The combination of a centuries old preference for male children, new sex-screening technologies, and better opportunities for women in the workplace are playing out in some surprising ways throughout Asia.
Researchers with the United Nations Population Fund report that the use of ultrasound equipment and amniocentesis, unleashed on the market 30 years ago, has led to the selective abortion of so many female fetuses that the male-to-female ratio in many Asian nations has skewed toward a greater number of men. An average of 120 males were born for every 100 females in China and India in 2005, a trend that could worsen as these technologies become more widespread. Meanwhile, more women in Asia are gaining access to education, entering the workforce, and delaying marriage. As a result, the pressure on women to bear a son is decreasing.
In many Asian countries, sons traditionally take on the role of supporting their parents in old age, but daughters become part of their husbands’ families and support their birth parents less and less as they mature and marry. Having a son has thus served as a sort of social insurance policy; not so with daughters. The cost of marrying off a daughter can also be high. In parts of India, the bride’s family is responsible for paying a dowry to the husband, and in South Korea-as in many other parts of the globe-the bride’s family is expected to pay for the wedding ceremony and celebration, which can be quite lavish.
Son preference has historically led to high death rates for female infants. Neglect of female infants in households where there is more than one child, and especially in those with more than one female child, remains a tremendous problem in many developing Asian nations. But demographers assert that, with family sizes falling, the use of ultrasound or amniocentesis to determine the sex of fetuses and abort unwanted ones has grown more rapidly.
French demographer Christophe Guilmoto, writing for the United Nations Population Fund, has warned that a dearth of women will affect “the stability of the entire marriage system.” Many men at the bottom end of the economic ladder, he says, will likely be unable to marry, which could translate into an increase in violence against women.
Other demographers see the issue differently.
“Approaching this issue as a concern about future marriage markets simply misses the point. And it’s based on bad math,” says Sidney B. Westley of the East-West Center. “The evidence from South Korea suggests that son preference diminishes with economic development, but do we want to wait that long?” Westley and co-author Minja Kim Choe, writing in the journal Asia Pacific Issues, note that rapid fertility decline and changing marriage preferences have a greater effect on the number of women in the marriage market than does sex-selective abortion.
The fact that most Asian men prefer to marry younger women is one factor in the perceived lack of marriageable women. Westley and Choe see this as a surmountable obstacle. “By 2020, if a Chinese man in his late 20s is looking for a bride in her early 20s,” they write, “he will be facing odds of 119 men for every 100 women. In South Korea, the odds will be even worse-at 123 men ages 25-29 for every 100 women ages 20-24.? If aggregate numbers are the only thing that matters in a marriage market, then the solution for Asia’s bachelors is simple: Marry an older woman.”
Another factor is that women in Asia, as in the rest of the world, are gaining better access to education, making more money, and taking on additional financial burdens. When women are forced to quit their jobs, they risk losing the investment they made in their education and being shut out of management positions later on. As a result, the financial incentive to marry and have children is diminishing.
Demographers are in agreement that son preference can have a devastating impact on a nation’s economic and social welfare-often resulting in the systematic neglect and even starvation of young girls. Some governments are finally catching on to the problem. China and India have instituted aggressive programs to counteract the social and economic pressures leading to son preference. In January 2007, China announced that it would crack down on sexselective abortions and put in place increased protections for baby girls. The government also began paying a small allowance to elderly, rural parents with no living children, only one child, or two daughters.
In India, the Directorate of Family Welfare in Delhi has launched a nationalistic ad campaign encouraging families to value their daughters. In 2003, India began a welfare program to help homeless women care for their children with stipends that were twice as high for girls as for boys.
But not all governments are taking such proactive steps. For instance, the UN researchers recommend that Nepal and Vietnam move quickly to adopt policies similar to those in place in China. The government of more-developed South Korea has been reluctant to put pro-girl policies in place. According to Westley and Choe, “This contrast suggests that China and India may achieve morebalanced birthrates and better survival statistics for girls well before they reach the high level of economic development that South Korea currently enjoys.”
Originally published in THE FUTURIST, May-June 2008.