The war on girls

Sad Looking Child

This week we've seen two major stories on "gendercide." That's the phenomenon of some 100 million plus females having been aborted through sex selective abortion. One appears in the Christian Science Monitor and the other in The Economist. The Economist asks the reader to imagine that they are part of a couple expecting their first child. They're in a fast-growing, poor country but part of the new middle class. They want a small family but, most importantly, they prefer sons over daughters. Maybe it's because they need the boy's income. Maybe it's because they want to pass land on and can only do that with a male heir. Perhaps they don't want to pay a dowry. They get an ultrasound and discover they're pregnant with a girl. What do you do? Millions of couples, we're told, abort the daughter and try for a son. In China and northern Indian more than 120 boys are being born for every 100 girls.

For those who oppose abortion, this is mass murder. For those such as this newspaper, who think abortion should be "safe, legal and rare" (to use Bill Clinton's phrase), a lot depends on the circumstances, but the cumulative consequence for societies of such individual actions is catastrophic. China alone stands to have as many unmarried young men--"bare branches", as they are known--as the entire population of young men in America. In any country rootless young males spell trouble; in Asian societies, where marriage and children are the recognised routes into society, single men are almost like outlaws. Crime rates, bride trafficking, sexual violence, even female suicide rates are all rising and will rise further as the lopsided generations reach their maturity (see article).

It is no exaggeration to call this gendercide. Women are missing in their millions--aborted, killed, neglected to death. In 1990 an Indian economist, Amartya Sen, put the number at 100m; the toll is higher now. The crumb of comfort is that countries can mitigate the hurt, and that one, South Korea, has shown the worst can be avoided. Others need to learn from it if they are to stop the carnage.

The story is really interesting and there's no doubt that many countries are dealing with problems that have arisen due to the imbalance in sex-selective abortions. But wow are there some religion ghosts. Religion plays a significant role in sex-selective abortions and infanticide and it's not even addressed. And the discussion about improvements in South Korea is so brief as to be unhelpful. There's no mention if religion played a role there, either.

The Christian Science Monitor looked specifically at the situation in India. Here is how it begins with a 50-year-old farmer lamenting that he no longer cares about caste, religion or looks -- he just wants a wife to give him a son. Funny, isn't it. It's hard to find a wife to give you a son when the people of your country are killing so many of the unborn female children because they're not sons.

But this story has the same ghosts as the previous one:

The reasons why boys are so longed for vary somewhat by region. In agricultural societies like Nandgaon, boys inherit the land. In urban India, a trend toward smaller families plays a part: Many couples who choose to have only one child want that child to be a boy.

Underlying the preference for sons is a belief that girls are liabilities who require protection and fat dowries. Though the practice of paying a husband and his family for marrying a girl was banned in 1961, dowry violence - when a woman is abused in her in-laws' home for paying an insufficient price - is on the rise, according to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

There are other agricultural societies where boys inherit land that don't have the same gender imbalance among babies who are being born. Ditto for trends toward smaller families. Does religion play a role? The only mention of religion in the piece occurs at the end:

Baljeet Singh, a 37-year-old truck driver, says he began to despair of finding a local wife once he turned 26. Men in this village, where most are farmers, consider it ideal to wed between 20 and 25. "I'm a van driver, I don't have many prospects, and it seems that you have to have a very good job to get a bride these days," he says.

So last year, Mr Singh used his life savings to marry a 16-year-old Muslim girl from Assam; though village rumors have it that Sonu Khutum is an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh. She is happy to be living in a predominantly Hindu village, she says, joggling the couple's 7-month-old baby girl on her hip.

There's quite a bit included in this brief anecdote and it shows that religious views might be a fruitful area for further exploration.

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