But We Need Women: Asia’s Missing Girls and the Bachelor Generation

Originally, I meant to post on this blog last Thursday, but I ended up having to write an essay…in fact, I ended up having to write the essay that I am going to share with you in a moment.  It deals with the issue of sex selective abortion and gender imbalance in Asia today, and this is a controversial issue.  Those who are trying to combat the practice run the risk of governments passing restrictions on abortions to the first trimester, which would help solve this problem, but which would open the doors for the pro life movement to work towards fuller abortion bans.


This essay is my original work and should be respected as such.


“Raising a daughter is like watering your neighbor’s garden”.  This saying is possibly one of the most concise summaries of Indian views on sex preferences in childrearing available.  Though it is no secret that societies likeIndiaandChinaexhibit strong preferences for sons over daughters, what is only just coming to the forefront are the consequences of those preferences when they manifest themselves in the form of infanticide or sex-selective abortion—in other words, the price of society’s love of boys, in terms of its girls.

Initially, population decline sounded like a victory for feminists and proponents of family planning.  Lower fertility rates are often the result of increased women’s empowerment, and nothing better illustrates this than the advent of birth control, which gave women significantly greater power to regulate their own fertility and to determine when and how often they got pregnant.  Unfortunately, this is not the case in places like India and China, where sex-selective abortion, often under pressure or even coercion by a spouse, is undertaken, or even acts of infanticide are committed, in order to preference sons over daughters.  Traditions such as patrilocality have reinforced the necessity of sons even in today’s day and age, and in Indian society, where dowry demands have soared and dowry deaths continue to be problematic, the price of having a daughter who will not eventually care for her parents is becoming too high.

What does this mean for society?  There have been a range of predictions as to what the long-term consequences of continued gender imbalance may be.  Among these is the obvious problem of a “bachelor generation”—Niall Ferguson references a study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences that reports that when today’s Chinese infants reach adulthood, one in five men will not be able to find a spouse.  Unfortunately, the consequences of this look bleak for Chinese and Indian society: when Michelle Goldman discusses the problem of sex-selective abortion in The Means of Reproduction, she sites problems such as increases in prostitution, sexual violence, and polyandry as results of this gender skew.

On top of that, both Goldman andFergusondiscuss the potential for civil unrest and violence as consequences of this imbalance: for example,Fergusonmentions the rise in crime seen inBrazildue to an analogous trend.  Gunnar Heinshon, a German scholar, links youth bulges to instances of civil war and extremism in countries likeAlgeria,Lebanon, andPakistan.  Hudson and Boer, in examining the implications of a surplus of males, cite patterns of chronic unrest and even a history of expansionism linked to this.  They also look to a past period of gender disparity inChinain the nineteenth century, which led to the rise of criminal gangs that formed rebel-like militias and destabilized the population.

Even without those concerns, there are a myriad of problems tied up in the issue of gender disparity as seen inIndiaandChina.  Practices such as sex-selective abortion are just the most recent manifestations of overarching societal norms that subjugate women to men.  Related to this is the ongoing gender disparity in education in these countries, which continues to reinforce the economic undervaluation of women inAsia.  Patrilocal traditions add to the value ascribed to sons, especially from the perspective of parental investment.

Those underlying factors have existed for centuries if not millennia.  The newest ingredient in this recipe for disaster has been government policies—and it is here that demographers might find not just the exacerbation of the problems, but the potential for solutions.

InChina, the problem of sex-selective abortion and son preference have been magnified significantly by the one-child policy.  In a desperate attempt to make sure that their one child was male, many couples utilized ultrasounds to determine the sex of an expected fetus, and to abort it if it was female.  So the obvious first step in reversing this trend inChinawould be to end the one child policy—but this problem cannot be solved quite that simply.

If one looks to India, or to Korea, where gender imbalance is a rampant problem as well, there is no coercive one child policy, which means that while the policy has certainly exacerbated sex selective abortion, eliminating it will not be enough to solve the problem on the table.  And on top of that, the Chinese government has good reason to promote population control, with its massive demographic shifts in the past decades and the limited resources available to serve that population.

India’s problem stems from related but still distinct sources.  Unlike China, the government policy does not explicitly limit family size, but the government does subsidize families of government employees who have two children or fewer.  This, combined with the continued norm of patrilocality, means that families are still likely to participate in sex-selective abortion to ensure that at least one of their two children is a boy. The United States Census determined that among Chinese, Korean and Indian families, the gender ratio among first-born children was normal, but the gender ratio among younger children was skewed, indicating that families were willing to take their chances with their first-borns, but if the first child was a girl, they were more willing to utilize sex selective processes in order to ensure a son later in their families’ development.  This is indicative of the potential for daughters to enter this world in the context of larger families at the very least.

India’s second problem, however, comes from the massive problem of dowries.  The wealthiest parts of Indian society currently exhibit the worst rates of gender imbalance, largely due to the fact that because these pockets of society are more affluent, the expectations concerning dowries is correspondingly larger.  This translates to excessive dowry demands and threats of violence in the case of failure to meet these demands.  Though the practice has been outlawed inIndia, it persists nonetheless.

Because the problem of the imbalanced sex ratios is indicative of problems across multiple layers of society, it becomes clear that in order to effectively combat it, any solution would have to be multifaceted, addressing the main aspects of the tangled web that is sex selective abortion.

The first thing that needs to be examined is societal norms, though it is perhaps the last thing that will actually be corrected.  This needs to be done through government-initiated education programs, because while education cannot actually this problem the way that it solves for things like economic disadvantages for women, it is generally the principal means to introducing changes in social norms.  A somewhat shaky analogy is the conservative fear of discussions about homosexuality in schools in theUnited States: the education system is necessarily a forum for socialization to particular norms, and is therefore the perfect forum for altering those norms.

More importantly, this needs to become a social movement picked up in the secondary schools and universities.  Because college students often represent the cultural vanguard of any given society, their ability or failure to embrace attempts at altering son preference is going to eventually determine the success or failure of any attempted overhaul of these norms.  For this reason, both the government and Non-Governmental Organizations ought target adolescents in their attempts to alter the discourse about son preference and to deter sex selective abortions.

Another important aspect should be a new focus on deconstructed patrilocality as a norm.  This would have to be a long-term goal of governments and their corresponding social institutions, and would have to be adapted to each given society.  Because this is so fundamental to the preference for sons, it needs to be addressed in some way in order to help reconcile this issue.

The actual act of sex-selective abortion is the second part of the equation for solving the gender crisisAsiafaces. China and India have already outlawed sex selective abortion, but likeIndia’s ban on dowries, this has been wildly unsuccessful.  Therefore, there are several potential options that present themselves: first, both countries desperately need to step up enforcement of these laws.  There should be harsher punishments for violators of these bans, in order to disincentivize the practice of sex-selective abortion.

A second, more controversial move may also be in order.  As of September of 2011, the Council of Europe has moved to introduce a draft resolution confronting the issue of sex-selective abortion.  Among the guidelines presented is a clause encouraging countries to recommend that public hospitals not disclose the sex of fetuses.  Adopting this approach could have a positive impact on the situation inChinaandIndia; while it will not necessarily correct the imbalance in the upper echelons of society, where people may have the resources to pursue private consultations, it would impact enough people to make a difference.

I know, that was a long one.  It’s a difficult issue to contemplate, but I think it is important, because it highlights a serious problem with the undervaluation of women in society, and the consequences we may have to face because of that.


Baculiano, Eric (9/14/2004). Chinagrapples with legacy of its ‘missing girls’. NBC News Online, available at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/5953508/ns/world_news/t/china-grapples-legacy-its-missing-girls/.  Accessed9/08/11.

Ferguson, Niall (March 6, 2011).  Men Without Women: The Ominous Rise of Asia’s Bachelor Generation.  Newsweek Magazine, available online at http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2011/03/06/men-without-women.html. Accessed9/08/11.

Goldberg, Michelle (2009), The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World. The Penguin Group (New York,NY)

Pet, Doug (09/15/11).  Sex Selection: Not Only Asia’s Problem, Says Council of Europe.  Center for Genetics and Society (online), available at: http://www.geneticsandsociety.org/section.php?id=22.  Accessed9/12/11


~ by Randi Saunders on September 19, 2011.

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