts of the country, the girl child was and is looked down upon as a liability,” said women’s rights advocate Matilda Mathias, a Catholic based in Bangalore, India. “She is not educated on par with the boys; she is not even given proper food to eat as compared to the male child.”
Mathias, who works with the advocacy group Soroptimist International, told OSV that some strides have been made in trying to change these attitudes and laws have been passed to attempt to curb sex-selective abortions. But the sheer numbers make the law difficult to enforce, she said, and there are still cases of female babies — and sometimes their mothers — being killed or abandoned.
“In spite of the fact that we have come a long way with better education for the girl child, which means equal opportunities for employability in every field, the craving for male babies is still there … and all the atrocities against women still continue,” she said.
Upsetting the balance
In China, the government’s enforcement of the one-child policy, introduced in 1979, has put significant societal and economic pressures on families to ensure that they have a son. Abortion, infanticide and abandonment of female babies have all contributed to China’s gender imbalance, with men outnumbering women by more than 30 million.
The faith-based humanitarian organization All Girls Allowed is among the groups working in China to address the issue. Founded in 2010, the Boston-based group is attempting to raise awareness of the problem worldwide while supporting women who choose to give birth to girls. Currently, it provides financial assistance to more than 550 families in China with female children.
Brian Lee, executive director of All Girls Allowed, told OSV that China is already seeing a number of consequences of the gender imbalance. The surplus of single men has been linked to increased crime rates as well as sex trafficking and prostitution, which in turn is fueling the spread of HIV/AIDS in China.
Yet as women become a greater minority, their treatment in society is actually worsening, Lee said.
“As there are fewer women, they become seen more as sexual objects,” he said. “They are seen as something to be bought and sold and they actually have less intrinsic humanity.”
On a global scale, he added, the male surplus could have drastic economic effects. Without families to support, young men are earning more and spending less, choosing instead to save their money in hopes of attracting a spouse.
“China is buying fewer and fewer foreign goods, but they continue to produce foreign goods at an astronomical rate because these single unmarried men are working,” Lee said. “So the trade imbalance between China and the U.S. and between China and many other countries in the world is largely linked to this gender imbalance.”
Hvistendahl reports that similar problems occur in other countries with high gender ratios, and these issues are likely just the tip of the iceberg.
“Demographers stress that the world has never seen an imbalance on this level,” she said. “So the worst is still to come.”
Although part of the problem owes to cultural attitudes,Hvistendahl also argues that the West owns much of the blame for the gender imbalance due to its promotion of abortion as a method of population control.
“There were people within the Western population control movement who viewed sex selection — and they didn’t talk specifically about abortion, but rather about finding a way to enable couples to have sons — as a great way of reducing birthrates abroad,” she said.
“It wasn’t an outright conspiracy, but there was a lot of interaction between East and West over population issues.”
Lee agrees that China’s one-child policy and its role in the gender imbalance was a result of Western influence. But when it comes to the practice of sex selection, he said there isn’t as much proof that the West is to blame — nor does he see value in debating the question.
“It is easy to point fingers, but it is hard to actually roll up your sleeves and try to do something about it,” Lee said. “At All Girls Allowed, we think that instead of pointing fingers we should raise the awareness, make sure everyone knows this is a problem and it is not just going to go away.”
Scott Alessi writes from New Jersey.