Friday, March 13, 2009

Girls Gone Missing

by Laura Smith-Gary

In 1990, Nobel Laureate Amaryta Sen came to an alarming conclusion: the world is missing over 100 million women and girls.

There are many places in the world, especially in Asia and South Asia, where female infants are seen as a liability: a dowry-draining expense, a child unable to provide for her parents in their old age as boys are expected to do, a threat to the family's honor, a "one-child policy" infant that will prohibit the family from having a cherished boy. And as long as there has been pervasive cultural misogyny, there has been the surreptitious elimination of undesirable baby girls: this can happen directly -- pre-Islamic Bedouin tribes would often bury female infants in the sand to preemptively eliminate the shame that would descend on their families if the girls strayed sexually and to save the resources it would take to raise them -- or indirectly through neglect, investing all available food, medical care, and attention on sons rather than daughters. With the advent of cheap, readily available ultrasounds, it became even easier to have sons instead of daughters: female fetuses are routinely aborted in countries like China and India. Even though India outlawed the practice of sex-selective abortion in 1994, it continues. Most of the articles I've read on the matter conclude that in India and China there are around 120 male children and infants for every 100 females of the same age. (See my important caveat below!)

The systematic elimination of female fetuses and infants leads to "bare branches" -- a ballooning, disproportionate population of young, single men in a number of countries, especially China and India. The gender imbalance means many men, especially those of low socioeconomic status, have no hope of finding wives or having families. Many journalists and academics have asserted that this makes countries ripe for any number of ills, including war, gang violence, prostitution and the spread of STIs, bride-stealing and rape, and religious radicalism. Some of these claims cast men as inherently dangerous and women in the role of "important insofar as they produce babies and provide an outlet for men's sexual urges thereby taming them", which makes me cringe -- I would argue that it is possible for an unattached man to have a stake in his society and not just start blowing things up out of sexual frustration. However, when a society is structured in a way that allows no respectable place for unattached men without resources, it is not surprising that men who can't obtain mates would resort to destructive behavior. Historical evidence, as well as contemporary observations, supports this idea -- think even of the Crusades, many of which consisted of European nobles bundling all the sons who wouldn't be inheriting property off to the Middle East to kill and be killed, instead of staying home unattached and causing trouble.

Unfortunately, I don't have any clear "here's what you can do to help!" steps -- the best I've heard so far, other than the too-general "change the patriarchal structure of society which is harming both women and men in horrible ways," is supporting labor mobility. But you're bright! Everybody, think of something.

And if you have a daughter, love her.

The caveat: it's hard to be sure about the numbers, particularly in light of a wide-reaching study by economist Emily Oster , who found evidence suggesting that some of the boy-girl imbalance could be accounted for because women infected with hepatitis B are more likely to give birth to boys. She suggests that this could account for up to 75% of the "missing" girls in China, though only 20% of India's infant gender imbalance (via the fabulous filter-blog While her findings certainly don't mean that girls aren't being systematically eliminated from the population in some places, nor do they mitigate the possible negative consequences, they do indicate that the situation is more complicated than originally believed. Organic factors like disease may be making the situation more extreme than it would be if infanticide and sex-selective abortion were the only factors, and we can't assume that all "missing" girls were aborted, murdered as infants, or fatally neglected by their parents.


At March 13, 2009 at 6:19 PM , Anonymous Dan said...

"And if you have a daughter, love her."

Yes, Laura. With all my heart. Long before she was born, long before I knew whether she was a girl or a boy, I loved her. Maybe even before she was conceived (OK, that's a stretch... but I always knew I *would* love her). I can't even begin to imagine the heartlessness of a parent who would kill an infant for any reason. And I know this is going to sound like pro-life propaganda to some people, but I honestly can't imagine looking at an ultrasound image and then deciding that this person, my own child, does not deserve to live. I honestly don't see how that is any less heartless than killing an infant.


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