March 10, 2010

"The World Wide War on Baby Girls," The Economist, March 4th


In this month's issue of The Economist its editors explore 'son preference' in China and Northern India. A practice which has lead to the disappearance of millions of girls from their respective countries, resulting in near destruction of a sex, Gendercide. In this review we will be discussing and reviewing the major of the articles and then collection as a whole. We will look at article, "The World Wide War on Baby Girls," which takes a sociological approach to the causes of skewed sex rates. To round off the piece we will discuss the article and I will give some of my own analysis on what a large skewing of the sexes may mean for our country and world.


Throughout my own life I have been told that in some countries, parents prefer to have male children, to guarantee care in their older years. This was always followed by a teasing laugh all-around and we moved on. Even though 'son preference' might be something to joke around about here in the West, it, coupled with technology  has accelerated the already skewed sex ratios in China, South Korea, Taiwan and parts of Northern India. The article, "The World Wide War on Baby Girls", gives us two factors that may cause this phenomena. That in some 'old-fashioned' societies, when the daughter is betrothed she joins the family of her husband. Also, the cost of ultrasound technology has fallen so dramatically, that it is possible to preform an ultrasound scan for $12. Separately, the world would go on normally. When combined these two factors form an insidious outcome. The author(s) explains that in the 1980's,
 These technologies changed everything. Doctors in India started advertising ultrasound scans with the slogan “Pay 5,000 rupees ($110) today and save 50,000 rupees tomorrow” (the saving was on the cost of a daughter’s dowry). Parents who wanted a son, but balked at killing baby daughters, chose abortion in their millions.
By 1995 both China and India had outlawed abortion based on sex, however, since it is almost impossible to prove that an abortion was preformed for this reason, it remains a common practice.  The prevalence of ultrasound imaging helps to explain surprising trend in the skewed sex ratio, quoting the article:

 "Sexual disparities tend to rise with income and education, which you would not expect if “backward thinking” was all that mattered. In India, some of the most prosperous states—Maharashtra, Punjab, Gujarat—have the worst sex ratios. In China, the higher a province’s literacy rate, the more skewed its sex ratio. The ratio also rises with income per head." 
It seems to be the case, in parts of India, that richer, well educated families, who tend to have smaller families, are pressured to bear a son to whom the family wealth and name can carried on through. According to Monica Das Gupta, the second and third daughters of well-educated families are twice as likely to die before they reach five years then, larger poorer families. A first daughter is treated with the same respect as a son, because a second child has a 50/50 chance of being male.

With the widespread use of sex determining technology and a cultural preference for a male child, we see how the sexual disparity widens. For instance, the overall sex ratio in Guangdong is 120 male births to 100 female births. If you only look at the rare instance of third children the ratio jumps to 167/100. In Bejing, writes the author, "there are almost three baby boys for each baby girl." China's overall sex ratio is 120 males per 100 females at birth in 2005.

Societal Implications 

What then are the consequences of having millions upon millions of women missing from a population? With a large, young, single male population, and knowing the fiery disposition of young men throughout history, we would suspect that a rise in violent and sexual crime. Over the past 20 years, the crime rate has doubled. The author cites a study conducted by Leana Edlund, Hongbin Li Junjian Yi and Junsen Zhang, to state that "A study in weather these things were connected concluded that they were, and that higher sex ratios accounted for about one seventh of the rise in crime."   Another effect of the large single male population in China may be the countries large savings rate. With few women to become brides, a wealthier family is more attractive than a poorer one. In order to gain wealth, families will save money. There is a bright side, but you are going to have to read the article for yourself, to figure that out.

The article, "Distorted Sex Ratios in India," reflects on the the effects of a large male population in the North-West Indian Provence of Haryana. Along with the other articles there is a moving review of the book, Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love By Xinran in the article, "Sobs on the Night Breeze."


"The World Wide War on Baby Girls," is an insightful and well researched feature that focuses a much needed spotlight on gender disparities and the morally murky practice of sexual selection abortions. The length of my summary is a testament to is deftness and all around wonderful reporting, however, I have a few problems with it.

The morally murky practice of sexual selection abortions, is only murky because if we start from the premise that a fetus is a part of a woman's body and a woman has a right to choose if she will bring a fetus to term (which is where I am assuming the author started from), then logically there should be no trouble. Starting from that premise, if in all other circumstances the fetus would be brought to term, unless it's a female second child. Then are we saying that the mother ought to bear a child regardless of her doubts and uncertainties of its place or what kind of life it would have. Or are we saying that this tool in the War Against Baby Girls ought to be left alone?

The research while fairly extensive, had incorrect conclusions drawn from it's undertaking. In the "Societal Implications" section of this review the author claims,
"The crime rate has almost doubled in China during the past 20 years of rising sex ratios, with stories abounding of bride abduction, the trafficking of women, rape and prostitution.  A study in weather these things were connected concluded that they were, and that higher sex ratios accounted for about one seventh of the rise in crime."  
The author used the term connected to imply to the reader that higher sex ratios accounted for both the rise in  crime and sexual crimes. The authors of the study in question, "Sex Ratios and Crime: Evidence from China's One-Child Policy," Leana Edlund, Hongbin Li Junjian Yi and Junsen Zhang claim no such thing:

One possibility is that the rise in violent and property crimes is driven by “sex related” crimes: rape and abduction of women and children. While a breakdown does not exist at the provincial level, we can examine the patterns at the national level. These data do not indicate the rise in violent and property crimes to be driven by sex related crimes. Figure 5a [at end] shows that the rape rate rose between 1985 and 1992. However, this was probably not related to the sex ratio, as the 16-25 sex ratio during this period (Figure 1) was rather flat (the first cohorts of the one-child policy were still young in 1992). More interestingly, the rape rate began to drop in 1992 (as did the abduction of women and children; not shown), which is in stark contrast to the overall rise in property and violent crime rates in the same period (Figure 5b). Thus, our findings are likely driven by “non-sex related” crimes. (P 22-23)

This feature, also, seems to have been written in the Post-Modern Feature tradition. Post-Modern Feature is not a poor tradition, identify a sweeping social injustice, find data to support and roughly define key-terms with out giving too much away. At the end of the article, even though we end up with hope for the future, I don't know what is being done to address the problem, other than 'ineffectual media campaigns'  At times the author suggests that the inclusion 'modern ideals' of female usefulness and equality in the culture have helped places like Haryana and South Korea but I didn't get a clear conclusion.

*One of the things that irks me to no end about The Economist is its pretentious use of anonymity. No political or legal persecution can come about because of this, but it also doesn't allow credit or criticism.

Stock Photograph by 'theshelfs' at 

1 comment:

Ashley said...

Very interesting, but I thought you did not like sociology? :)