Monday, April 13, 2009

Stealing sons

by Laura Smith-Gary

On this episode of "Cultural Misogyny Hurts Boys Too": about a month ago, I wrote about the phenomenon of "missing girls " -- in areas where male children are cherished and female children are seen as a burden, gender-specific abortion and infanticide of baby girls means thousands of female children are "missing" from the populations of a number of countries, especially China and India. Last week, Chloe drew my attention to a New York Times article entitled "Chinese Hunger for Sons Fuels Boys' Abductions."

Parents desperate for a male child, particularly parents who have already had a daughter and are prevented from having another baby by China's one-child policy, have driven a burgeoning market for kidnapped boys. Traffickers run complex networks, snatching male children from industrial cities and selling them in areas where demand for sons is strongest, especially rural areas of southern China. The figures over how many children are stolen and sold are in contention, but the Times' evidence suggests the practice of stealing and selling male children seems to be widespread and accepted with complacency in some areas. They report that not only were community members "focus more on the pain of the families without sons" than on the pain of the frantic, desperate families whose children were stolen, but that officials often turn a blind eye to the trafficking of young boys.

It seems it is difficult to overestimate the extent to which sons are valued over daughters. The article quotes a tea farmer who paid $3,500 for a five-year-old boy last year, as saying, "A girl is just not as good as a son. It doesn't matter how much money you have. If you don't have a son, you are not as good as other people who have one." A female shopkeeper told the Times that buying a son was a widely accepted practice, because dowries are expensive, sons financially support aging parents, and if you only have girls, you don't feel right inside...your status is lower than everyone else." So much lower that it might even be worth putting another family through hell by taking their son, not to mention supporting ruthless rings of child traffickers.

Putting this in context, a few days ago The Associated Press reported that due largely to gender-selective abortion, China now has 32 million more males under 20 than females under 20, with the largest imbalances coming in the 1-4 year old category -- evidence that the problem of "missing girls" and all it entails is deepening. Though the AP notes that the enforcement of an already-on-the-books ban on sex-specific abortions could normalize male-female ratios in coming generations, my fear is that desperation for boys and disgust for girls is so deeply entrenched in some (not all) Chinese communities that female children will be disposed of and male children procured no matter the moral and financial costs -- as the New York Times article shows, when having a son is an all-consuming desire, enterprising criminals will find a way to feed and exploit this obsession. Only fundamental changes in perceptions of the worth of sons and daughters will keep girls from going "missing" and boys from being snatched from street corners.

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