If you have children, or are expecting, there are a few frequent questions you will get. Mostly, whether you’re having a boy or a girl (note the order. The opposite still feels strange on your tongue).
When I was pregnant, there was no way, with my OCD, that I was ever going to be from the the breezy-school of “oh, we want it to be a surprise!”. I do admire those people. They are the same people who don’t need to stack their dishwasher in a certain way, or match wet socks to dry together on the washing line. So in my case, though I was relaxed with whatever I had made – girl or boy – I couldn’t wait nine months to find out which it was. I didn’t have to, of course, given regular ultrasound scans from three months in.
A few years after my daughter was born, I stumbled across the ‘missing-women’ phenomenon for the first time. It was a chapter in a textbook on women’s rights. Ultimately, an account of the same technology which had allowed me to discover the sex of my baby. An account of the same need to know, just for very different reasons: the tale of parents in Asia, who didn’t want a girl, and who made the decision to find out; so they didn’t have to.
The trimestral scan was intended as a way to check the baby’s growth, and for any identifiable malformations. But the advent of this technology in Asia in the 1980s ended up facilitating a gendercide which, until then, was occurring post-birth, with clinics even offering cut-rate packages of a scan-plus-abortion, depending on the result. That particular practicality struck me beyond anything else, in discovering the phenomenon: a one-stop-shop for discovery and deletion.
(There is no confusion for me with a woman’s right to abortion, which should be universally available, safe and non-judgmental. But selective abortion, purely on the basis of avoiding having a (or another) daughter, is something else entirely).
These were not isolated cases. This
was an ingrained, centuries-old practice in Asia and the Caucasus, so much so that, according to Amartya Sen, the development economist who first coined the term in the early 1980s – there were already around one hundred million women ‘missing’ from the world’s population.
The phenomenon became evident from sex ratio birthrates (SRB) which is naturally around 105 boys to 100 girls, but which have, over time, become drastically altered, such as in India where this was the state of play in 2011:
India, which is expected to be the birth place of the world’s 7 billionth baby later this year, now has 7,000,000 more boys than girls aged under 6 according to its 2011 census – and the gap is growing. Today, the national figure has fallen to an alarming 914 girls for every 1,000 boys. In some states like Punjab that ratio is as low as 846 girls to 1,000 boys.
Having come across this rather enormous issue in a meagre chapter of a development textbook, I dug deeper. Surely there would be multiple websites, campaigns, international frameworks put in place to tackle it? Surely something had been done, and this number had begun to fall? Alas, no: according to the UNFPA’s 2017 snappily-named “Global Programme to Prevent Son Preference and Gender-Biased Sex Selection”, the number of missing women rose to 126 million in 2010, and was predicted to reach 142 million this year (the population of Russia, to put it into context).
I found no other (or better named) major campaigns, aside NGO efforts to raise awareness from almost ten years ago, such as from Plan International. Even the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals, the international development roadmap to 2030, contain no mention of hundreds of millions of missing women (although arguably the SDGs do attempt to tackle the root causes of it).
Three questions, then: firstly, what are these root causes of a preference for boys (especially since they pee over you every time you change them)? Secondly, with what consequences? And thirdly – why so little attention to so many girls and women either not being born, or being left to die, as infants?
To the first question. The birth of a girl is not good news in some regions of the world – notably Asia and the Caucasus– because a girl is expensive. Paying the dowry (monetary or in-kind) to the husband-to-be, when the time comes, can ruin a family financially – especially if the family already has other daughters, or no sons. This is not only an issue for poorer families. In India, for example, pressure to make a “good catch” in middle/upper class families has led literally to extortion by the groom’s family on the fiancée’s. In 2012 the Guardian reported that the dowry practice in India – despite being in theory illegal – led to the death of one woman every hour, and as well as family debts: 80% of bank loans in India are taken out to meet marriage costs and dowry demands.
The girls who marry and move away also take their time and labour and child-bearing to their husband’s or in-laws’ homes. A son, on the other hand, can work and inherit the land or business, bring his own wife and offspring, provide for his parents; a sensible investment for the future in terms of their education and care, as children (and ample reason to overlook the peeing when you change the nappy).
It is almost difficult to blame those parents who make the conscious decision to choose an easier life by having a son, especially if their existence is already a difficult one. Especially in countries, like China, where families have been forced to have small or one-child families, where the stakes are so much higher with every pregnancy. Not misogyny, one might reasonably conclude; just financial and common sense.
Not misogyny, maybe. But the reasons-behind-the-reasons are all in themselves examples of discrimination against women’s basic rights as citizens (to inherit, to earn their own income) or against their equal worth as human beings. This, in turn, is the answer to our third question: why does no one seem particularly interested in tackling it? Well, simply because women are still born and live unequal, wherever they are in the world, and their issues and welfare still are not given the priority they require.
In not being terribly bothered by this particular practice, however, national governments are already beginning to realise the unexpected (but fairly obvious) consequences of generations of missing women, such as a scarcity of young brides, of future mothers, of workers, of carers. There are already documented cases of social conflict and stigma among young men who cannot find a partner (7,000,000 more boys than girls in India, remember: boys who grow up); one result being an increased number of young women ‘imported’ from other countries to become brides, often as simply another face of human trafficking– and easily done, as the charming ‘Nice Woman Facts’ website writes, in its helpful ‘Top 7 countries where to find a wife’ article:
What might, in the long-run, put a stop to missing women? The answers, for the most part, are obvious, in response the reasons identified above. For example: passing laws giving women inheritance and property rights; enforcing the illegality of dowries; ensuring women can work, earn and manage their own incomes independently, (and as a pre-cursor, receive an education); monitoring SRB and an ethical use of sex-detection technology; or ensuring that births are properly registered, which is not the case in many countries especially in poor or rural areas.
For those girls who manage to be born at all, proof of official existence can at best deter those tempted to take that existence away, to avoid any tricky questions; or at worst, at least, provide some tracking of girls’ lives in statistics.
All of which: easier said, than done. Of course. But in those countries where sustained efforts have been made, the balance is already adjusting. Georgia, one of the worst offenders in the 1980s, has slowly rebalanced its SRB back to a normal rate in 2016, through improved socio-economic conditions, and application of some of the measures listed above. Where there is a will, there is certainly a way.