Prenatal sex selection is an unfolding tragedy. Vanessa Baird assesses the damage done – both personal and global
There’s a moment in the documentary film ‘It’s a Girl’ that is at once chilling and heart-rending.
A woman smiles nervously as she starts to describe the methods she used to kill her eight new-born baby daughters.
Then she puts her hand up to her own neck, to indicate strangulation – and it’s almost as though she were doing it to herself. Which, in a way, she was.
We soon learn that several other women in her community in rural Tamil Nadu admit to similar measures to provide their husbands with a son.
Such brutal customs are rare in India today, sociologists say, and confined to certain isolated communities.
A far greater number of baby girls die more slowly – from neglect. Hence the shocking statistic: an Indian girl aged between one and five is 75 per cent more likely to die than a boy. It’s the worst under-five gender differential in the world.
But far more common than letting girls die today is another form of sex discrimination – making sure that girls aren’t born at all.
Skewing the world
Foetal imaging technology became widely available in the 1980s. Expectant parents in China and India, the planet’s most populous countries, were able to know the sex of the baby in the womb. And if they did not like what they saw, they could abort and try again.
The result of their choices: more boys. Many, many more boys. It is estimated that in China alone there will be 30-40 million more boys under the age of 19 by 2020 than girls. That’s equivalent to all the boys in the US.
Naturally, it also means far fewer girls. The latest global UN estimates are that 117 million females are missing.3 In other words, women and girls who would be alive now were it not for sex selection before birth or neglect and infanticide after. Imagine the entire female populations of Britain, Canada, Australia, Spain and France – all gone.
Normally, 105 boys are born for every 100 girls. Boys being biologically weaker, nature seems to adjust by ensuring more are born. This ratio is pretty consistent, with anything over 107 beginning to look dodgy. But because of all the skewing that has already occurred, 107 is the world average today – impossible in purely biological terms.
China is the worst offender, with around 118 boys born to every 100 girls; India records a national average of around 111, though in some northwest states the disparity is more extreme.
It’s not just an Asian problem. Several European countries, including Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Albania, are having many more male births than they ought, due to sex selection. Azerbaijan, at around 116 boys to every 100 girls, has the second-worst sex ratio at birth in the world. And there are signs of distortions in Western Europe and North America, too.
This hasn’t happened overnight; there were warnings. Back in 1990 economist Amartya Sen published a seminal paper claiming that millions of women were ‘missing’. At that time he blamed female infanticide and neglect. It took a while for analysts to detect the role that prenatal sex-selection was playing.
During the next decade, more warnings were given, but little was done at a policy level to address the problem. Now academics are busy calculating, and speculating upon, the future impact of so many surplus males – on health, crime, relationships, family life, social harmony, global security.
Some economists had ventured that the status of women would improve as a result of their ‘scarcity value’. The opposite appears to be happening, as females are increasingly viewed as a commodity, a resource, to be bought and sold.
Trafficking (much of it forced) of girls and women into China has become a multibillion dollar business with demand rising. Child marriage, still common in India, is now making an appearance in China, too – there are reports of parents kidnapping girls to raise as partners for their sons.
High levels of sexual violence in Asia – especially gang rapes in India – have led to media speculation that ‘female shortage’ might be a factor. Easier to ascertain is the violence, physical and emotional, that women in India may be subjected to at the hands of their in-laws if they refuse to take a sex test or abort a female foetus.
This issue has been thrust into the limelight by a Delhi doctor, Mitu Khurana. Highly unusually, she has brought criminal charges against her husband – a surgeon – his mother, his brother and two hospital staff. She alleges that, when she was pregnant with twin daughters, she was deliberately fed food she was dangerously allergic to after she refused an illegal sex test, which hospital staff then subjected her to without her consent. The case is currently going through the Indian courts.
Gender imbalance is not great news for all those ‘surplus’ boys either. By 2020 an estimated 24 million young Chinese males will face the prospect of life on the shelf. The poor or less well-educated are most likely to be affected. ‘It’s a tragedy,’ says French demographer Christophe Z Guilmoto, ‘in societies that marginalize unmarried men as failures and where there is no model of the fun-loving bachelor.’
In places with seriously distorted sex ratios at birth, parents almost invariably select in favour of boys. Tradition is often given as the reason for this intense son preference.
In China, for example, girl aversion is often put down to the Confucian custom that family name and property can only be passed down the male line. In India, Hindu culture is most strongly associated with son preference. Traditionally, the son provides for his parents when they grow old – and beyond. Only a son can perform the funeral rites that will aid passage into the afterlife. Women, meanwhile, are expected to abandon their own kin on marriage and become part of their husband’s family.
Guilmoto, who has spent two decades studying skewed sex ratios, warns against making generalizations. But he has detected some common basic determinants. Countries where skewing has been most extreme are those where there has been rapid economic growth. In these places technology for diagnosing the sex of the foetus has become widely available and affordable. They are also places where fertility has plunged, with people having far fewer children than their parents had.
In a nation like India, economic growth has produced an appetite for consumerism that appears to mesh with traditions deeply harmful to girls and women.
Photographer and gender activist Rita Banerji is founder of the 50 Million Missing campaign in India. She pulls no punches when she says that in India sex selection is essentially ‘greed based’. Because dowry is paid by the bride’s family, and is often a large portion of family wealth, ‘every son is a way of getting money in’ whereas every daughter represents an outflow of wealth from the family.
For Banerji, dowry, prenatal sex selection and female infanticide are part and parcel. ‘The minute dowry enters a community, everyone becomes greedy for it. It becomes a way of thinking, “Okay, this is a way of getting a huge amount of money”.’
The female, she adds, ‘becomes a resource pawn in this patriarchy – you can buy her, sell her, kill her, keep her. However you want. It’s like with any resource.’
This young woman (pictured above) has been bride-trafficked to Uttar Pradesh, an Indian state with one of the worst shortages of girls and women. She has been repeatedly raped by her husband’s brothers, who cannot find wives
Like India, the Eastern European countries with skewed sex ratios have also embraced free market capitalism with gusto while bearing far fewer children. This, in itself, does not lead to sex selection, but combined with intense son preference it does. If you have just two children there is a 25 per cent chance that you will end up without a son – no joke in a patriarchal society fixated on male offspring.
China’s one child policy, in place since 1979, is often blamed for female infanticide and high levels of sex selective abortion. But according to China expert and paediatrician Therese Hesketh, the policy has had only a marginal impact on the sex ratio. ‘It is not clear that lack of a policy would help,’ she says. Indeed, the data shows that sex selection is highest in areas where people have been allowed to have a second child if the first is a girl.
The law and the A-word