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Asia's missing girls: technology that lets pregnant women know the sex of their babies--combined with a traditional preference for sons--has caused a gender imbalance across much of Asia.

In a one-room teahouse tucked between dark-green rice paddies in China s Szechuan province, Luo Yang, a 53-year-old farmer in Deep Peace Village, puffs on a bamboo pipe and says boys are better than girls, "Everyone wants a son, he says.

Until recently there wasn't much that anyone could do about having sons or daughters. But then in the 1980s, ultrasound scanners--which are used to check the health of developing fetuses, but also show their sex--became widely available across Asia.

Suddenly it became easy for women to find out if they were going to have a boy or girl. And in countries like China, India and South Korea, women began selectively aborting female fetuses--millions in India alone in the last 20 years, according to the census commissioner. The result is a serious gender imbalance in all three countries.

China now has the world's highest gender disparity among newborns: 117 boys are born for every 100 girls. That is well above the natural ratio of 105 boys for every 100 girls (which is also the ratio in the United States). In some parts of China and India the imbalance is almost as high as three boys for every two girls. Across Asia, the gender imbalance translates into millions of "missing" girls.

"It's a humongous problem," says Valerie Hudson, a professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and co-author of a book on the topic. "Without a balanced sex ratio in a society, you're courting disaster."

Underlying the gender imbalance are centuries-old Asian attitudes about women, researchers say. Until well into the 20th century many Asian women couldn't work outside their homes, go to school, or decide whom they would marry. While sons were cherished, girls were often neglected, poorly cared for when they got sick, and sometimes abandoned.

The governments of China, India and South Korea have all banned the use of ultrasound to determine gender. But the laws are hard to enforce, because the women who take the tests and the doctors who perform them keep them secret. In Deep Peace Village, Luo says villagers can get the test at a nearby clinic, with no questions asked, for about $6.


Asian women have made great strides in the last half century. In China, for example, men and women are now equal under the country's laws, arranged marriages have been banned and women are getting good jobs.

So why, especially in rural areas, do many Asians still favor boys? It's largely about economics--particularly economics rooted in cultural traditions about women.

"Mostly, Chinese worry that if they don't have a son, no one will take care of them when they are too old to work," says Wu Shaoming, director of a women's studies institute in Chengdu, China. The Chinese government does not provide welfare or free medical care to peasants. What's more, Wu says it is common for women in the countryside to move to their husbands' villages after marriage, providing no support to their own families.

"It's good to have a boy," says Luo, the farmer in Deep Peace Village. "They are strong and can work in the fields."

Some 1,500 miles away in Chandigarh, India, Baidyanath Sahu, a 37-year-old bicycle rickshaw driver, echoes those sentiments: A son, he says, "earns for the family. The daughter wouldn't earn anything."

In the traditional Indian family, a son is expected to live with his parents, earn an income, inherit property, care for his parents in their old age and light their funeral pyre. When a daughter marries, the bride's family pays the groom's family a dowry--a gift of money and presents--and she moves in with her husband's family, often leaving her parents with nothing or even in debt from her dowry.


As countries modernize and women become more educated, they often choose to have fewer children. But in Asia, many women still want to have at least one boy. "Some people think sons can earn more money," says Minja Kim Choe, a demographer at the University of Hawaii.

In China, government family-planning policies--instituted in 1979 to slow the growth of its population, now more than 1.3 billion--have exacerbated the problem. Couples who have more than one or two children still face large fines, though enforcement of the policies now varies widely.

But the family-planning policies also had unintended consequences. Before the population laws, most people simply had children until a son was born, says Gu Baochang of the China Family Planning Association in Beijing, China's capital. Now couples who want a boy are more likely to make extreme decisions, such as hiding pregnancies and then putting newborn girls up for adoption or for sale, terminating pregnancies and, in rare cases, abandoning female infants to die. (See "Baby Girls for Sale," facing page.)


There seems to be a growing awareness across Asia of the social and ethical problems of "missing girls," and governments are beginning to play a more active role. In the countryside throughout China, signs urge couples to keep girls. Not far from the teahouse in Deep Peace Village a giant billboard reads, "Girls and boys are equal."

In India, new TV and radio ads declare "daughters are our pride" and "female feticide is illegal." Priests of the Sikh religion have said that anyone who becomes a kudi-maar--a daughter killer--will be excommunicated.

Experts say ending the dowry tradition is key to fixing the problem in India. Dowries have been illegal in India since 1961, but remain an entrenched custom. However, attitudes may be changing. Take the recent case of a young woman who had her fiance arrested after his family raised its dowry requirement during the wedding. The story caused a nationwide sensation, and the woman won widespread support from the Indian public. The Times of India ran the headline: "It "Fakes Guts to Send Your Groom Packing."

In South Korea, where the economy has boomed and women have grown more independent, the traditional preference for boys seems to be fading. In 1990, South Korea's ration of newborn boys to girls was 117 to 100, much higher than the current ratio of 110 to 100. Choe, the demographer, thinks a similar drop will eventually occur in China and India. She notes, however, that the problem may get worse before it gets better since, as people get wealthier, more will be able to afford gender-determination tests.


In the meantime, experts hope increased attention may force governments to deal more forcefully with the problem. "For leaders, this needs to be on the agenda," says Gu of the China Family Planning Association.

If the gender imbalances worsen, experts fear there could be trouble if millions of Asian men cannot find wives. Women in China and India are already being abducted and sold to men desperate for spouses. Wu Shaoming, the director of the women's studies institute in China, also predicts a rise in prostitution. And because crimes tend to be committed by single men, Wu worries that the surplus of single men will cause a spike in crime.

Still, there could be a silver lining. "Ironically," Wu says, "the gender imbalance might make women more highly valued." That might mean more people will want daughters.
Number of Male Births
Per 100 Female Births



CHINA: 117


INDIA: 108

PUNJAB PROVINCE (in India): 126

* India counts gender ratios for its population ages 0-6.


Note: Table made from bar graph.

RELATED ARTICLE: Baby girls for sale.

By Elisabeth Rosenthal in Yulin, China

Strict application of China's one-child policy in one rural province is Leading some poor families to sell their baby daughters

Last March, police in Guangxi Province found 28 unwanted baby girls 2 to 5 months old in the back of a bus. The babies had been sow to a distributor, Like farm animals, by poor farmers so they could have another attempt at a son.

"Baby-trafficking exists here because there is both supply and demand," says Yu Qing, a sociology professor at Guangxi University in Nanning. "Also, the family-planning Limits encourage selling off girls. That way they can give birth again and hope for a boy."

In this poor area of southern China, as in much of rural China, sons are gods and daughters a burden. What is distinctive about Guangxi--and what seems to have given rise to the spirited baby trade here--is strict enforcement of China's one-child policy, which these days is only half-heartedly followed by officials in other parts of China.

The rules are simple: Families are permitted only one child if the first is a boy. A second child is allowed if a girl comes first. But once a family has two children, there are no more chances. Each subsequent birth can result in a $3,500 fine, the equivalent of two decades' worth of local farm income.

Eighty percent of trafficked babies are girls, says Yu. The rest are boys with a health problem or deformity. The main market for the babies is probably childless city dwellers, who are more likely to have pensions and other means of support, and show a slight preference for girls, believing that they take better care of aging parents.

But some are sold to be reared as child brides for farmers in remote mountainous regions who cannot find women willing to marry into their villages. And some of the trafficked babies may end up being adopted abroad.


* Is the traditional view of women as less valuable to society than men unique to Asia?

* Why do you think young, unmarried men are more likely to become involved in crime and other antisocial activities?


To help students understand the social, economic and cultural forces that make sons so much more preferable than daughters in many Asian cultures.


CRITICAL THINKING: The article reports that today's preference for boys is a mix of tradition and economic necessity.

While students cannot be expected to know how to solve this problem, you might discuss whether the answer to the problem is purely economic. If development programs dramatically increased Asians' income levels, would they be likely to revise their attitudes toward girls and boys? (Note that in South Korea, which has much higher income levels than China or India, there is still a culturally driven preference for boys.) What does the continuing practice of giving dowries say about the conflict between the law and culture in India?

CRITICAL THINKING/WRITING: Ask students to imagine that they are government employees in China or India. Their job is to write the text for two or more posters that promote the value of female babies. How would they illustrate the posters? You might also assign students to work as a class or in small teams to write 100-word radio or television public-service announcements with the same message. How would they illustrate the TV message?

AMERICAN VALUES: Ask students if the Asian prejudice against female babies seems strange. Whatever their answer, write "Designer Babies" on the board. Have students heard the term? Tell them that a new medical procedure--"pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD)"--although intended to identify disease, has been used by a small number of American couples to choose the gender of their babies. Tell students there is concern in the American medical community about the ethics of this procedure.

DEBATE: You might follow up by asking students t6 take sides on this question: If a couple has two or more children of the same gender, is it ethical to use medical technology to determine the gender of a future child?

Upfront QUIZ 1

DIRECTIONS: Circle the letter next to the current answer.

1. What is the natural ratio of female to male births?

a Almost exactly 50-50.

b Female births slightly outnumber male births.

c Male births slightly outnumber female births.

d Female births outnumber male births by a factor of about 1.5 to 1.

2. The increase in the gender selection of babies in some Asian countries has resulted principally from

a changes in religious beliefs.

b new medical technology.

c peer pressure.

d the adoption of Western cultural beliefs.

3. What is the best definition of a dowry?

a a bride's parents providing housing for their daughter's husband

b a bride's parents moving in with their daughter's new family

c gifts given to the family of a bride's husband

d taxes on the cost of a wedding

4. Higher income in India may increase gender selection because

a wealthier people have a natural prejudice against girls.

b more people will be able to afford gender tests.

c more males will be needed to fill higher-paying jobs.

d fewer females will be needed to fill labor-intensive jobs.

5. Why do authorities consider young, unmarried men a potential threat to society?

a They tend to emigrate more readily than others.

b They draw more heavily on government aid programs.

c They don't produce children.

d They have a higher tendency toward criminal activity.

6. Some Chinese who have more than two children face

a large fines.

b the loss of their jobs.

c condemnation by religious authorities.

d jail sentences.

Craig Simons is a freelance writer based in Beijing. With reporting from India by David Rohde of The New York Times and by Patricia Smith.
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Title Annotation:International
Author:Simons, Craig
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:90ASI
Date:Dec 8, 2003
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